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I was reminded of this on Christmas Day when I surveyed the eight million (yes, I counted them) presents spread around the tree, across the floor, up and over chairs and couches, and dribbling down the drive to the street.
Excess! The Japanese word, I believe, for middle-class materialism, even in savage fiscal times, the sort of times most of us are living in right now.
Eight million presents! Think about this. Sure, most of them were for the children. But do children need this many?
As a child, I used to get three or four, and the so-defined Big Present was usually something I couldn't remember one week later, except for the Gradidge Len Hutton cricket bat I got in 1960. What a thing that was! I can still smell the linseed oil. I fed it daily.
Various apocryphal Christmas present stories surfaced in the days leading up to Christmas that illustrated my point - children do not need 20 Big Presents and four million smaller ones. The child in America who was asked what he wanted and said an iPad or a whistle was the best. Probably a whistle, he said. Brilliant. All children need is a whistle. They turn their toys into whatever they want them to be. At 6, their imaginations are finer than Clive Sinclair's. When our son turned 5, we bought him a bike, and covered it with cardboard boxes in the lounge to make it a surprise. Instead he saw the old tattered cardboard boxes and immediately burst into tears. Turns out the boxes formed an elaborate spaceship he had been working on for hours the day before. The grandson, Jude (3), was asked by Santa at Pixie Town what he wanted for Christmas.
''Ten marbles,'' he replied. So he got 10 marbles. And because we are materialistic and middle-class, we told Santa about the lovely big retro boxes of marbles you can buy for only $6 at Kmart, 150 marbles inside including some really big ones, and Santa came through with those as well.
But there are no flies on Santa; he shops around. On Christmas Day, Rowan received 2000 popsicle sticks. Only they were called coffee stirrers. I didn't ask Santa the price, but given the extent of cafe culture now, you can probably get 2000 for around $20. Rowan and Jude got other magnificent stuff too. They both got a bike, no cardboard boxes in sight. But the power of the cheap present was inescapable.
When a relatively famous friend of ours turned 60 - let's just call him Sam Neill so that all 60-year-olds will be considered likely subjects of this story - we gave him a $25 goat. You fill in an online form and a village somewhere in Africa or Iceland gets a goat, which will feed them for a year. Other classless friends gave Sam Gibson electric guitars and La-Z-Boy recliners made from Belgian silver. We gave him a $25 goat.
''I will visit it,'' said Sam. And this man travels widely.
I got a teddy. Honest, I truly did. We saw one in an op shop that almost called out to me, like an abandoned SPCA kitten, and I mentioned to my wife I had never had a teddy. Ever. She must have gone back and bought it, for $4. I love it so much and, yes, I sleep with it. You know, it's time we cut those Christmas presents DOWN.