All I Want for Christmas

I’ve been reading through many hilarious and some sad accounts of Christmas presents gone wrong.  The father who got his newly sophisticated daughter a hideous green pantsuit in the 1970s, then asked that she wear it to a gathering.  Which she did.  The traditional parents who gave their gay son macho toys.  The dishwashers and other kitchen appliances given to wives — since what else could a woman possibly want?

And on and on.  Maybe it’s because people never write about the perfect holiday gift they get, since tragic and comic shortcomings are always so much more interesting.  And who really wants to hear the story of somebody who gets the perfect present that fulfills, that shows them they and their needs are truly understood?  I mean, I’d never read it.

In fact, I once knew a couple who gave perfect presents.  He got her incredible, thoughtful presents for her birthday, Christmas, their anniversary.  Which meant that she, too — being married to such a gift-giving paragon — had to reciprocate with presents equally brilliant and exquisitely precise.  Maybe I only imagined it, but after a year or two, she looked panicked and desperate every time a new gift-giving occasion reared its needy little head.  Who wants to fail when the stakes are that high?

In my own life, I’ve come to realize I’m impossible to shop for (this is after years of being assured by my husband he still has no idea what on earth to get me).  I’m no good as a recipient and I’m equally bad as a present-giver.  As a relative or friend, I’ll listen to your troubles, I’ll celebrate your triumphs, I’ll cry with you, I’ll try to make you laugh and have fun.  But I’m a total loser when it comes to turning up with the perfect, thoughtful present that shows I’ve been paying attention to, exactly, what it is you like or need.

“Don’t get me anything,” I told my husband when he asked this year.  I meant it.  He, fortunately, doesn’t want anything, either.  We have so much, already.  And if we need something, we get it for ourselves.  If we’re out shopping together, we point and look expectant.

Which is why our Christmas mornings have evolved to the point of few presents and few surprises.  For the most part, we give our adult kids money, unless they’ve told us exactly what they want. For each other, we usually get a stocking stuffer — even though we usually can’t find our Christmas stockings.

You can read this and think we’re lazy, we’re slovenly, and we have low expectations.  But it works for us.  We have fewer you-don’t-understand-me-and-never-will wounds, fewer department store returns, fewer disappointments on the part of giver and recipient.

In essence, what I’ve learned over the years is that you’re not going to get the gift that completes you, that makes life worth living.  The Lexus with a red bow in the driveway is not going to make an appearance — at least not at our house; besides, even if it did, how would you top that experience next year?

You will also probably find that, even though someone loves you very much, he or she is incapable of divining what it is you need.  You’re going to have to tell him what it is — or get it yourself.  Even at the holiday time, it’s helpful to finally grow up and stop looking for miracles under the tree.

(Copyright 2013 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read about My Top 10 Sins as a Slacker Mom

12 comments… add one
  • Hmm. I could have written this. Not as cleverly, though. Loved the Nexus reference. Maybe it’s a normal way to start thinking at our age?

  • This is why Jeff Bezos invented the Amazon wishlist. At least that’s what works in my household. My husband never has a clue what to get me and after the spectacular years when he got me a fishing pole and a clothes steamer, I realized he needed direction. I love to shop and buy gifts – if I didn’t, we would probably do what you do. But I look forward to it all year and I actually think of that as one of my gifts – that I get to go shopping and use my highly honed gift-buying skills for my family. I’m happy to get stuff I’ve picked out for myself, so it all works out.

  • Whoops. Make that Lexus reference.

  • Steve Link

    As another couple of 45 years in relationship and 40+ years of marriage, we would add an “Amen.” However, after witnessing (nay, experiencing) my father’s never-ending search for the present that would make my mother happy, and rarely succeeding, I still can’t bring myself to not have SOMETHING wrapped and under the tree for my spouse. My spouse has very little of my mother’s personality, emotional makeup, or expectations–like you, she even said out loud this year, “Let’s not get each other presents”–but I can’t bring myself to agree to it. It goes against my programming. I don’t WANT a present, but I can’t not get a present for her.

  • Deborah Lee Link

    After years of well-meaning, but unwanted gifts that we have to find homes for, we’ve decided to come up with an “Acceptable Gifts” list for next year. It only has two items on it: (1) A donation in our name to your favorite charity; (2) chocolate.

  • bonehead Link

    It’s good to strive toward growing up, maturity, adulthood, humility of your achievements, getting your shit together. It’s what you’re told to do from the get go as a small child. Nobody explains the sales and marketing gauntlet that await you, using shame and guilt as the sticks to punish your selfish reluctance to resist spending money to find love and satisfaction. Oh the sweet psychology of sales and marketing and the delicate human emotional frailty it feeds upon, ‘Tis the season. It’s easy to understand why the compulsion to give isn’t focused on those in need, shucks they might not hang around and tell you how much they love you. It’s unamerican not to get a return on investment. Here’s an idea, donate a can of food to the local food bank everyday of the year and then on some special holiday have a glass of your favorite beverage and tell everyone how flipping lucky you are for the friends and stuff you have, but don’t tell them about the food bank donations to demonstrate how grown up you’ve become 🙂

  • msue Link

    Count us among the non-gifting, non-decorating, non-Christmas card clan. Both of us came from families in which you gifted every third cousin twice removed. It was exhausting to shop like that, and we eventually ran out of steam for it. With the passing of the decades, our families have winnowed away, so now our holidays are quiet, still delicious, and practically restorative. I miss the people, but not the hubbub.

  • Frances Link

    This makes me happy to be from a family where no one would ever say “I have no idea what to get so-and-so.” We have ideas about what to get each other because we pay attention to each other every day, not just at gift-giving time, and it’s certainly not about expecting miracles under the Christmas tree. Our gifts to each other have gotten smaller through the years as we move away from accumulating “stuff,” but they have also gotten increasingly meaningful.

  • I have a terrible time trying to figure out that perfect gift. I know when I get it, but I never know when (or if) I’m buying it for someone else. Gift buying makes me so so anxious, as a result. Maybe I need to learn to trust my instincts?

  • And here I thought that cluelessness about what to get my wife for Christmas was a personal failing. Your witty post and the followup comments have made me realized that it is a more wide-spread disability. I am equally clueless when my wife asks me what I want for Christmas. The annual anxiety over the gift exchange is a source of great stress in my life and probably accounts for why I don’t find the season all that jolly. Nevertheless, because I lack your strength of character, I have not been able to take the vow of Christmas giftlessness. Perhaps that is because I have sometimes managed to come up with a pretty good gift for my wife. I optimistically believe it could happen again just by the law of averages.

  • Christine Link

    I have a very traditional husband who insists on buying me gifts. I thought we agreed to a getaway day this upcoming weekend in lieu of more spending, but now he’s taking off from work tomorrow at noon to “shop”. This year he bought and had a generator installed in the garage. You know how desperate things are for me when I’ve tried to convince him that the generator is “our” present.

    As long as there are receipts….

  • Rachel Link

    We do the same thing. We’re aware of nd grateful for the abundance in our lives – that we have the ability to get ourselves whatever we want. But I find that I kind of envy our friends who make a point of finding the right gifts for their spouses — I kind of feel that they’ve retained a sense of celebration that we have ceded to time….

    I used to work as a cook for a very wealthy family, and was struck by the fact that when money means nothing, the gifts they gave each other were the same as the gifts that the very poor give each other — something handmade, or a nicely framed photograph, or a scarf that will exactly match that one skirt. One of the many lessons I learned from that job.

Leave a Comment