A recent email exchange regarding Christmas presents left me a bit depressed. It wasn’t just the timing of the email that struck me, as we haven’t even carved our pumpkins yet; it was the curtness. The well-meaning message, intended to mitigate the angst that accompanies holiday shopping, cut right to the chase: “What did my family want/need for Christmas?”
I’ve answered a variation on this question countless times this past year. Specifying a gift, right down to size, color and model number is something we can all relate to. And yet, is it just me? Or are we all left cold by how giving a gift feels like just another transaction these days?
The dawn of the social connection
Gift-giving dates to the dawn of civilization. Early on, gifts were as primitive as the givers: an interesting piece of bark or an attractive (relatively speaking) rock. As humans evolved, the practice of giving gifts did, too. And, the gifts got better (spices, gold, cows). But the purpose stayed essentially the same: to signal affection, secure favor, show allegiance, or seal a promise of marriage. Then, as now, gifts forged social connection.
Early on, gifts were as primitive as the givers: an interesting piece of bark or an attractive (relatively speaking) rock.
We’ve moved past the days of proffering attractive rocks and I can’t help but feel we’ve lost something along the way. Over time the conversation implied by selecting and offering gifts has changed from “I’ve been thinking of you” to “I bought this in about 60 seconds online and got free shipping.”
The depersonalization of convenience
Obviously, today’s gift-giving habits are strongly influenced and enabled by the internet. We’re empowered by the limitless number of online retailers offering anything we’d wish to buy. The notion of sending a gift (if it doesn’t occur to us) is relentlessly planted by Evite, Facebook, and pop-up ads. The abandoned contents of virtual shopping carts resurface in reminder emails. It’s a creepy, ‘someone-is-watching’ occurrence that contributes to the sense that we’re all caught up in one big consumer-culture conspiracy. Then again, given today’s fast-paced, frenetic and hyper-connected world, availing ourselves of technological advances that offer convenient, seamless solutions makes some sense.
And, really, when it comes to the subject of gifts, it’s not so much the convenience that I object to as much as the slow slide toward depersonalization that accompanies the convenience. Gift cards, if they’re offered, limit us to sixty characters. Gift wrap, when added to the purchase, is painfully overpriced, feels perfunctory, and typically fails to delight. And, gift receipts, obscured by envelopes or taped to the inside of a box top seem to cry out: “You’ll probably hate this gift…feel free to pick out something better yourself.” What will become of the ugly socks?
When it comes to the subject of gifts, it’s not so much the convenience that I object to as much as the slow slide toward depersonalization that accompanies the convenience.
Not wanting to appear overly judgy about this topic, I approached it gingerly with a few friends and discovered that I’m not alone in my peevishness about presents. It seems many of us are locked in a love-hate relationship with Amazon Prime and believe there must be a better, more fulfilling, more personal way to approach gift-giving. Limitless options and free, one-day shipping, set against the backdrop of our perfection-seeking, consumer-driven culture, has rendered gift exchange highly stressful.
One person I asked dreads the emails from her mother that begin in early November, inquiring about the gifts her children want and exactly what should be purchased. She ends ups firing off a slew of internet links just to stop the emails. Another friend notes that the holidays increasingly feel like one big “money swap” among her extended family members.
I wonder about my children growing up in this new world where every wish is satisfied, delivered in boxes from Amazon. Isn’t part of life learning to accept with grace a gift you don’t love? I appreciate that people want to please my children by selecting the most coveted presents for them, but I feel that a greater gift would be giving them something that fails to hit the bullseye—the athletic shirt with the wrong logo, a book that’s already been read—because let’s face it, disappointment is a fact of life and sometimes that starts with bad birthday socks.
Disappointment is a fact of life and sometimes that starts with bad birthday socks.
Overcoming the money-for-stuff shuffle
Of course, gifts are a two-way street, and there’s reason to believe that it’s not only on the giving side that we’ve strayed from the plot. According to a report by Deloitte, gift cards and cash rank as the number one and number two gifts we like to receive at the holidays. That same report notes that holiday shoppers in 2015 showed a marked propensity to shop for themselves (50 percent in 2015 versus 36 percent in 2012) while purchasing gifts for others, adding to the argument that we all want for very little, and giving gifts has become little more than a money-for-stuff shuffle.
The solution? If you suffer from a sinking feeling that your gifts don’t truly convey the love you feel for the recipient, then make a change. The next time you’re moved to purchase a gift, do it the old-fashioned way. Reflect for a while on the receiver and purposefully select something you hope they will love. (Handmade gifts—so quaint!—can’t fail to convey sincerity.) Wrap the present yourself, including a handmade tag or note, and then go stand in the interminable line at the post office, secure in the knowledge that you are doing a good thing by inserting yourself, and effort beyond money, into this act of giving. And, when you get home, throw away that gift receipt. After all, it truly is the thought that counts.
Laura Shear is a Bay Area-based freelance writer and consultant. She's addicted to home improvement projects and rescue puppies and firmly believes rosé should be enjoyed year-round. Find her on Twitter: @lmshear.