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Christmas Presents (Tolstoy Version)

I hate Christmas shopping. I hate the whole culture of gift-giving in general, especially when there's an expectation of reciprocation, which is especially true on Christmas.

One year I proposed to a borther that we should agree not to buy each other presents ("My present to you is that you don't have to buy a present for me"). My mom overheard this proposal and wailed, "But you can't do that!", with such urgency that I never again suggested it. I didn't want to be seen as "that guy" and her outburst made it clear to me that I would be seen that way, so for twenty years I've been dutifully buying Christmas presents for the family, and, after my mom remarried a guy with five children of his own, for the step-family as well.

I made the best of a bad situation, and I admit that I did feel driven to buy good and thoughtful gifts, and took satisfaction from doing so. But, on the whole, I never liked it, always considered it a burden, and always hoped someday I'd get out of it.

My problem with gift-giving is that it's so damn dramatic. People say the person who receives the gift should be grateful for even getting a gift; if it's a bad gift you're no worse off, right? Except that bull.

First of all, when gifts are given with the expectation of reciprocation, you very well might be worse off, because you spent time and money on their gift.

But more insidiously, gifts are not always borne out of generosity. Oftentimes gift-giving is done as a way to manipulate, test, embarrass, or otherwise exert power over the receiver. Gift-giving can be malicious.

Unfortunately, in my family, gifts of malice are quite common.

Gifts of manipulation

My teenage years were spent receiving Christmas presents designed to manipulate me into being less of what my parents considered and embarrassment to them.

Let me describe how I was as a teenager. I wore rags to school: old t-shirts, old shorts, old polos, holey socks. I wore tennishoes until they were literally falling apart. I never wore anything heavier than a light jacket, even in winter (this was in Pittsburgh: not the coldest place ever but no spring breeze). I absolutely hated sweaters; to this day there is not a single non-living thing I hate more. In general I never wore anything warm, tight, or made of any material other than cotton or denim. I never wore any jewelry.

(Today, my dress habits are only slightly improved from then.)

The battle over my appearance was an ongoing power struggle with my mom throughout my teenage years, and one of the battlegrounds was attempted manipulation through Christmas gifts.

  • Sweaters. My sweater battles happened in my pre-teen years mostly (over these hideous red sweaters that were parts of the grade school uniform), but that didn't stop her from still trying to get me to wear them by offering them up as a present.

  • Shoes. As a teen, I never wore anything but a single pair of tennishoes, and refused to ever wear a new pair until they fell apart. The most bitter battles over my appearance were fought over shoes, so naturally shoes were in my stocking every single year.

    One year it was hiking boots, some years it was dress shoes, a few years new sneakers with some awful design. As best as I recall, I would take the shoes upstairs throw them in closet, never to think about them again. At least not until a wedding would come up, in which case I would head for the closet, rummage through several pairs of never-before-worn dress shoes, find that none of them would fit because my feet had outgrown them, so we'd head off to the thrift store to pick up a new pair, which would inevitably be painfully stiff and cut into my ankles.

    The hiking boots were the strangest gift of all. It was the last Christmas before college, the epic shoe battles were pretty much behind me, and suddenly I get these hiking boots. I was just like, "Still? Why would you get these? What makes you think I'd ever possibly wear these? What a waste!" I never took them out of the box.

  • One year my mom bought be a heavy leather coat, which was a double whammy: too heavy (as in, too warm) and too heavy (as in, weighed too much). Now, my hatred of heavy coats had been an issue for years, and I distinctly remember conversations I had before that Christmas where I stated why I hate leather jackets ("they weigh too much") and my mom was like, "No, they're really light", as if that settled the matter. So when I got the coat for Christmas, my mom made me try it on, saying, "You better wear that, that's a really nice jacket and I spent a lot of money on it". I said, "It's too heavy", the exact thing I said I hated, and it was. Nevertheless my mom forced me to wear it wherever we went. My teenage way of dealing with this situation was to clam up and not say a damn thing to her while I was in that jacket.

    After two weeks of this, she decided I wasn't (just) being difficult, and that I really did hate the hell out of that jacket. In a genuine state of surprise, she took it back to the store (reporting that they made an issue out of returning it since she made me wear it for two weeks), and then bought another heavy coat for me with the money.

    I didn't wear that coat once.

  • A gold-plated wristwatch, because every normal young man dreams of having a shiny gold watch, or something. My parents thought I'd wear it because the days of the week were listed in Spanish.

    Even if I had wanted to wear it (I had no desire to), there was no way I was going to reliably remember to put something so useless on my wrist every day, so it was pretty much a no brainer. (Really, how often do you need the time so deperately that you can't spare time to find a nearby clock, especially as a teenager?) So I threw the watch in my bag of things I don't care about but for some reason carry around with me whenever I move, where it stayed until I hawked if off about fifteen years later.

  • Other little things: an organizer here, an expensive-looking pen here, cuff links there.

Being that I was a teenager, I did throw unnecessary hissyfits and complain about stupid stuff. I'm sure I was a stubborn handful. But what really irritated me about these presents was that they were very obvious (and, frankly, very stupid) attempts to manipulate me, which I resented. Part of the resentment was because they apparently had absolutely no conception that I really hated this stuff and wasn't just fighting it and throwing hissyfits over it to be difficult.

I should mention not one of these gifts ever had the slightest effect on me; if anything it hardened my heart against the superficiality of appearances. I refuse to wear sweaters and heavy coats to this day, and still wear out my single pair of shoes pretty well before getting a new pair.

"Who gave the best present" contests

For the past several years, the trend in my family was that Christmas shopping was turning into a contest over who could give the nicest gifts. When I got old enough to start buying presents for the family, our target price for a gift was "around $20". By the time I graduated from college this was more like $70. Inflation wasn't that bad.

My brother pushed this to a new level one year, buying everyone gifts no one else in the family but me could afford. I think my gifts that year from him were about $150. And the next year, everyone was trying to outdo him, including me.

I finally got fed up with this and decided I wasn't going to participate in the madness; I didn't tell anyone though. I focused on imaginitive and thoughtful gifts, or, lacking that, useful ones. I deliberately limited my budget. If anyone noticed, no one said anything.

Meanwhile my brother got even more crazy about the "contest", to the point of boasting about his own gifts and lamenting other people's attempts at gifts quite openly. I decided I'd had enough of it, and resolved to play his game, on his own terms... and not try to win. So I've been getting him rather crappy presents since then, and pretty much accepting the fact that I've "lost".

Secret Santa

So that brings us to this year.

This past Christmas, there was a recession going on whilst some family members were trying to start a business. My new step-siblings are younger and not as well-suited financially. So my mom decides we'll all just have a Secret Santa this year: one present.

Now, I never liked these Secret Santa things one bit. It's bad enough I have to buy presents for people I know well; but now I have to get a present for a cousin or uncle or whoever, and I don't know what the hell they want. Also, the Secret Santa heightens the competitiveness of the whole thing, someone could get a bad present because a bad gift-buyer drew them. Or, they could buy a bad present because they drew someone hard to buy for. So I've always hated these things.

When my mom sent out an email saying we would be doing this, I didn't respond. Partially it was because I didn't remember to, partially it was because I had a little bit of guilt about backing out. But mostly I had this perverse desire to see if she would assume I wanted to do it, after all the hell and hissyfits I threw the previous times she tried to run Secret Santas. Surely, after all the trouble I gave her in the past about these stupid things, she would at ask me directly?

Of course not. And, while visiting for Thanksgiving, she reveals that she threw me into the mix and gave everyone their draw before I knew it was happening, some people were already out shopping, and that I couldn't back out now because it would mess things up. (Which was a shame on me, because she always does the draw that way, and I'm always sucked into it before I can object, but I never learn.)

Anyway, in the ensuing discussion, my mom and my sister were talking it over, and my mom tried to clarify to my sister that, "Carl really does like Christmas shopping, he just doesn't like the grab bag." At that point I lost my cool and slammed the cup of water I was drinking into the sink, because I really hated Christmas shopping and had told my mom multiple times, but she never heard it. But I guess it made them realize I was serious. By some miracle, my sister drew me, and so she offered to swap draws with me so that I was able to drop out. (I never looked at who I got and still don't care who it was.)

But with that little bitter taste in my mouth, I decided I'd had enough. This year everyone was supposed to be just getting one Secret Santa present, and I was my own Secret Santa, so if I did get anything, it was likely to be a small side present. Given that, I resolved to not buy anyone a damn thing this year.

And it was the best Christmas ever.

Tags: christmas, coat, gift_giving, leather_jacket, rant, shoes, sweater, wristwatch
Last Edited: 26 December 2010, 9:11 AM
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