Thursday, 3 November 2016

Lessons from a Christmas Shoebox

One... Or many?

Most of you will have heard of Christmas shoeboxes: that charitable flurry in the last days of October where people in countries such as the UK will take a shoebox, fill it with toys, toiletries and sweets, wrap it in festive paper and then hand it in for a charity to send whizzing around the world to someone in need. What does it all mean really? A positive gesture? A tick in the good deeds box? A seasonal salve to a prickly conscience?

Or is it something altogether more significant?

I recently watched a video on YouTube of a young boy who had been given one of these Christmas shoeboxes (it was one from Operation Christmas Child, run by Samaritan's Purse - not that this is relevant here). Well, the footage was quite remarkable. His face was absolutely split in two by a wide white-toothed grin. He danced, he flipped his fingers, pumped his fists, rapped knuckles with other equally delighted friends, picked the box up, turned it round, set it down, stroked it with his fingertips and even gave it a kiss. About the only thing he didn't do was open it. Imagine, all this excitement was a result of actually getting the shoebox. I can't begin to think what his exhilaration would have been when he finally got round to removing the lid.

And yet, if you think about it, the most thrilling thing in that shoebox was probably a packet of sweets and a toy car. And probably some things which most kids I know wouldn't even consider fell into the category of 'present' at all. The same video showed a little girl with her Christmas box, a brand new gift clasped in each hand, waving and chattering joyfully. In her right hand she held a toothbrush, in her left hand a tube of toothpaste. There are probably some people who would show less emotion if they were given a new 84" ultra HD TV.

This isn't meant to be judgemental. Different societies have different measures and presenting my children with a tube of toothpaste for their birthdays would undoubtedly be seen as miserly in the extreme. And yet there are lessons to be drawn from this. Do we spend too much on our children at Christmas? Or, put it a slightly different way, do we give them too much? This is a question that I have considered several times recently in the run-up to the festive season. Is there a risk that we simply end up buying presents 'for the sake of it'? The phrase 'Stocking Filler' that you see everywhere is a case in point. Cheap and probably largely pointless presents that are only purchased because they conveniently fill up space. In some ways, more care is needed when buying these presents to ensure that you get something your child will actually want to use.

It's also a particular question with younger children. A few years ago we gave Graham a plastic car transporter for one of his presents. It had buttons to press which made different sounds and a couple of plastic cars to load up on the back. We still have it now, intact (amazingly) and still functioning perfectly. It cost us about £2.50 from a boot sale. As a little child Graham couldn't have cared less whether it cost £2.50, £25 or even £250 and I actually found it rather touching seeing him open it. This, after all, was a toy that had given pleasure not once, but twice. Presumably a few years before another little boy had unwrapped it brand new for his Christmas present and now it was being unwrapped again and giving just as much joy as it had done first time around. Believe me, if I could get away with it I'd re-wrap half of Graham's old toys that he doesn't play with any more and give them to Isaac for his Christmas presents. I couldn't of course. Isaac would be quite happy but I fear that Graham would claim ownership and steal the toy away from his brother's outstretched hands. We simply give Isaac the toys to play with anyway and as a result, Isaac gets new (or rather, fresh) toys completly gratis, Graham doesn't worry that his little bro is taking things away from him and everyone is happy.

Seeing a very small child opening a present is one of the most appealing sights for any family. The initial struggles with the wrapping paper followed by tiny shreds of paper being ripped off the parcel as they slowly gain entry and culminating in the wide-eyed astonishment of being presented with something new, previously unseen and completely theirs. I sometimes think that if we could hide away all the other presents at Christmas a little child would be happy with one new toy and the accompanying wrapping paper. It is, I fear, an endearing trait which very soon vanishes.

But not everywhere. This Christmas I confidently predict that there will be many children, all over the world, who will be presented with a shoebox and will derive just as much excitement and amazement from it as the little boy in the video clip and my own boy when he opened his £2.50 lorry. If only people everywhere could experience the same delerium of wonder whenever they were given something new, the world would be a much more thankful and satisfied place - albeit a vaguely hysterical one.  

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