Simple Gifts, Simple Christmas

by Judith Dupree December 10, 2014

I am at the local outlet center, here in rural California, sitting at a small table near the “dancing waters.” The weather is mild for December, my latte pungent, and the surrounding décor intricate and artful. It is easy to settle into a holiday mood, soaking in an atmosphere sculpted with great care―an ornate authenticity that weaves a semblance of local habitat into the pervading “invitation to accumulation.”

Huge man-made boulders are strewn in precise upheaval among shops, as if the earth had belched but a blink ago between The Gap and The Kitchen Store. Metal coyotes, bear and deer, beautifully designed and cast, lurk or peek from behind and between well-chosen shrubberies. Recorded bird songs trill sporadically from tiny, wired boxes hidden in trees that quiver lightly in the occasional gust. Beneath our feet, slabs of stone are just rugged enough to evoke their natural state―­but smoothed to the safe stride of window-shoppers. Art as commerce.

And of course, there is always music. Songs to shop by, the soundtrack designed as tastefully as the cast-iron wildlife. This day, beloved Christmas carols and sprightly Santa-reindeer-jingle-bell tunes rotate endlessly (albeit “tastefully,” not the standard blare) on the audio system. I find myself singing along interiorly, as usual, ignoring the irony of Rudolph and Jesus sharing the transient moment in this subtly constructed haven. They have grown used to coexisting.

And I have grown used to it; we all have. We make room within us for both the sacred and the sentimental. We skip and jump between the two without much thought. Each is embedded with our yearning, our primal need to celebrate, to give and receive. Our memories of Santa-fantasy are woven into a fervor not of the soul, but of the heart. Some child-part of us, still sequestered within, is incubated by memories―by a shared story―to something unbelievable become believable―a time out of ordinary, a warm, sometimes gaudy "reality" that is not real, but need not be.

There is, beneath the frill of trees and treasures wrapped in color, a legitimacy that needs no explanation. And by this we gather and cajole ourselves occasionally, when time robs us of presence…and presents.

It is our beloved fantasy. Every civilization has its own. If baby Jesus gets lost in the tinsel, it is because the babe within us never looked in the right place, never knew there was a Light that didn't fade, that held steady beyond a small and fleeting and perhaps lavish season.

And so I bask uninhibitedly in the twinkle and tinkle of the not-too-loud speakers.

But a deeper irony interrupts my casual consent: over the loudspeaker, amazingly audible above the jabber and jostle of business as pleasure, flows a familiar song with a melody line as beautifully simple as its lyrics. A pure strand of sound, woven seamlessly, in the unadorned and translucent voice of a flute:

Simple Gifts

Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free.
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.*

It is, of course, an old Shaker “dance song.” It is as out of place now, here, in this sophisticated plot of pseudo-nature as anything I could imagine­―an incongruity that is like a sudden breaking forth of light, or a clean, fragrant wind. Or a revelation.

All the beautifully-contrived atmosphere around me implores, “Buy, buy!” and the thin thread of perfect music says, “Turn, turn…” From what, to what? To find, I reckon, “the place just right.” Where “true simplicity is gained.”

The shopping malls are ever a beacon to us, with all our needs and wants and the “wants we need.” Especially at this time of year―­the time of glut and guilt. It is not wrong, surely, to enjoy both “the art and the artifacts,” but we have forfeited something inexpressible, something essential by our driving need to accumulate, by unchecked buying and having and, yes, bestowing.

And indeed, it tinges our deep yearning to create joy―to “come bearing gifts” and say “love” out loud in a tangible way. As if a mountain of things could create, for our own selves or for those on our lists, the kind of intrinsic and indelible “delight” this homespun little ditty expresses!

“And when we find ourselves in the place just right…” Just right? What is just right for us?

This I believe: when we find that place, surely we will know it. We will still enjoy a “mall break,” ­if we ever did, ­and still search for (or create) an appropriate gift at a decent price that says, “I care, oh, I care!” We will still sing “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night” in awkward sync, without demeaning either; still wade through the glitter and litter, and laugh and sing along―and savor that latte.

But something changes, when we find “that place.” We can be unabashedly simple in our choices and with our voices. We can say NO to that part of us which covets, and refuse to cater to that same driving need in others, and we can do it with a most generous grace. A generosity of a different sort, un-bankable―and oh, alleluia! Indestructible! A thread that does not ravel.

Simplicity is a filament of pure music that weaves over and under and through the pounding demands of life. The Gift of Simplicity is a dance indeed―a slow and sure circling past the heap of complexities that surround and engulf us. “To turn, turn will be our delight…” By our turning, turning, facing up and out and beyond, we see that the greatest of gifts lie far, far from the checkout counter. We can walk away content.

Here in this “valley of [orchestrated] delight,” with its calculated echoes of something real and inexpressible and elemental, I am reminded yet again of the Eternal Story beneath and beyond the splurges and urges of modern life. I walk away with my few purchases, stroll past the frozen critters and simulated birdsong, the tumble of rocks and babble of shoppers . . . suddenly and utterly content, like a small child showered with gifts. Which I know I am. “By turning, turning we come round right…”

*"Simple Gifts," also known by its first line: "Tis the gift to be simple," was composed by Elder Joseph Brackett in 1848 at the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine. Another well-known song, "Lord of the Dance," is based upon it.

Judith Dupree
Judith Dupree


Judith Deem Dupree's first nonfiction book, Sky Mesa Journal, was published by Wipf and Stock Publishers in 2016. She also has three prior volumes of poetry. Judith founded and directed (1996-2010) Ad Lib, a retreat and workshop for persons of faith engaging in creative arts. An establishing member of the San Diego Christian Writers Guild, she served on the board for many years, teaching locally and nationally. Judith also created and co-directed Mountain Empire Creative Arts Council in eastern San Diego County. Her current projects relate to completing work in fiction, music and drama, and always, poetry.

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