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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 26, 2001

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

All I Want for Christmas ...

I hear a lot of people complain about the commercialization of Christmas and how awful it is that the Christmas decorations go up on Halloween.

But I think it says something good about our nation that our custom of exchanging gifts dominates each year's retail market.

Though the custom of gift-giving began in association with the celebration of the birth of Christ, it has become an American custom that is shared by Christians and non-Christians alike.

It takes a special kind of grump to resent the Christian trappings of so benign a practice as giving gifts to people you love, and sharing with strangers. Being generous and kind is a good idea, even if the people who set the particular date for it happened to believe in a different religion.

So in the ecumenical spirit, let me suggest some possible gifts that people on your list might appreciate.

Naturally, anyone with a sentient child will have some sort of Harry Potter memorabilia as part of their holiday gift-giving. One would have to be a Dursley to refuse to participate at all.

(For those who don't know, the Dursleys are the vile aunt and uncle who raised Harry after the death of his parents. Their idea of a generous Christmas gift was a toothpick.)

For the Harry Potter gift-givers, one might consider one of the Harry Potter Lego sets.

The Harry Potter mystery game is that rare thing -- a game that children enjoy that does not drive their parents insane by the third playing. (Example of the other kind, which does drive the parents insane: Chutes and Ladders.)

For her recent birthday, my wife received from her seven-year-old a sweater embroidered with "My daughter is a student at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry." It was not a commercial tie-in -- just a sweater from Penney's with my daughter's message embroidered by the little embroidery place just around the corner from Penney's at Four Seasons Mall.

There are other movies to tie in with as well. I can solemnly affirm to you that the little Boo doll, which babbles and laughs just like the toddler in "Monsters, Inc.," is charming enough (and the volume is set low enough) that the voice can be played incessantly around you without making you claw through the wall with your bare hands to get out of the house.

The kids' version of Monopoly is, in some ways, more fun than the adult game. And Clue, Jr., works as well.

There's a new game out called "Once Upon a Time: The Storytelling Card Game" (Atlas Games) that is played with more than a hundred cards. You are dealt a hand that consists of story elements like "Prince," "Cave," "This animal can talk," or "Journey." One player starts to tell a story using these fairy-tale elements, setting down each card in her hand that she manages to use in the story.

If she inadvertently uses a story element that someone else has a card for, that person can take over the telling of the tale. The goal is to use all your cards and then wind up the story with the "Happily ever after" card that you were dealt at the beginning.

Since my family was forced to play this game with a writer of grade B pulp fiction (as contributors to Rhino Times have been so kind as to point out) some of them felt intimidated at first -- but we quickly discovered that being a sci-fi hack gave me no advantage and everyone, even the seven-year-old, played on pretty equal terms. It makes for a wonderful evening together with family or friends. If you can't find it in a local store, it's bound to be available online.

So much for cool stuff. You'll notice that few of these things are very expensive, and most of them involve, or at least allow, getting people to spend time with each other.

Years ago, however, Kristine and I realized that we already had all the stuff we could ever want, and less space than was required to store it all. As we thought of gifts to give each other, or to friends and family who also have stuff out the "wazoo" (a special door in the back of a closet), we realized that one of the best gifts we could give was a restaurant gift certificate.

Restaurants are important to us -- a convivial evening of conversation and brilliant food cooked by somebody else -- and to friends and family of a similar bent, we often give certificates to a restaurant that we enjoy. Of course, we make sure the restaurant will allow the gift certificate to be used for the tip as well as the bill.

Meals at Leblon, Park Place, and Southern Lights have all proven to be gifts that friends enjoyed, and in giving restaurant gift certificates to people in faraway places, we've never heard anyone complain about getting a free meal for two at The Outback, La Madeleine, or P.F. Chang (though, sadly, two of these chains don't have restaurants in Greensboro ... yet).

It doesn't have to be a restaurant, either. Tickets to an anticipated event, a season ticket to a community theatre group or musical concert season, or even a bunch of tokens to use in a video arcade can be memorable gifts that don't clutter up the house.

Some gifts don't have to be under the tree. Our children, when they were younger, used to love shopping for gifts for children whose names appeared on the Angel Tree at the old Forum VI. (Sadly, we lost track of where the Angel Tree was moved to, so I hope someone will write in to the Rhino Times and let us know.)

The gift your family might treasure most and remember longest could be an experience shared with you. Something as simple as a walk through the neighborhood looking at Christmas lights. Or something that requires a bit more planning, like a family walk through Guilford Battleground Park or a jaunt to Old Salem.

Too often we miss the experiences that are close at hand, unless we turn it into a gift to someone else. Our youngest, when she was five, absolutely loved the family trip to Monticello and the University of Virginia campus -- it only took us 17 years after moving to Greensboro before we finally made that trip.

Another gift that can make a huge difference: If you're overweight and out of shape and are not getting any younger (descriptions of me, by the way), you could give your family a set of workout clothes that fit only you, along with a promise that you'll walk half an hour every day. Or join a gym and then use it three times a week.

When your kids know that you've promised to exercise regularly so you can be healthy enough to live to play with their children someday, it might just be the extra motivation you need to stick to it and really get in shape.

No matter what kind of budget you have, the best gift you can give to your children, your spouse, your loved ones, your friends, is to offer them your undivided attention, often enough and long enough that they come to count on it.

The connections of love are the only gifts that outlast life itself.

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