Five years ago a group of us decided to fight back against the unfortunate post-Thanksgiving craziness of Black Friday and commercialization of the Christmas season.
We were looking for a way to bring the community together in a spirit of giving rather than getting. We took inspiration from the Native American tradition of Potlatch. Tribal chiefs would compete for the reputation of being the most generous by giving away their possessions. The chief who gave away the most was the most honored. This is such a foreign idea in a world where consumption is king. In addition to creating a community tradition, we were also hoping to help some struggling families in town provide gifts with limited budget. Lastly, we wanted to encourage reusing as a way of lightening the load on our over-taxed landfill. Potlatch has been wildly successful and people start talking about it as soon as Halloween is over.
In the weeks before Potlatch we ask people to scout their homes for gift quality items they have no use for. Maybe it doesn’t fit or is something that has outlived its usefulness at your house but is still in good condition. We are always interested in toys and games, books and puzzles, clothing and household items. We ask just that the gifted item be clean and in good condition, preferably of gift quality. Then, on the day before Potlatch, we set up tables and arrange our bounty on long tables according to category. Our church is not locked so folks just drop off their donations and it’s always a treat to open up the boxes and bags and see what’s been donated.
I had a lovely experience this year and it really exemplifies what potlatch is all about. On the Christmas after we adopted my daughter Karen, We gave her a beautiful wooden dollhouse. It was fully furnished and had a sweet little wooden family living inside. I had made some curtains and bedspreads and cushions for the chairs. Over the years, Karen added pictures for the wall and all sorts of little extras to make the inside cozy and charming. By the time Karen had outgrown the dollhouse, we adopted yet another daughter and the dollhouse was passed down to our dear Phoebe. She too loved the little house and family and she also added to it. Then, the year she turned seven, Phoebe discovered horses and the dollhouse sat unused in a corner of the bedroom, taking up a lot space and looking rather lonesome. That year, when I asked Phoebe if she had things she would like to donate to Potlatch she quickly offered her dollhouse.
I will confess to having a moment. I did, after all, know just how much the wooden structure had cost and I had a lot of lovely memories tied up in it. But then I thought about the nature of being generous and making a sacrifice and I helped Phoebe pack up her house and carry it to the church vestry. That day, a young family came in. This was at the height of the real-estate crisis and I knew that the dad, a carpenter, had not worked much in the past year. Mom saw the dollhouse and her eyes lit up. “Can I really just take it?” she asked. “It would be perfect for my little girl”. “It’s all yours,” I answered. One of the other volunteers offered to deliver the house so the little girl wouldn’t have her surprised spoiled. The exchange really made my Christmas that year.
That was three years ago and this year, when I entered the church to set up the tables for this year’s exchange, there sat the dollhouse. Her third owner had also moved to another stage and her parent brought back the gift that meant so much to them. It had changed some. A few pieces had been added while others had disappeared. I put the house in the middle of the toy table and it was the first thing that found a new home. I hope that the child who finds it under the tree will cherish it and someday, pass it on to brighten another child’s holiday.