The giving that keeps on getting

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I had an interesting conversation with a good friend of mine today. It's a variation on a conversation I've had before, but my friend put it very succinctly. She is not, she said, getting anyone a Christmas gift this year. There is nobody on her list who needs anything, so she's just not doing it. Instead, she's donating the amount of money she would have spent buying her family and friends things they do not need to a local food bank.

This logic is, I think, completely correct. And it made me think--is there anybody on my Christmas list who needs anything? No, there isn't. In past years, I could have made the argument that my unemployed or under-employed little brother actually did need gifts, but he's had a good job for the past year or so, so I think he's got what he needs these days. And really, there is nobody else on my list, adult or child, who needs a damn thing. And neither do I need anything.

So why do this thing at all? Why spend the hours and hours picking things out? Even though I'm doing it in what I consider a "responsible" way this year, with almost all handmade or used gifts, I'm still ending up with stuff for each person, and I am still spending money on that stuff. Why not direct that money to a source where it's actually needed and call the whole thing off?

For me, the biggest reason why not is a selfish one. I love gifting. I love receiving gifts, and I really love giving them. I love plotting and planning what people might want or like, I love shopping, and I love seeing people open things I've chosen for them. The whole thing just fills me with joy. Which isn't to say that I don't feel any Christmas season stress--there are holes on my list that I'm beginning to fret about, I've already spend too much, and the wrapping and shipping elements of gifting when your family and friends are spread to the four winds doesn't thrill me at all. But the good outweighs the bad for me every time.

That's really not a good enough reason though, is it? I take all this time, and all this cash (which I could be using to pay off my debt, or to help any of a million good causes), and I do this thing basically because I like it and because it is expected of me (at least I like it--a lot of people are doing it only for the latter reason). Honestly, that's stupid.

The problem isn't, and never was, the custom of gift-giving itself, though. The problem is that gifts can't fill the space they used to fill when you live in a time and a place and a socioeconomic class where people can and do buy for themselves everything they need and much of what they want. As a child, growing up in a working class family, we got fun stuff for gifts, but we also got a lot of things we needed wrapped with paper and bows. So much so that getting "socks in a box" remains a running joke in my family. That makes sense. It makes something that is needed fun, and there isn't a lot of excess in it. But along the way something has changed. Now, if I asked not what I want, but what I need, I can't come up with anything.

So who can we fix it? I tend to think that my friend is on the right track--those of us who are lucky enough not to need anything, and not to have folks on our list who need anything, should stop this silliness, and put our money towards folks who do actually need things. Alternatively, though, we could stop buying ourselves so much crap year round, so that when gift giving occasions come around, there will actually be something legitimate to request. But I don't really see that happening.

Maybe, with spending half of what was spent last year, some American families are working towards less excess. I know that even though I am gifting, I've tried to be more reasonable this year. My focus has been mainly on the gifts I choose being from sources I feel good about supporting, but I've also just cut down on the number of things I'm giving and the amount I'm spending. And it sounds like both my family and Mark's are doing something similar (though I'll believe it when I see it). I'm seeing a lot of similar thoughts around the net as well, with folks relying more and more on handmade gifts (some of which are homemade, some swapped for, some purchased) and a smaller number of gifts in general. But I have to wonder--does this really imply any cognizance of how stupid and wasteful gift giving has become, or is it simply a response to a bad economy? When the economy gets better, will those gift spending numbers go back up? What would have to happen to make the change permanent?

5 Comments

If I was to make a list of things I need, it would be hugely long, but none of the items are things. I needed a new iPod (and in terms of my health feel ok with saying it was a need), but I for sure bought that for myself - I would never expect anyone to spend that kind of cash on me and I wanted it in time to occupy myself with at chemo.

What I need is people's time - I'd love to have people there in chemo with me, or even better, over at my house after, happy to watch mindless TV and distract me from the impending operation. I'd like people to show up to events they say they will - it costs me so much energy to get out, so it's disappointing to me when others don't follow through. I'd like an hour of coffee and chat with people willing to talk to me about their lives, without trying to edit out the parts they think they can't tell me because my problem is bigger. I'd like people who call "just to talk" because y'know, I'm also happy to pretend you aren't just calling to make sure I'm still alive because the thought is lovely and there are times when I really could use a friendly voice.

And naturally, I'd like the chemo to work and the operation to go off without a hitch and to find some vaguely fiscally responsible way of paying for all that. But mostly, I'd just like to see people.

I think for a nation of consumers, for whom shopping is a daily, weekly or monthly recreation, gift-giving is valuable because it uses a form of recreation (shopping) that is often narcissistic and makes it into an activity that involves some small amount of empathy.

I certainly wouldn't elevate figuring out what tchotckes your loved ones wants above charitable giving on a moral scale, but I do think it involves a more specific empathy for the individual needs of people than the much broader "people need food" "the cold need shelter" goals of charities.

I don't need a specific person in my mind to motivate me to give money to the John Birch Foundation for christmas - I just do. But to figure out what the hell my mom wants, I really have to, for three or four hellish seconds, imagine what her life involves and what she might enjoy as a gift.

P.S. I need another iPod shuffle, but this time I need a silver or yellow one. The purple one only goes with half of my gym outfits.

Unfortunately, I think, it is because of bad economy and not the result of a mental shift. Over here, the economy is slightly better and for our "Saint Nicolas" the spending has never been so high. Apparently, flatscreen tv's, laptops and game consoles are what people "need". Sigh.

Christine

You're so right that most of us don't NEED anything. Last year I tried to suggest giving to charity in lieu of gifts and got roundly shot down. So I spent hours and $$ getting frustrated at the mall and probably not satisfying DH's family, but at least *I* got less crap (several people did give me animals from Heifer project).

This year theoretically we are scaling back adult gifts - I just hope everyone does.

There's only 1 thing on my list that might be a need, as in I will buy it if no one gets it for me - a TV converter box for the switch to digital TV.

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