I thought the alliance lines were clear. Some issues are clearly kids vs. parents, right? And then my sister, traitor that I should have known her to be, turned against my brother and me and sided with my mother.

The issue in question is the annual family Christmas gift exchange. I called my mom one recent Sunday afternoon to discuss my travel plans for returning home for the holidays.

“By the way,” she said, “Dad and I think we’ll just give you kids money for Christmas this year. We’re too old to be running around to stores and you all have everything.”

Ha, l thought smugly, like the other two kids are ever going to go for that! This idea would surely get shot down like the horrendously ugly, pre-lit, in-the-clearance-section-for-just-and-obvious-cause monstrosi-tree of 2013.

“I talked to your sister about it,” my mom continued. “You know how sweet she is. She said, ‘That’s great mom. It’s about being together.’”

This from the girl who insists on leaving a few gifts under the tree until after dinner so as to savor the present opening process as long as possible.

It sounds suspicious if you ask me. Like somebody is trying to amass some good graces to cushion the blow of a tattoo or a new dent in the minivan…

Meanwhile what do I say to my mother? I’m disappointed. The idea is practical and sucks some of the childhood fun out of Christmas. But there isn’t really a way to say that without sounding like a selfish brat, right? See how I have been left out to dry?

I sound ungrateful and childish. Let me explain myself.

Cash is so cold. There’s no narrative to cash. My family gift exchange has never been extravagant, merely treasured. When I was little, my dad would bundle us kids up to go to the outdoor mall, typically with perilously little time before Christmas Day, and shop for mom. We perused such palatial boutiques as Talbots and such exotic bazaars as Banana Republic, you know—grown-up, sophisticated places. We’d pick out green sweaters and lavender sprays and cast aside bulky jewelry and anything orange. Dad said us kids knew mom best, and we had total confidence in our good taste. Mom is a green and lavender sort of person, obviously. We’d celebrate a successful quest by licking ice cream as it dripped unnoticed onto fingers already numb with cold. To this day, fudge ice cream tastes like the thrill of a good secret to me.

The thought counts with me. I’m a sap that way. Cash feels easy…obligatory. Given because something must be given. Not because it means something.

Obligation has negative connotations. But the more I think about it, while trying to feel less guilty, selfish, and ungrateful, the more I wonder what the problem is with obligation.

I spent many an hour paying for the very expensive habit of Christian higher education by working at the Calvin Phonathon, calling alumni and persuading them to donate money. I can personally vouch for the positive power of obligation and tax returns as motivators to do good. That sense of loyalty or obligation is the difference between parents who didn’t give because they were already paying for their child’s education and didn’t feel like they owed anything extra and alumni who considered their contributions payments into debts of gratitude to professors, roommates, and departments.

Obligation is demanding. Obligation insists on favors and demonstrations of good character and generosity. Obligation hardly ever asks for easy agreeable things. Merely neutral action will not do. Obligation begs and nags us to do good, kind things under the uncomfortable pressure of reputation and custom. It manipulates our selfish natures against us. Obligation is an ungrateful little twerp.

And Christmas is a holiday of obligation. Kids are obligated to behave under twenty-four-hour surveillance. A cheery bell and a red bucket oblige you to not stuff your change into your pocket. You are compelled to socialize with co-workers and make peace with family. It’s marvelous!

Christmas obligation is a fantastic excuse for goodness. Scrooge says it best when he complains to his admittedly taxingly extroverted nephew Fred that Christmas is a “poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every twenty-fifth of December.”

Okay, but here’s the thing about excuses: an excuse means you are going to get away with whatever it is you are doing. Excuses are thin, magical things that permit behavior that typically wouldn’t be accepted.  Excuses are different from a good, believable reason. They are a little obvious and lame. Brashly sloppy cover-ups for tardiness, mistakes, or simply preferring the company of your couch and fuzzy socks to another Christmas party. In such situations you “make your excuses,” and the other person gives up their power to hold you accountable, to embarrass you, or take offense, and lets you off the hook. If that isn’t reminiscent of incarnation, I don’t know what is. An excuse is different from a good reason. Like obligation, excuses are ways we as a culture consciously surrender to manipulation. We reach good ends by dubious means.

I think Christmas is the perfect excuse to pick all sorts of pockets. Really we aren’t manipulating Christmas, capitalism and all, enough. I propose we all make outrageous demanding requests and append “since it’s Christmas” to the end of all of them and see how much we can get away with on obligation and unflinching, reckless gumption:

“Call your estranged father honey, since its Christmas.”

“Sign the protections for the environment into law, because it’s Christmas.”

“Stamp our racism, since it’s Christmas.”

Yeah…I’ve changed my mind. I really, really like obligatory, practical Christmas gifts.

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