“I saw this and thought of you” is, for me, the loveliest reason for buying a present, and usually brings the most happiness. In contrast, “I bought this for your birthday” began to ring hollow quite a while ago. I have noticed a real dimming of enthusiasm on my part for annual celebrations of most sorts. It might be because I have become mean and grumpy, or it might be because I increasingly smelled a kind of guilty obligation surrounding them.
Writing this makes me feel so scroogey, but cards are usually an utterly empty gesture. Not always – home-made cards, or cards that contain a hand-written letter are wonderful gifts. But Clinton cards with Dear X, Love from Y, where the ‘happy birthday’ part is already pre-printed, are not a thoughtful gesture; but I will be seen as unthoughtful not to send one. I used to make it easier for myself by having a pile of pre-bought cards and stamps in a drawer, and a load of Outlook reminders popping up in my calendar. When a birthday reminder arrived, I could fulfil my celebration obligation in 2 minutes flat, and bask for the rest of the year as a nice, thoughtful guy to that person. It wouldn’t be too much of an extension of this to spend an afternoon scheduling automatic e-cards to everyone I know, for the next decade, securing 10 years of thoughtful ness in 2 hours flat.
What is at the heart of this for me is the energy drain that comes from abstract things that have no meaning any more. This usually happens when the spontaneity has been taken out of things, and replaced with a required or expected structure. Annual celebrations have been brought down to their lowest demoninator – just look at the mindless way that piles of corporate Christmas cards are signed every year, usually while the person is still concentrating on their Powerpoint.
We are busy folk, and the celebration industry has made it easier for us by taking the thought and effort away, while using branding to maintain the appearance that it is still a nice gesture. It works for the busy folk. It certainly works for the celebration industry. It’s the spontaneity fairies that suffer, but if no-one believes in them then no-one sees them die.
Spontaneity is the most original and potent conveyor of feeling and expression. It does not work well with planning and repetition. That’s why we might find ourselves saying “Oh shit it’s so-and-so’s birthday again – what the hell are we going to get this year?” The whole idea of annual celebrations are flawed from the start, unless you are the type that naturally revels in them, as some people are.
Much more spontaneous, much more meaningful, are daily celebrations. The ones that just blurt out – about how the light through the trees looks, how lovely that smile looks, how happy you are to be there. These are gifts and celebrations that speak directly from one heart to another. And they are moments that the celebration industry has not yet found a way to get their claws into. But they are usually the first thing to disappear when a person stays too busy. Withered hearts.
Only recently re-acquainted with the spontaneity fairies, I fear I have gone too far, and it often feels like a self-betrayal when I do things that feel obligatory. Spontaneity, by its nature utterly unreliable, will not steer me through the requirements of modern life and modern relationships by itself. I’m sure I’ll grow up a little. But mine was locked away for so long that it can be forgiven for wanting to rush around for a while after being let out.
I am writing my own rituals, discovering my own ways of celebration and expression. This is authenticity at work. It is free of charge, free of guilt and makes me feel free. But it is not free of mess. It is closer to the source than scheduled niceness, but when the Clinton card is not posted it can paradoxically appear thoughtless.
I blame it on the fairies.