What You Won’t Get Under the Christmas Tree This Year or Any Year

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 take our semi-adult kids out shopping the day before and have them show us what they’d like.  We were always pretty pathetic at wrapping presents, anyway, so often, they’re still in sacks from the store.  We open them all simultaneously and quickly, exclaiming loudly how surprised we are and — how could you have known exactly what I want?

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 2007 by Ruth Pennebaker)

8 comments… add one
  • Winston Link

    As a child, I would write to Santa, expounding lavishly upon his abundant physique and rosy, bewhiskered countenance, ending with , “I don’t know what I want.  Just surprise me!”  He was always generous and I was always happy with my haul.  Perhaps it was the flattery, or maybe that hefty splash of Southern Comfort I added to the milk and cookies left for him on the hearth.  Anyway, I still love Santa baby!
    As for gift giving, everybody on my list usually gets a Books-A-Million gift card.  The real gift is my talent in wrapping each one in clever, disguising, tailor-made-for-the-recipient ways.

  • I love to shop and think I buy pretty good presents. My husband, however is terrible at it. I send him specific links and give him detailed lists, but somehow he still screws it up.

  • Amazon wishlists — and the universal wish list button — are my close friends. 🙂

  • We usually give experiences instead of something you can wrap up and put under the three. For my birthday this year I got to tag along on his business trip to Australia. For his 40th, I took us on a caving adventure that started with a 30 story abseil.  For his mother’s 70th, we took her and his dad to a remote part of the country to kayak and see the bones of extinct birds. We’ll remember those much longer than the average under the tree present.

  • My husband is terrible at shopping – and I just don’t have time. I order all of our gifts online. Easy peasy, and people are LUCKY if I wrap them. 😉

  • I read this and think that you are doing it just right Ruth, not that you are lazy or slovenly or anything! Being there for people is so much more important than any material thing you could give them–and a lot of people don’t have that gift, of being a good friend. I think you and your husband have made such a good choice not to exchange gifts. I love Frugal Kiwi’s idea of giving experiences instead of things. We do that too.

  • I love the notion of giving “experiences” and also anything (or just about anything!) handmade or homemade.

  • Experiences are the best presents. Every year we get out kids a game or two and we spend most of Christmas day playing the game together–uninterrupted. Last year it was nonstop Uno.

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