All I want for Christmas, runs the old song, is my two front teeth. And if you go on YouTube you can find footage of a toothless 6-year-old singing it on an American TV show from the eighties. But I'd advise you not to. Because of the schmaltz.
Schmaltz abounds at Christmas. Santa Claus is schmaltz. Away in a Manger is schmaltz. Peace on earth is schmaltz. Schmaltz is also peculiarly American. Disney, for example, a commercial entity dedicated to crushing its rivals and boosting its profits, is founded on the dissemination of schmaltz. Disney, America and Christmas go together like Trump, self-love and lies.
(In the interests of nothing much I have just looked up the etymology of schmaltz. Just as you would guess, it is German and Jewish, and the root meaning is liquid goose fat. From there comes the sense of cloying excess, of dripping sentimentality. Schmaltz is too much.)
But anyway, assuming you have your teeth, what do you want for Christmas? Well, let's start with the verb. Originally want meant lack. A want was something you needed but didn't have, a deprivation, as in the wise old saw, "conceal your wants from those who cannot help you". Front teeth are true wants.
But as we've got richer the meaning of want has changed. Today in the west our material needs are by and large met. The average citizen is affluent beyond the dreams of his parents and grandparents. So the verb want, today, means not to lack a necessity but to desire an unnecessity. I want an iPhone, or a full body massage with essential oils and all the trimmings, not because I lack them but because I'd like them - or at least I think I would, which is the same thing. Want has gone from deprivation to aspiration.
So, I repeat, what do you want for Christmas? Before you answer, think back. Bring to mind all the legion Christmas presents that you have received over the course of your life. Are you struggling to remember them? Don't you think that may be telling?
Now, of those presents that you do manage to remember, how many have been life-changing? Really? Same here, as it happens. So let's lower the bar. How many of those presents have chimed exactly with your wants and filled your heart to overflowing? Well, bravo, that's one more than me.
My point is the lesson of experience. It suggests that it doesn't much matter what you want for Christmas, because you're not going to get it. Or, if you do get it, it's not going to thrill you as much as you hoped.
The reason isn't far to seek: Christmas gifts aren't true gifts. True gifts by definition are freely given. They are spontaneous and generous. They come from the heart. They are prompted by no occasion except a surge of kindness or self-sacrifice.
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Christmas gifts in contrast are given under a form of moral extortion. They are given because they are expected. Rather than being spontaneous, they are scheduled by the calendar. They are informed not by love but by duty. They answer the need of the giver more than the givee. Hence those mounds of socks and handkerchiefs, those jars of bath salts destined to sit on bathroom shelves until the trumpet sounds the end of everything.
So why do we persist with this tradition of giving stuff we can't afford to people who don't need it? Is it mere conformity, our fear of leaving the herd? Or is it perhaps the influence of commerce, the bombardment we receive from advertisers that urges us to spend and give? In part, perhaps. We do one third of our retail spending at Christmas.
But I'd suggest it's also religious. Not formally religious as in Christianity - what Christ would make of Christmas isn't hard to guess - but nebulously religious. All religions evoke a world beyond, a shadowy betterness, the way things ought to be. And so does the charade of present-giving. It mimics a world of kindness and self-sacrifice, of giving because of love. And though we know our gifts are tat, and though we know we're being played, beneath the schmaltz and bath salts there runs a hint in Christmas giving, a simulacrum if you like, of life lived according to love. So we persist, hoping it might be so.
What do we want for Christmas? To be loved.