As Christmas approaches, I am sometimes at a loss as to what to get for the people on my list. It used to be easier: toys and books for the children and books for my wife. But as the children have grown up and their parents have grown older, it’s not so simple anymore.
For one thing, Colleen hardly reads now. Her aneurysm and stroke robbed her of that ability. She is making progress, to be sure — one day last week she read the first paragraph of a book to me — but it’s a slow process, and some days there is nothing on earth that can convince her that those little markings on the page actually mean something. She makes up for it by listening to books on CD, but she no longer has the comfort of crawling into bed with a good book and reading herself to sleep. So a stack of interesting books under the tree is no longer an option.
Toys were a simpler matter, back in the day. Both Brigid and Caitlin collected dolls, and their tastes became quite sophisticated as they grew older, so it was a pleasant challenge to shop for them. Brigid has since developed a theory that — when my daughters were collecting the dolls in the 1980s and ‘90s — Barbie was a feminist.
There was doctor Barbie, astronaut Barbie, presidential candidate Barbie, guitarist Barbie, art teacher Barbie, Spanish language teacher Barbie, gymnastic and football coach Barbies, dentist Barbie, veterinarian Barbie, paratrooper Barbie, jet pilot and army officer Barbies, firefighter Barbie, RCMP officer Barbie (available only in Canada), business executive Barbie, NASCAR driver Barbie — the list goes on.
One thing Barbie was not was conventional, and just because she had blonde hair and impossibly long legs didn’t mean she was nothing but a commercialized ornament. She was quite subversive, in her way. Brigid says that one of the reasons she became a guitarist was because Barbie was a guitarist, demonstrating that women could do it, too.
I confess that none of these things occurred to me all those years ago when I was buying dolls for my children. While I do accept some responsibility for the way they have turned out, at the time I just wanted to get them something that would make them happy. I didn’t know that I was informing their social consciences at the same time.
I did consciously give them cars and trucks — toys generally reserved for boys — for I didn’t want them developing stereotypes in their thinking. When they were younger, they played with the cars and trucks as enthusiastically as any boys would. I remember one Christmas we were so broke that all we could afford was a couple of vehicles I cut out of 2 x 4s and ran through the jointer — a basic car and a bus, without windows or doors, with wooden wheels and screws for axles. I was gratified that they lasted longer than many of their other toys, and were played with just as hard.
We don’t think of ourselves forming the consciences of our children when we buy them playthings, but in reality few items are more likely to have such an effect. They are a daily part of the children’s lives, exercising their imaginations and heightening their dexterity, teaching them compassion, among other things, and helping develop their morality. I don’t know what Barbie is like these days, but when my children were younger she was something of an archetype.
So what do I do now that another Christmas is approaching? I try to buy ethical presents. Last year, for instance, we bought Caitlin a goat to be given to a family in the developing world. It’s not something you can put under the tree, but it serves its purpose in other ways, and Caitlin’s moral conscience has been formed to the point that she applauds the gesture. Perhaps it was playing with those Barbie dolls when she was a child that has brought her to her present conclusions.
In the end, of course, the purpose of Christmas is to celebrate the birth of our Redeemer, and to observe the occasion with suitable grace and cheer. The gifts we give will last much longer than the feast, though, so it is a good thing to choose carefully and give with reverence and joy.