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?