Wednesday, December 8, 2010

My Gift Giving Rules

It starts in September, sometimes creeping out even in August, those subtle and quite often not-so-subtle hints that are uttered during the commercials you have to watch because you forgot to record your favorite show.  “Oh, look at that, honey.  It cuts little tomatoes into the shape of Mt. Rushmore.  Wouldn’t that just be so cute at parties?  If I got one of those for Christmas I would definitely start having parties.”  And so the holiday season begins.

Most people have a system for choosing gifts that rivals a welfare recipients’ system at a casino and a reason for purchasing the over-priced gift in the first place.  The frustrating, stress-inducing part of Christmas for me is the ever-lengthening list of people required to receive a gift every year.  Now, I know that makes me come across as the Grinch, trying to steal the joy of Christmas from Cindy Lou Who, but really, it’s out of hand.  Each child has to buy for their teacher because Mom and Dad don’t want little Timmy to look bad in front of the other kids who make fun of Timmy anyway and not even behind his back.  Or they’re afraid if Suzy doesn’t buy Miss Cratchet that cute ceramic apple for her desk, Suzy might be repeating the third grade again.  Then everyone expects you to pitch in major bucks to buy the boss whom everyone complains about something he may never use.  “We’re all chipping in to buy the boss a new office chair so he can sit on his lazy ass while we are busting ours.”  Add to that list aunts and uncles, cousins you don’t like, friends and neighbors – no wonder the most joyous time of the year brings the greatest debt.  I’ve been sending Christmas cards to relatives I’ve never met in states I will never visit.  A few years after we were married I found out that we were sending Christmas cards to people who had went to the Great Christmas in the sky.

One year I had simply had enough.  I looked at my wife in the middle of a decision to write a check I knew would bounce.  “Some of these people we only see once a year.  Why in the world are we buying them presents?”  The answer was simple; we had been conditioned to do it because, well, they were family.  You had to buy gifts for all relatives who lived within a thirty mile radius.  It’s a law, I believe.  When was the last time we had talked to these people who were expecting that hastily wrapped gift every year?  At the family Christmas party the previous year when we got together to exchange expected gifts.  I started crossing through names.  I was not doing it that year.  I was no longer taking presents away from my children for adults who had not called once throughout the year just to say, “Hi”.  No, I wasn’t popular that first year but my children had a much better Christmas.  After all, isn’t that what Christmas is about?

And that became rule number one.  If we do not talk throughout the year in any way, shape or form, whether by letters, email, phone calls, smoke signals or Morse Code, there will be no bath oil gift set, no cutesy coffee mug proclaiming you to be #1, and no inspirational poster telling you to “Leap So You Can Fly.”  Don’t worry, I don’t expect you to buy me one either.  At the Christmas party we can eat strange meat on stale crackers and drink warm eggnog that really should be spiked and catch up on what’s happened since last year when we were made to endure the social niceties and everything will be warm and cozy.  Really, why would we exchange gifts just because you will see me at a party and feel society’s forced obligation to waste a perfectly good gift idea on someone you won’t talk to for another 365 days?

I stole the next rule from my father who did not grow up rich.  I’m not even sure you could say he grew up comfortable.  He did grow up fast, however.  When he was only seven years-old he began working by sweeping out a church for fifty cents a week, which was pretty good money for a seven year old back then.  My boys thought it was good money when they were seven, as well, but the other option was nothing so… For Christmas one year, the only thing my dad received was a fedora hat.  No toys.  No candy.  Nothing, but the hat.  I believe it was because of that Christmas that Dad developed the rule that children received nothing but toys on Christmas morning.  This was my favorite rule growing up.  Clothes were things parents should buy because it was their parental responsibility.  He would always grumble when he watched a child unwrap a shirt or cute pajamas.  They were never cute enough to be justified as a present and it didn’t matter how many butterflies or cute ponies dotted the non-flammable fabric.  “Kids need something to play with on Christmas morning, not a shirt for school the next week,” he would say.

I agree with him.  However, I have altered it just a tad.  If the girls see an outfit they just have to buy for someone, then I say, “Fine, buy it.”  They just can’t count it as a gift.  Children are to unwrap toys, not cute outfits.  If they receive clothes then Christmas is over the minute the box is opened.  Where is the fun in that?  What are they going to do?  Fold and refold the shirt over and over?  No.  They need toys that can be scattered across the floor in front of the Christmas tree and lost in the frenzy of imagination until Christmas dinner is ready.  The rule is kids get toys.

It was from this philosophy that I developed the next rule – Christmas was for what you wanted, not what you needed.  The girls and I butted heads over this recently when they wanted to buy the kids these deodorant and shaving packages.  “They’ll love it.  They use this stuff all the time.”  They showed me the bright Christmas packaging and the cute little holders.  It didn’t matter.  It was still deodorant.  Who buys deodorant as a Christmas gift?

Apparently, quite a few holiday shoppers or Axe wouldn’t spend thousands of dollars on Christmas gift sets and holiday advertising.  Still, what message does this send to the person receiving the Cool Sensation Deodorant Spray?  “Merry Christmas!  You smell bad.”  The first thing I would do when I unwrapped the three great scents gift set would be to sniff my underarms in case I was oozing body odor right then.  No one wants deodorant for Christmas.  I don’t care what they say.  They want something useless they can put on a shelf and dust once a week to remind them of how much you thought of them at Christmastime or a book they can use to prop up the corner of their ancient night stand.

It’s the thought that counts, after all, right?  Which leads me to my last rule of Christmas gift giving that pertains to the gift that requires no thought at all – the gift card. I know I am going to make enemies with every business and corporation in the United States, not to mention a few relatives, but I can’t help it.  I hate gift cards.  To me those little rechargeable credit card-looking pieces of plastic say, “I can’t be bothered to think of what you might like so here go pick it out yourself.” Or “Here, I’m sorry I forgot I had to buy for you.  Enjoy breakfast at Cracker Barrel.”  I know the slogans behind the gift-card ideas.  “Why stress yourself out this year trying to buy the man who has everything something he doesn’t have?  Just get him a gift card from Even More Clutter and let him stress about it himself.  Then you can be enjoying that Starbucks four dollar latte while watching the more thoughtful people scurry like Christmas rats at the mall.”
Gift giving requires effort and thought.  It should mean something when they rip that shiny wrapping to smithereens to see the lop-sided sweater Aunt Greta spent all summer crocheting.  How much fun is it, really, to rip open an envelope?  You can’t rattle and shake an envelope or guess what mystery gift is inside.  When you look at an envelope you can only ask the question the bagger at Publix asks me, “Paper or plastic?”

Teri, however, brought up a valid point.  If the gift card is from a specialty store, such as Home Depot or Barnes and Noble, then it’s different than, say, a grocery store or Wal Mart.  A general gift card says, “I can’t be bothered.  Pick out your own gift.”  However, one from Barnes and Noble tells me what you wanted to get but you didn’t know what was already on my dozen bookshelves.  This gift card I can live with.

The fun of Christmas is getting that smile when the person you bought for sees you cared enough to pick out something that made you think of them.  It’s about knowing you were loved enough that someone braved the mobs to get that ridiculous looking statue because they remembered those comments you made in March of how dragonflies made you smile.  Christmas is about showing that you care not necessarily to give the best gift but the best of you.

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