Less is More

Another lookat abbondanza

It was a scene that once gave me such pleasure: brightly wrapped packages piled knee deep around the Christmas tree, great shiny stacks of them filling the living room and blocking traffic. Abbondanza, I called it. Glorious abundance. Looking at my gift-buying habits, you'd think I had some kind of scarcity complex. Or that I grew up poor and was compensating for sparse Christmases past.

Not so. I grew up with more than enough, and though my Depression-era parents practiced restraint in most retail matters, everyone under their roof got what they wanted on Dec. 25. The bike was there. So was the china doll, or the cashmere twinset, or another gold charm for the bracelet. Delayed gratification and thrift were the guiding principles for most of the year, but Christmas was the day when wishes came true. Abundantly.

So my seasonal burst of munificence was bred in the bone and observed through thick and thin, fat years and lean. It required some fancy financial footwork from time to time, some reallocation of resources, some empty savings accounts and charged-up cards and sighs of relief at a last-minute bonus. Still, nothing got in the way of abbondanza.

Until now. Now it's a whole new world out there, a jagged landscape of foreclosures and bailouts and negative numbers that beggar belief. Seven trillion dollars. Maybe eight.

Math is not my strong suit, but even I can see that abbondanza is history. That carefree holiday chorus of I'll-think-about-it-in-January sounds distinctly off-key these days, and while I'd rather mute Suze Orman's insistent bleating about austerity, the woman has a point. Her holiday chorus reminds me of a rhyme dating from the last Depression: Use it up. Wear it out. Make it do, or do without.

It sounds noble and sensible. But the old ways die hard. I love to give presents, to think long and hard about the perfect gifts and seek them out and wrap them carefully and watch the delight when they are opened.

Now the challenge is to do this with less, or to find what I already have in abundance and can offer lavishly, without guilt.

If I were an artist or a composer, I would paint each one I love a picture or write them a song. As it is, the materials I have on hand are a pretty good memory and plenty of stories.

I have Christmas Eves in New York City and Christmas mornings in Winnetka, Ill., and a score of holidays in Knoxville. I have snow drifts that reached the porch railing and carols played by ear on the family piano, toddlers dressed as lambs for the Nativity pageant, rooms that smell like pine forests, closets full of secrets.

I do have gifts, stacks of them, piled high in my mind's eye. I can't remember what everyone got each Christmas past, but I recall in vivid detail the presents each of my children has given me. Not the scarves and books and scented soaps, nice as they were. I'm thinking of the catalog of those shining moments when just for a second, I saw each one whole. An ordinary day when time froze, and the veil lifted, and I thought: Oh, so that's who you've become. A luminous soul. A generous spirit. A person of consequence who, by the most amazing good fortune, happens also to be my son.

So that's my plan: to comb through the catalog until I find three perfect stories, and to write them down in real ink on heavy paper and roll them up and tie each one with a ribbon.

There may still be a few sweaters and Home Depot gift cards under the tree. Even austerity needs moderation. As for abundance, I'm giving it another look. And finding that, after all, I have plenty. m