Today is the 25th of December 2014. It is eight in the morning on my first Christmas day in Saint Louis. I have traveled and lived all over the world, but this is the first time in twenty-five years I do not find myself sitting cross-legged on the floor in a fluffy blue robe with my parents and siblings, savoring the sound of ribbons unraveling and wrapping paper tearing. As a rule in my family, the present-opening ritual could only begin when everyone had woken up and gathered in the living room. For those early risers of us that meant agonizing hours of anticipation, examining mysterious parcels to assess whether any of them was an item from our much dreamed-of wish lists.
Then came the peeking, the opening, the gasping, the squealing, the clapping and jumping up and down, the hugs, the kisses, and the tears. It was the one morning of the year when anything was possible: ballet shoes and puppies, kaleidoscopes and vanilla-scented dolls, origami cranes and diamond rings. And though we were occasionally disappointed by the practical sweater offered by a well-intentioned aunt, we were almost always certain to receive at least one of the presents we had fantasized about.
Let the Grinches and Scrooges of this world grumble all they want, the practice of giving presents is the longest-running tradition of the season: the three wise men did, after all, travel long and far to offer gold, frankincense, and myrrh to a baby in a manger. Even before the spread of Christianity, pagans in Europe and the Middle East exchanged pottery figurines, fruits and nuts, and festive candles during winter festivals like the Roman Saturnalia. The presents lifted people’s spirits during the cold and darkest time of the year.
Over the following centuries, the tradition evolved: presents began turning up in shoes or boots, in stockings hung by a fireplace, underneath a brightly lit tree. They were delivered by Saint Nicholas or Father Christmas, Christkind or a little old lady called Befana, family members or business associates. They developed from home-made pastries and small wood carved toys into store-bought electronic gadgets and the infamous cashmere sweaters. But perhaps the most fortuitous byproduct of this practice was the introduction of the Christmas wish list.
As the name indicates, it is ‘a list of desired things or occurrences’ for Christmas. The earliest version of a Christmas wish list I could find is in the form of a letter a little girl wrote to Saint Nicholas in the 1200s:
'St. Nicholas patron of good children, I kneel for you to intercede. Hear my voice through the clouds, and this night give me some toys. I want most of all a playhouse with some flowers and little birds.'
What a beautiful thing a wish list is. There are as many of them as there are people at any given moment of time, and no two are the same. There are no rules to a wish list: no wealth restrictions or age limits, no prerequisites for either rationality or sensibility. It is the only place and time in which you can guiltlessly and honestly say what you want. Not need, want.
At least in theory.
This Christmas, the holiday retail market is at $615 billion in the United States alone, and in our hunt for the perfect present for our spouses, parents, children, coworkers, next-door neighbors, and third cousins twice removed, we have become obsessed, not with our own wish list, but with that of others. In 2012, The Inquirer published a list of the items its readers claimed were at the top of their wish lists: gadgets, shoes, clothes, trips, books, jewelry, and money. Unsurprisingly, those were also the most purchased presents this Christmas 2014.
Have a piece of chocolate if you unwrapped one, two, or all of the above mentioned items this morning. Have the whole box if that was what you had genuinely wished for.
British newspaper The Telegraph conducted a more interesting survey to find out what was on children’s wish lists. Two thousand children shared their secret wishes, and the top contenders included a pet horse, snow, and a house. Children between the ages of three and twelve also requested a dog, chocolate, and a stick or a rock. No fancy gadgets, no clothes or toys. In fact, the number one most wished for item was a baby brother or sister. The second was a real-life reindeer, and the tenth was a dad.
Getting that degree of honesty from an adult is far more difficult: the older we grow, the more rational, predictable, and socially acceptable our wish lists become. For that I blame practicality and lack of imagination, but mostly fear of judgment: it is easier for an adult to ask for a new smartphone than admit that what they really want is a friend, happiness, health, marriage, money, success, or self-improvement.
To make a wish is to admit, if only to yourself, that you do not have it all. To risk the disappointment of waking up on Christmas morning and not having it come true. In that respect, as in so many others, our children are far braver than we.
What if we were honest about what we really wanted for Christmas? What if I dared say that the thing I want most this morning is to be sitting cross-legged on the living room floor in my fluffy blue robe, trying to make myself heard over the loud and rowdy banter that is my family’s idea of a quiet morning’s conversation?
It is almost eight thirty now on the 25th of December 2014.
Dear reader, I hope you got everything you wished for.