Gift giving & holiday season

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As holiday season approaches and everybody is getting ready to go Christmas shopping, I am getting ready to put into writing something that has been a long-standing unpopular opinion of mine and a long-standing frustration for people around me. In other words, let me try and spoil your enthusiasm for Christmas.

What I am going to argue in the following paragraphs can be summarised thusly: the whole tradition of gift-giving is horribly misused and causes more harm than good in its current iteration. As I mentioned, I have believed this for a long time, but this is the first time I am attempting to argue my case on paper. Here we go:

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the two of us are insanely close friends. Therefore, you would normally already be frantically looking for the perfect Christmas present for me. But not this year – this year you already found the perfect gift; and all the way back in May, no less. So, in order not to spoil the surprise, you have hidden your gift for seven months, anticipating the final week of December when you can finally give it to me and bask in the sheer delight that it brings me. Now, this might seem somewhat morbid to you, but suppose further that I was to die somewhere in the seven-month-period that you held on to your perfect present. Wouldn’t that spoil the fun… This scenario might seem far-fetched and unnecessarily dark to you, so you might already be contemplating how big of a douchebag I must be to ruin something so wonderful as Christmas with such a horrible hypothetical. But bear with me: This scenario not only can happen, but in fact does happen. Illusionist Thorsten Havener, in one of his books, actually relates a story of exactly this happening to him years earlier when one of his childhood friends passed away. His point was this: forever after, he stared at the present for his friend that he had kept hidden and regretted not giving it to him earlier. After all, you never know what’s going to happen, so don’t tarry. And that carries us forward in my argument:

Whenever I stumble upon something that strikes me as a great gift for somebody close to me, or even just somebody I fleetingly know, I feel the obligation to wait for an appropriate occasion to give it to them. After all, how weird would it be if you just rocked up with a huge gift for no reason? No, you need a special occasion. But that is exactly my problem. If we didn’t have this convention of showing the people in our lives that we appreciate them only on two fixed dates of the year (i.e. Christmas & Birthdays), we could have a society in which it would be the norm that if we find something nice, we give it to someone we love – for its own sake. Imagine that.

Now, holding that thought in your mind, consider the corollary of our convention: in the absence of us having found something amazing for our loved ones by coincidence, the days of gift-giving, as one might call them, can be a major cause for stress, and I am almost positive that everybody reading this will be familiar with what I mean. Sometimes, no matter how much we wrack our brains, there doesn’t seem to be anything we can give to someone to show them how much we appreciate them. This is NOT a failure of love. It’s a failure of creativity. The two should never be confused, but having myself been on the receiving end of disappointed and/or hurt glances my whole life, I can tell you with certainty that they very frequently are. If I can’t show you materially how much you mean to me on a specific day of the year every year, it MUST mean that you don’t mean shit to me. This is as clear a non-sequitur as you will ever find, but this implied thought nonetheless can and does cause serious harm to friendships and families every year all over the planet. It might seem hyperbolic, but I have seen how much damage this simple misconception can do, and it’s a serious problem. And even if it’s not as serious as all that, the amount of awkwardness that an obvious emergency-gift invariably creates is undeniable. And what’s more: it often works both ways. Not only do I not know what to get you for Christmas, you don’t know what to get me, either. The options, therefore, are twofold: either we both get each other something clearly forced and endure an unbearable moment of awkwardness in which we both have to pretend that we love what the other person got us, or we bring this topic up beforehand and endure an equally unbearable moment of awkwardness through the ensuing conversation. All the while, the reason for this unappealing dichotomy in the first place is, once again, the presence of this vague convention that we have where appreciation of our close friends is measured by what we can get them on a specified date. …And people tell me it’s romantic. It’s the exact opposite of romantic. It’s calculated, forced, and inescapable, and I submit to you that we would be better off without it.

Again, this need not mean that we get rid of any tradition that strengthens our bond with each other. It rather means that, without these artificial fulcrums of coerced appreciation, we could have a society in which we can show each other our love all the time. That would certainly need a couple of reminders, too. But imagine what our planet would look like if we all had that habit. I think we would be living in a much nicer world than we are today. Personally, I can tell you that the friendships I have had that had adopted this, I would argue, more mature view of things, have generally felt much more intimate and genuine that any gift I have ever received on Christmas.

So, if you already have your Christmas gifts ready, I’m suggesting you don’t wait until then. Give them to your loved ones now. And if they ask you why you’re being a weirdo, refer them back to me. I’m already used to that conversation.

By Joel Bornemann

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