Every family has its black sheep.
For all our modern, technologically-aided efforts to surround ourselves only with those who echo our own beliefs - and thus live unchallenged, unexamined lives – few can escape the ties of consanguinity.
Blood is, truly, thicker than water.
Being Virginians, most of us know how to manage differences in lifestyle, minority preferences as to romantic partners, or the embrace of Eastern spiritualism. Nearly everyone has long since made provision for the peculiar aversion of some family member to the rich blessing of animal protein.
Whatever our private thoughts, we know enough to be gracious.
But, in our highly politicized culture, beloved family members who exhibit divergent opinions can present different kinds of problems. While we can surely avoid topics of conversation likely to disturb the harmony of a Christmas feast, this hardly means we know how to shop for them.
What, for instance, does one buy for the family liberal? The family environmentalist? Or – Heaven help us – the family skeptic, agnostic, or downright unbeliever?
The easiest answer, I suppose, would be to ask around among one’s circle of friends. In bygone days, everyone would have known someone who shared the beliefs of the errant family member. Such acquaintances offered rich sources of suggestions. Today, of course, that likelihood has grown less. In America, the right hand truly knows not what the left hand is doing – and vice versa.
So here are some ideas:
For the liberal on your Christmas list, biographies are always appropriate. Despite the politically correct notion that history involves more than the doings of the great – liberals are as much into hero-worship as anyone.
The key is to avoid right-wing “revisionist” historians or talk-show hosts posing as historians. Choose a solid presidential biography of JFK, FDR, Truman, TR, or Lincoln, and you’ll be sure to please. Biographers of the great lawyer, Clarence Darrow, or Martin Luther King, Jr. or Bobby Kennedy are always appropriate.
So would anything by our likely 45th president, Hillary Clinton.
DVDs also make good gifts. If your liberal doesn’t already own them, the first four seasons of The West Wing are a must, as is Season One of The Newsroom. Or try a collection of the films of Frank Capra, including that liberal masterpiece, It’s a Wonderful Life.
If you love an environmentalist, a thoughtful gift might well be a contribution to, or membership in, their favorite organization. Be warned, though, that this might result in your getting on mailing lists you’ll find inconveniently informative. To be safe, focus on less overtly political groups with great calendars – such as the Audobon Society or the Cornell Ornithological Labs. Everyone loves birds.
If you’re sufficiently open-minded, you might even give your tree-hugging kin the ultimate gift. Ask them to choose your Christmas gift from among the many books and DVDs explaining the science behind anthropocentric global climate change. You might not change your opinion, but what greater gift could you give than to open your mind to a loved-one’s world-view?
If your Christmas list includes a skeptic, agnostic, or downright atheist, I suggest you start by considering how difficult this season is for them. For all its pagan survivals – the evergreen tree, mistletoe, the Yule log, the great feast – Christmas ultimately rests on faith in a story which unbelievers might find charming, but are likely to think of as untrue.
Obviously, it would simply be bad manners to use the occasion of a family get-together to try to convert someone who showed up expecting only fellowship and a bit of turkey (or tofurkey).
Better, then, to do honor to their integrity, if not their views, by giving them something they might actually appreciate. Consider The Swerve, Stephen Greenblatt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the Renaissance scholar who discovered the only surviving manuscript of Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, – a lovely restatement of the philosophy of Epicurus.
Skeptics also tend to be fans of evolutionary science, about which any number of fine books have been written. I suggest you steer clear of anything by Darwin, whose is 19th-century writings were brilliant for their time, but outdated in terms of our DNA-based biological science.
If your skeptical relative is a serious reader, I suggest any of the later writings of Christopher Hitchens, the brilliant journalist and outspoken atheist whose death, one year ago, saddened many who relish the use of language to communicate actual ideas.
Of course, the challenge of giving an appropriate gift to the black sheep of the family can always be avoided by means of a tie, scarf, or gift card. But what we black sheep really desire is a sign – however subtle – that our differences are honored by those we love.
Consider that as you go about making your Christmas list. Christmas, after all, is a time for giving – and acceptance might well be the greatest gift of all.