What We Get Wrong About Gift-Giving
Starting in late November, Americans will spend upwards of $579 billion on holiday gifts. I count myself among this elite group. Though self-gifting is on the rise, most of us are focused on finding the perfect presents for all 37 people on our list, including: the dog groomer, the kids' school bus drivers, and that super-helpful town librarian.
We're motivated to buy these gifts for sundry reasons: gratitude (to show our love and appreciation for others), civic responsibility (to keep the national economy afloat), internalized voice of bad mother (to stave off shame and guilt), and boredom (we've got to do something on those long dark nights once daylight saving time ends).
For the most part, gratitude inspired my family's gift giving as I was growing up. We were both predictable and orderly; wish lists were made and handed to the appropriate parties not long after Thanksgiving. On Christmas morning, an equal mix of practical gifts, flannel nightgowns, as well as frivolous ones, hand-sewn Barbie costumes, were found under the tinsel-laden tree.
We took turns opening our presents–no frenzied shredding in our English/German household. I intently watched the recipients' faces in the hope that my choices met their mark. (For future reference, facial expressions of Northern Europeans–whose behavioral etiquette forbids squealing in delight–often mask their true sentiments.)
Though I appreciated my parents' and sisters' offerings, I remember the hollow, disappointed feeling that always settled on me once the boxes had been unwrapped and the stockings emptied. It was as if the curtain unceremoniously fell before the play reached the climax. This had less to do with what we actually gave each other and more to do with the fact that we needed so much more than what gifts could supply.
We needed to bust loose from the rigidity of our stiff-upper-lip heritage. We needed a tangible spirituality to anchor us together and infuse the holidays with greater meaning. We needed an affectionate grandmother who went to mass daily and lavished prodigal love on us. But since we had none of the above, we dutifully fulfilled each other's wish lists and stuffed the objects into the relational and spiritual gaps.
During the holidays, I think we can all lean on gift-giving rather than doing the hard work of expressing our affection and gratitude.
I entered marriage unaware that my gift buying habits reflected anything other than routine capitalistic behavior. But then one Advent season, my husband and I had a "disagreement" centering on my tendency to overbuy (his interpretation) for our three young sons.
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