Every year, starting in mid- to late-November, I begin to suffer a very particular strain of anxiety. It coincides with the raising of tinsel-y displays in storefront windows. And by the time every YouTube video is prompted by a bow-wearing Lexus plowing through snowdrifts, I find myself besieged by an unrelenting state of low-grade panic. The gift-giving season, in other words, makes me want to drive a Lexus through a snowdrift — and over the side of a cliff.
I despise holiday gift-giving between adults for a number of reasons. I hate that it makes us feel justified in what would surely qualify as obscene shows of consumption at any other time of year. I hate how it appropriates some quite beautiful and poetic faith traditions in the service of retail profits.
But most of all, I hate how the economic powers that be, the robber-barons of e-commerce, have managed to convince us, en masse, that December is the time to demonstrate our affection for one and other by way of sundries we are perfectly capable of buying for ourselves. Fitness watches, "New York Times" bestsellers, cotton-cashmere blends — all are more than likely destined to join a growing detritus of holidays past, archived in the back of closets.
I am, of course, a complete hypocrite on this front as an extremely active participant in our yearly capitalistic frenzy. A berserker of gift-giving, you might say. On any given Saturday in the month of December, you can find me furtively scuttling around the nearest shopping mall, like the self-contradictory rat that I am. I snap up books and sweaters and ironically designed coffee mugs with the crazy-eyed, manic energy of a Doomsday prepper in the canned-foods aisle at Costco. And when the holidays finally arrive, I sling these oddments on bemused friends and family with all the panache of Emeril Lagasse seasoning a batch of gumbo. BAM! Behold my largesse, loved one.
Though I detest the cultural pressures buttressing our American tradition of gift-giving, boy, do I love how it makes me feel.
And here we have the central contradiction of my holiday rantings: Though I detest the cultural pressures buttressing our American tradition of gift-giving, boy, do I love how it makes me feel.
I know I am not alone in this. In pre-Reformation Europe, holiday gift-giving was a decidedly lower-key affair. For the most part, we can attribute this to the majority of people being dirt poor, if not borderline starving in winter months. Yet, in some places, even the poorest of the poor were expected to present a trinket or two to the reigning feudal lord. These were tokens of appreciation — I suppose for the privilege of, I don't know, avoiding Huns while farming rocks on a rich man's land. (The story of King Wenceslas is essentially about the reversal of this tradition.)
Point being, from day one, and long before the advent Amazon Prime's two-day shipping guarantee, holiday gift-giving has been a demonstration of one's worth to a significant person in one's life. That lambswool cardigan says less about how much someone means to us, than how much we should mean to them.
Because if we were truly concerned with what the recipients of our gifts wanted, we would acknowledge the awkwardness of the whole process. How many of us struggle, year after year, to outline items missing from our lives for well-meaning friends, parents, siblings, and in-laws? Because anything remotely affordable-enough to qualify as a potential gift is something you could have surely bought for yourself (in June).
As a result, these queries almost always devolve into supply lists for daily existence — black socks, fresh bedsheets, cookware, a new vacuum — all things you would ordinarily pick up on a weekend errand if they weren't such easily-forgettable non-essentials. And in sending out these lists of quotidian trifles, you're asking your loved ones to value their place in your life at the level of yoga mats. Shoe trees. Magnetic chip clips.
I distinctly remember the profound sense of sadness I felt a few Decembers ago when I first realized the truth about gifts post-childhood. I was waiting in a Best Buy checkout line with a pair of Fitbits selected for my parents who, though known to play an inordinate amount of weekly racquet sports, have zero practical need to track the number of stairs they've climbed in their two-story suburban Colonial.
It was my second year of full-time, salaried work after college. I had a disposable income. I wanted to show my folks how much their unyielding love and support in those financially-dependent college years meant to me. But as I considered the two bubbles of plastic packaging in my hands, I knew I wasn't making this purchase for them. I was trying assuage that familiar sense of middle-class guilt— the worry that we don't deserve the love and stability we are so fortunate to have. It is a debt to be repaid, I hoped, in overpriced gadgetry.
Perhaps we are too deeply ensnared in the holiday ecologies — commercial and psychological — to find our way out.
I bought the Fitbits anyway. My parents received them graciously. I doubt they were ever removed from their packaging.
What a tangled web of oppressive obligation and reciprocity we weave. Perhaps we are too deeply ensnared in the holiday ecologies — commercial and psychological — to find our way out. And that's a shame, because there really is so much to do that doesn't involve online wish lists, like the chance to return to farflung hometowns, recommit to our dearest relationships and enjoy the brief respite from work, eat food, avoid exercise.
I know I am unlikely to stop giving gifts any time in the near future. But I suppose if reprieve from the daily bustle of life is indeed the greatest gift of all, perhaps something that lightens the to-do list on a Saturday in the New Year isn't such a bad idea. Though not a Lexus, one really can never have enough chip clips.
Jake Flanagin is a writer and law student at Georgetown University.