the end of gift giving (as we once knew it)

by nikki meredith

Juleaften The Royal Library, Denmark

According to the New York Times, the recipients of gifts are no longer content with leaving it up to you to decide, they want what they want and they want you to get it for them. We the givers, writes Penelope Green, are being treated like “catalogs or department stores, brandishing lengthy wish lists, demanding gift cards or boldly asking for cash.” Social scientists who study this phenomenon have various explanations (according to one theory: what matters is having the exact right stuff — the clothes we wear, the object d’art we display, the lamps we light — because of what our stuff says about our style and identity) but Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners, calls it is “blatant greed” and, in the article, labels it our number one etiquette problem.

You’d think I’d welcome this specificity. On November 20, 2011 I wrote about how difficult it is for me and my husband to get the gift-giving thing right, even after 36 years of marriage. But the mercenary approach horrifies me. I first noticed it when a relative got married a few years ago and along with the invitation came a request that guests contribute to the car she and her future spouse wanted to buy. I figured this was just my crazy family but then the daughter of a friend got married a year later and this kid wanted us to contribute to the purchase of a condominium.

I understand the logic: most couples have already set up households by the time they get married so they don’t need toasters or tea towels. But it seems like a giant leap to go from asking for a blender to paying for a mortgage. After people stopped needing barns, did former farmers invite the neighbors over to build them three bedroom houses with attached garages?

And then there’s the small matter of gratitude: the demise or at least the near-death of the thank you note makes gift giving particularly unrewarding. I estimate that over the past ten years, only half of the people I’ve sent gifts bothered to send thank you notes via land or cyberspace. After not hearing from one bride for several months, I  e-mailed her to ask if she’d received the cashmere throw I’d sent. She wrote back that not only had she received it, she had it wrapped around her at that very moment as she e-mailed the explanation of why she hadn’t acknowledged receiving it. (The explanation: “I don’t know why…I guess I just flaked.”)

For the above listed reasons, I’m close to ceasing any and all effort in the selection of wedding gifts.  They want checks, I’ll send checks. (The result, I fear, will be disappointment. I doubt my largess will pay for either a crankshaft on a car or a low-flow toilet in a condo.)  I will continue to send gifts for new babies but if I don’t get a thank you note for the first baby, the second baby will have to settle for inheriting the hand-me-down gift I gave to baby number one.

Close family and friends represent a different problem: I exchanged gifts with my two oldest friends for decades. In one case since the seventh grade, in the other since graduate school. I simply ran out of ideas and I know my friend from junior high did too.  I know this because one year she gave me a wonderful French cookbook and she gave me the exact same cookbook the following year.

I have three close friends who are my age and it’s our tradition to celebrate our birthdays by taking the birthday girl out to dinner.  Until ten years ago it also meant exchanging gifts but at one point we all agreed that the anxiety of buying the perfect gift made anticipating the celebratory meal less pleasurable.  So now we just celebrate. We still exchange gifts on the big birthdays but even I can handle coming up with something worthwhile once every ten years.

Children. Unless you’re a Jehovah’s Witness or Scrooge, you will most likely agree that gifts for kids at Christmas and Hanukah are a requirement and, except for the problem of the two e’s – excess and entitlement — I have no quarrel with it.  After that, I suspect most families arrive at a system that fits for them. I know one couple who have dispensed with gifts altogether – they celebrate Christmas by taking a hike and eating grilled cheese sandwiches when they get home. At the other end of the gift-giving spectrum is a friend who wants everyone who arrives at her house on Christmas to be bearing a stack of beribboned boxes. Apparently she grew up with frugal parents.

My husband and I still exchange birthday gifts with our adult children but for Christmas our family draws names. Even for the purchase of this one and only gift, we have rules. The gift has to be purchased no more than two days before Christmas, it has to be purchased at a store that’s within walking distance of where we happen to be on Christmas and there’s a cap on the amount. We’ve experimented with this last rule. Caps that are too high fly in the face of our desire to reduce excess and caps that are too low make it almost impossible to buy anything but bubblegum. (Except the years we were in Mexico where $5 was the perfect amount. One year my husband scored a coconut piggy bank and my son received a politically incorrect coffee cup adorned with two well formed breasts) I love this tradition. The rules make it feel like a treasure hunt and it provides us with a small gift opening ritual on Christmas. In the weeks before Christmas when everyone else is feverishly surfing the internet and racing to malls, we’re sipping hot spiced cider.  I know some people love the frantic search and to them I say, Mozel tof, though I can’t help suspecting that the cost-benefit ratio is out of whack.

The one thing I have concluded in my life: while the impulse to select a perfect gift is an expression of love, the reality rarely meets that standard. And it’s too bad because the ideal is so worthy.  There is something wonderful about focusing on someone you care about in a sustained way. The act of trying to get it right is noble. But if, for whatever reason, we’ve lost the knack, then maybe it’s time to come up with something just as noble that isn’t mercenary, isn’t crass and isn’t without gratitude. Any ideas?