Hellish Gifts

When did gift-giving turn hellish? When did it go from the joy of presenting friends and family with thoughtful items selected just for them to a hideous game of chicken? I'm talking about the negotiations involved in holidays these days: the demands that you participate in some twisted gift-giving scheme based on keeping financial outlay equal among parties, or establishing a competition for best gift, or just generating a pile of useless crap.

My family used to draw names so that every adult who came to Christmas Eve dinner--a couple dozen siblings, cousins, parents, in-laws and family friends--would have one special person to buy for, and a reasonable budget. I loved this approach because you thought carefully about the person for whom you were buying, the purpose of giving gifts in the first place. You also received a gift from someone who had been considering your own interests.

At least a decade ago the plan switched to an anonymous gift exchange. Now you bring a gift for your gender, gift-wrapped and addressed to "Man" or "Woman." Then everyone picks a number: #1 picks first and opens a gift. #2 can take that gift away or select a new wrapped gift. Some gifts are desirable and move through the group, while others are left with the poor man or woman who picked them the first time. Of course, the gifts are anonymous, but many givers do end up being identified and inevitably there are hurt feelings. I participate, but I always seem to pick a low number, and spend the game having any decent gift snatched away. I end up going home with something I would never have selected for myself, and that no one selected for me.

At least this approach is a step above the "gag gift" exchange where everyone is told to bring something useless and possibly insulting. It's schemes like these that keep landfills in business.

Then there are the families that have a complex set of rules designed to make gift-giving as bloodless as possible. The bossy members of the family decide they don't want to receive anything they didn't have a hand in selecting. They're not looking for the personal touch. They don't mind telling everyone what to give--typically a gift card to a specific store for a specific amount. Perhaps they already have years of experience and just can't take any more gifts that come home and go straight into the "Yard Sale" pile. Or maybe they've had to return something every December 26th for the past decade and are just too drained to go through that again. Or, more likely, they just have decided they don't want to "waste" a gift. This is a chance to get what they want and they're not afraid to ask for it--and to insist everyone else goes along with the self-serving plan.

Factor in the children ("Give my child a gift card to Abercrombie and Fitch for $100 and I'll give each of your two children $50 gift cards to wherever you want") and this attitude just takes all the joy out of giving. Children have special interests--animals, music, dinosaurs, reading, Manga, painting--that it's fun to nurture through a carefully chosen gift. Control freak parents kill that element. I still have Christmas presents my grandparents, aunts and uncles and close friends gave me years ago. It gives me a warm feeling to see them and know the thought that went into them. A certain gift may have been rooted in a suggestion from my mother or father, but it wasn't purchased and wrapped by them, and if it had been, I certainly wouldn't feel the same way about it.

Gift cards do have their uses. They're great for teachers and teens, for example. But mostly they benefit the issuers who get to make money on the "float" and who bank on most cards being lost or only partially redeemed. For the stores, 'tis truly the season to be jolly. For the rest of us, well, get ready for the gift jockeying.

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