Before I begin, a rant. I do not use gift as a verb. I don’t care what Merriam-Webster has to say on the subject. There are plenty of words that were au courant in the Middle Ages and which we do not use today. Cockalorum. Fopdoodle. Crapulous. Go ahead: attempt one of these in a sentence and see what happens.
The only reason anyone uses gift as a verb is because the past tense of give is too hard. Like comparative adjectives: social media douchenozzles don’t know how they work. So now we have more large and not larger; more high and not higher. Our world is not becoming more dangerous; it’s becoming stupider. Perhaps that’s the same thing.
This post is about gift-giving. Not gifting. Certainly not gift-gifting.
Proper and utilitarian
Ecuadorians have a different sense of what constitutes a proper gift. Like much else about their culture, gift-giving prioritizes utility over excess. Nobody needs an AI fitness wearable, or a liquid-cooled gaming system, or a subscription to the pretentious wine of the month club. Those are what you buy for people who already have everything, and they’re bored with it.
The malls begin their holiday promotions in late September/early October. Many stores decorate, elaborately. Merchants don’t do this because they’re suddenly seized with the Yuletide spirit. Their customers rely on layaway, if they’re to buy anything at all for their families for Christmas. Stores offer three months interest free before the first payments are due in January. That gives a working stiff plenty of time to chip away at his debt, without entering the New Year beholden to some rich slob from Quito.
Mall del Pacifico, Manta, October 2019
The Christmas food box
The most commonly-given item – certainly, the most widely available between November and the end of the year – is the Christmas food box. As in a literal cardboard box, filled with basic provisions. These range in size, complexity, and price. They contain rice, sugar, flour, cacao, oatmeal, instant coffee, cooking oil, condiments, crackers, preserves, Tetra Paks of aseptic juice and milk, a tinned ham or some other celebratory carcass, tinned vegetables, cake, and maybe a bottle of unspeakably foul Ecuadorian blended whiskey, for the old man.
If Galen Weston were a mall Santa, this is what he’d peddle. Except he would charge ten times as much and blame the price increase on his elves.
You might worry that groceries-as-gift sends a “You can’t feed your children” message to the recipient. I certainly did. Then it occurred to me that this bias oozes from the more conservative corners of the United States and Canada, where the act of giving food amounts to welfare. If you don’t have enough to eat, then you didn’t work hard enough to deserve it.
In Ecuador, food security is at best aspirational. Nobody takes their next meal for granted. Chantal and I give food boxes every year to our Ecuadorian friends. They are received with gratitude, and the ingredients are used to make the meal to which we have been invited. It is our contribution to the festivities.
Parents, on the other hand, indulge their children with caramelos (candies). Not to be confused with dulces (confections like tiny sweetcakes or pieces of raw sugar fudge), caramelos are sold by the pound out of massive bins at the grocery store.
We have friends in Pile (pronounced Pee-lay), a pueblito south of Manta, near Mirador San Jose, who collect money for the children of Pile for Christmas. Chantal and I give $100 every year. Katherine, the adult daughter of our former housekeeper, judiciously apportions our donations between caramelos and simple cincuentazo (fifty-cent store) toys, so that every child receives a small bundle of something special. For many, these are their only gifts.
During the Pandemic, when Chantal and I were locked down in Canada, Katherine recorded the children of Pile as they gleefully waved their treasures and hollered Feliz Navidad in unison. I admit that I was a little verklempt when she sent me that video.
The décimocuarto sueldo, or fourteenth salary (don’t ask me why), is an obligatory, untaxed, annual bonus to workers who have been employed by the same company for more than a year. In the Amazon and Sierra, the décimo is supposed to be paid no later than 15 August. On the coast and in the Galapagos, it’s no later than 15 March. Regardless, most workers expect their décimo at Christmastime, for obvious reasons.
Not being a private business, and employing only part-time, Chantal and I are not required to pay a décimo to our housekeeper in San Clemente. We do it anyway: an extra month’s wages, which amount to almost nothing for us, but mean everything to Alexandra and her family.
Most gringos, I have heard, do not bother and some of the ones we know think we’re too generous by half. Fair enough, but we didn’t come here to exploit cheap labour. Besides, a grateful employee is someone you can call for help when you need it. In this country, that’s insurance.
Plenty of plenty more
People who have plenty expect plenty more. That is the nature of First World consumption: an abiding Christmas theme that we acknowledge on the Hallmark Channel and then forget the moment we sit down to our boundless feasts and never-ending mountains of gifts. Ecuadorians do with less because they have less. It doesn’t make them better people. It does make them happier. Demonstrably so.
Look, I’m all for stuff. I’m all for the money that buys it. Poverty is not noble: ask anyone who’s poor. I was unemployed and poor, once. Actually, twice. It sucked.
I do think it’s possible, however, to be happier, much happier, with much less. Chantal and I no longer buy each other gifts. We have enough already. We’re grateful for every bit of it.