TIME

The Crucial Difference Between Christmas and a Trip to the Store

Van Ogtrop is the author of Just Let Me Lie Down: Necessary Terms for the Half-Insane Working Mom

‘Twas the night the corkscrew went missing when I realized I may no longer understand the true meaning of Christmas. At least when it comes to gift-giving, and what it is meant to accomplish.

On that particular Friday evening, I found myself with an unopened bottle of wine in my left hand and no corkscrew in my right. I ransacked kitchen drawers that hadn’t been opened in months to discover nothing but plastic straws, corn-on-the-cob holders and manuals for appliances we no longer owned. In other words: chaos. An unsettling domestic chaos that could only be forgotten with a glass of wine, which needed a corkscrew to be enjoyed. You see my dilemma.

The missing corkscrew was perfect, a red waiter-style number that had served me well through many years of messy drawers and other daily indignities. Oh well, I told myself. I’ll just put “red waiter-style corkscrew” on my Christmas list.

Wait, what?

We’ll return in a minute to the question of whether I can actually go weeks without a corkscrew. There’s a second, larger problem, which is that I am neither related to nor acquainted with anyone who would find it at all appealing to give me a red waiter-style corkscrew for Christmas. Which definitely messes up the Austerity Plan, my new personal growth strategy to benefit my wallet, my cluttered drawers and my soul.

Earlier this year, well before the election that proved many of us don’t know anything about anything, I realized I had reached an enviable–if middle-aged–stage of adulthood. I am finally self-sufficient enough to buy most of the things I require for a comfortable everyday life. My everyday needs are not unusual; that is, not any greater than what can be met with a $99 annual membership to Amazon Prime. And so I am left only with unmet wants, and the things I want are stupidly expensive, can’t be ordered from Amazon and would never fit under the tree. For example, a sailboat.

I am also a typical American, meaning a spoiled consumer with way too much stuff. This fall I gave myself a little assignment–the Austerity Plan–which involves not turning to Amazon every time I can’t find the corkscrew, the dog’s leash or two blue socks that match. Instead, every time I need something that I would ordinarily buy for myself, I add it to my Christmas list, in the hopes that I can con a relative into buying it for me instead. And now my Christmas list is filled with useful, quotidian things that are no fun to give to anybody. For example, a pair of scissors. O.K., they are really cool floral scissors. But still.

I feel like I am working against our entire culture, waging a one-woman campaign of need against an army of want. Apparently there is a time when it’s O.K. to get your loved ones things they need instead of want, and that’s when you accidentally fall into the fourth dimension and live the rest of your life in the Little House on the Prairie. Otherwise you are stuck here in modern America, where TV ads would have you believe that if your spouse doesn’t wake up to a beribboned Lexus in the driveway on Christmas morning, you probably aren’t doing your job.

Now that Black Friday has kick-started the annual December panic, there are emails flying all along the Eastern seaboard among members of my family requesting Christmas lists. Some of us actually reply with links to buy. Which feels both genius, and like cheating. Others say “Surprise me!” This reply not only puts more pressure on the gift giver but also could lead to disaster. Remember O. Henry’s hokey “The Gift of the Magi,” when the poor-in-material-things-but-rich-in-love young couple surprise each other? Maybe you read that short story back in high school as a lesson in well-meaning sacrifice; I read it as a cautionary tale.

As for my corkscrew–and my Austerity Plan–with just a few short weeks to go before Christmas, it seems I’ve hit a snag. I realized that to properly follow the plan, I wouldn’t be able to open any wine that didn’t come with a screw top or in a box until Dec. 25. Shortly thereafter, I temporarily lost my will to live. When I recovered my faculties, I did the only sensible thing: I turned to Amazon Prime. And, like a pre-Christmas miracle, in just two short days a brand-new corkscrew arrived at my door.

Van Ogtrop is the author of Just Let Me Lie Down: Necessary Terms for the Half-Insane Working Mom


This appears in the December 12, 2016 issue of TIME.
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