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 ...

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