Holiday gift-giving between adults is a needless, consumerist chore

Holiday gift-giving: hang it up.
Holiday gift-giving: hang it up.
Image: Reuters/David Gray
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I have never—not once—given my parents what they want for Christmas. They are a pair of holiday enigmas.  Outright questions, like “But what  do you actually want for Christmas?” are usually met with vague answers, or I’ll-get-back-to-yous. If asked via email, I’m often flat-out ignored.

So year after year, nearly to the point of migraine, I try to decode what they might possibly need or want. And I fail. Miserably, inevitably. My father has enough biographies of dead British war heroes to wallpaper Versailles. My mother maintains a cabinet bursting with prohibitively expensive Le Creuset casserole dishes, most of which are barely large enough to properly bake a potato. Just last year, I nearly broke down in the middle of a BestBuy, having just purchased a pair of FitBits I was almost certain would go entirely unused. (An apt prediction, on my part.)

I have to conclude that this is because my parents are gainfully employed adults, with fairly practical tastes, who generally buy must-have items for themselves on an as-needed basis. And perhaps the notion of asking their son for something so elaborate that they wouldn’t necessarily buy it for themselves is an uncomfortable one.

Nevertheless, we partake in the grand charade every year. Unwanted gifts are exchanged, Academy Award-worthy shows of thanks are displayed, somebody balls up the wrapping paper and gives it to the dog to systematically devour, we brunch, the dog quietly passes gas in the corner, we nap off the brunch, we dim the lights on the Christmas tree, we pack it all up for next year.

What is supposed to be a wholly pleasant aspect of the holidays has become laborious and play-acted; the world’s lowest-stakes murder-mystery party. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Many a case against holiday gift-giving can be made. It’s consumeristic. It detracts from the “true meaning of the season.” (Whatever that may be.) My argument is far less noble in its goals. I am not a Christmas restorationist—I simply maintain that holiday gifting between adults is horrendously awkward. It’s superfluous. And I’m not convinced anyone truly enjoys it.

Don’t get me wrong—I love almost everything else about Christmas: the family-time schmaltz, A Charlie Brown Christmas playing on loop, all the general atmospherics. Christmastime is an escapist’s dream, and I’m the greatest escapist since Harry Houdini. The days between Thanksgiving and Dec. 25 play out inside a proverbial snow globe; a wonderful, temporal harbor against 11 months of straight-up garbage living. If I could live in a deluded, pine-scented, tinsel-strewn, Brenda Lee-soundtracked version of life all year round, I absolutely would.

Gift-giving cheapens this vibe, at least for adults. It’s totally beside the point: We either receive reluctantly formulated sundries written down in lists disseminated among family members, or we’re surprised with something that will eventually find its way into a Rubbermaid storage bin. Because as functioning consumers in a perpetually self-replenishing market of goods, we buy what we need when we need it. And if we don’t need something, we’re probably better off without it. (Shout out to Marie Kondo.)

I’m not a Grinch. I completely understand the narrative magic of Santa Claus. I recall the excitement, the general wonderment of a tree overlooking beautifully wrapped gifts. It’s an innocent, meaningful image, and I’m not advocating that it be taken away from anyone. (In fact, it’s a shame more kids don’t get to experience these things by default.) I’d even say there’s some parenting merit to framing gift-getting as a rare, special occasion; not something you’re entitled to year-round. Pegging gifts to a specific reason or occasion makes for healthier, less entitled kids, in my opinion.

There’s nothing particularly virtuous about adults exchanging gifts, however—generosity forced, formulaic, and chronologically predictable is not really generosity at all, it’s standard practice. It’s paying a kind of annual due.

There are those that, whether disingenuously or not, loudly and publicly fret over America’s so-called war on Christmas. I would argue Christmas has rotted from the inside out, becoming less a religious holiday, a space to consciously appreciate family togetherness, or even just an exercise in lovable kitsch, and more a two-month long shopping sprint. 

As we loathe the onerousness of it all, my sister and I have, in recent years, opted to gift each other with purposely useless things: Christmas sweaters replete with working twinkle lights (fire hazard); knee-high tube socks (surprisingly itchy); a live, miniature turtle purchased in Chicago’s Chinatown (illegal); a (possibly bootleg) DVD copy of the one and only season of Lil Kim’s 2006 reality show, Countdown to Lockdown (we get a lot of use out of this one, actually).

Even this little act of Christmas rebellion is kind of a chore, though. Every year has to be more creative, more outrageous than the last. We’re pretty competitive about it.

The holidays shouldn’t be a chore, however. This year, consider a collective moratorium on presents between adults. I mean it—rubber stamp “NO GIFTS PLEASE” on your forehead, and ride it out. Spend the extra cash on extra brunch. Because for those who want to extend life in the snow globe as long as possible, peace of mind is the greatest gift of all.