’Tis the season for giving and, inevitably, the season for being anxious about giving. By now you’re on a deadline. With less than a week to go, you might have some ideas, you might even have some presents, but many are switching gift tags already, wondering which relative they’ve forgotten and rethinking that frog-shaped pepper grinder they bought for a pop-in guest.
You’d think we’d be better at it, given that gift giving has been going on since we lined up at stone altars with offerings for prehistoric gods. But many of us muck it up every year. We risk relationships and bank balances but at least when we get it wrong, we won’t end up kissing the altar with hands tied behind our backs.
While waiting in a queue for a cashier, I had plenty of time to reflect on why the bundles of stuff under my arm cause so much anxiety. And, really, it all boils down to four problems: too little, too much, too late and just-perfect-forsomeone-else.
Let’s start with that last one. Giving presents is meant to show we’re thinking of someone else, but sometimes they betray us as, yeah, thinking of someone else. How well do you know the person to whom you are giving? Do you even know their age or are you giving a sparkle craft pack to a niece who’s already doing shooters on Saturday night? Is that Aunt Mabel’s Christmas Pudding going to a glutenfree friend?
It’s not just the person you’re meant to think about, it’s their needs you must get right. You don’t give grandpa in the nursing home a homebrew set (unless you want him kicked out). You should not give your sister’s son an AK-47 water shooter if his dad is just back from Afghanistan. And enough of the scarfs, OK?
Deciding how much to spend is so difficult that many of us put price brackets around certain relationships. So, $30 for cousins; $50 for in-laws; $80 for blood relatives; a couple of hundred for children; and $29.90 for pop-in guests who love frog-shaped things. If you spend too little, you risk appearing mean or, worse, as holding the person in little regard, and being anti-materialist is no excuse. You’re tight. They probably know it by now.
But spending too much is almost as bad. You’ll embarrass them if you exchange a pizza oven (hint for children) for two linen tea towels. Or they’ll think you’re feeling guilty about something you did to them, thought about doing to them or forgot to do for them. A year of absence is rarely relieved by a big present.
If you make a habit of overspending, you might ask yourself if you’re trying to make them feel good or trying to make yourself look good. Giving a gold-plated garlic crusher or a Blah Blah lamp does nothing for someone who lives in a share house and would kill for a two-pack of gingham tea towels from Target (or, let’s face it, a six-pack of craft brews).
At this point of the giving season, many will reach for the predictables: the scarfs, socks, candles, room fresheners, boxers and bottles of chocolate chilli syrup that will sit on the top shelf waiting for a re-gifting opportunity.
Others might say they’re sick of adding to First World problems so they’ve decided to save the Third World via Oxfam envelopes for water wells, goats and school pencils. This is a fine thing to do but, really, it’s a bit grandiose to think you can save the world one Christmas stocking at a time.
By the time, you’ve finished queuing at a shop where The Little Drummer Boy is on a continuous loop, you might just want to throw yourself on a stone altar, hand a knife to the high priest and hope the gods are satisfied.
It’s all a bit fraught this business of showing you care, and when the wrapping comes off it can feel like a reveal of you, your motives, your hang-ups, your guilt and your relationships.
But you can console yourself with the idea that a lot of thought has gone into these presents. Too much thought, perhaps, and not every thought has been helpful. But, if it’s the thought that counts, you’ve nailed it. Merry Christmas and better luck next year.