In a silent moment, just as sleep was catching hold, my daughter opened her eyes and asked me, “Mom, is Santa real?” I told her the truth. There were some tears, but we talked about the beauty that remains in gifting, and she relaxed into her new found knowledge. As I lay next to her as she slept, I realized that the most distressing part of losing Santa is that many of her toys now had ceased to be part of a larger story. I had, single-handedly, de-mythologized her mountains of stuffed animals, her fairy house, her nesting boxes with “Be My Valentine” on them. She loved the idea that Santa wanted her to be his special someone. This left her feeling empty.
We all suffer from a deficit of stories in many areas of our lives, especially with our things. It is true that many suffer from profound scarcity of basic needs, but many people reading this article will recognize that, conversely, many also suffer from a surfeit of possessions, most of which lack meaning in our lives. Many of us work long hours at tedious jobs to afford things that we've been taught (by advertising and our culture of consumption) fills a void. That is a lie. The objects that fill our homes don't fill voids or heal wounds. They create more voids, more responsibilities, and more pressure to accumulate.
Valued objects have been with us for tens of thousands of years. The archaeological record tells us that we first had objects and ornaments made of rare, earthly substances: stones like carnelian, turquoise and obsidian; metals like gold, silver, and copper. There was also a lively trade in feathers and shells, coral and amber, bone and teeth. Later, but well before the invention of money, items of high value represented the tremendous time, complex trade-relationships, and access to resources that one person would give to another to gain status or repay a gift.1 Even low-value items, given between friends and relatives, denoted a complex web of interrelationship. Gift-giving and objects enmeshed us in community.2 These object carried memories and debts that needed to be repaid. They bonded us through obligation.