Today’s confession: I’m that annoying person at a kid’s birthday party who calls out, “That’s from us!” when our gift is being unwrapped.
And a couple of years ago, when someone in my family suggested that we all stop buying birthday gifts for each other, and instead just send cards, my reflexive sadness/anger took me by surprise.
Why? Because I kind of hate greeting cards.
I know, I know – put down your pitchforks and hear me out on this. I’m not saying I never buy or send them (see family mandate mentioned above); and for some people, cards serve an important function and articulate things they may not otherwise be able to say face-to-face.
But waste of any kind drives me batty – particularly after living with kids for 8 years, and seeing how they suddenly, arbitrarily decide to reject the clothes or the kid’s meal you’ve purchased for them. These childish refusals strikes me as random and picky. But the apathy kids universally feel toward the envelope that’s standing between them and a gift (and that we adults urge kids to study politely before tearing into the package)? I totally get that.
And I think, if we’re honest we each other, most of us feel the same way.
Not out of materialism, but because most cards – ironically – hold us at arm’s length from each other rather than pulling us in for a hug. There’s something so generic and cold and underwhelming about cards. As comedian Jim Gaffigan says in this clip, “You like what that other guy wrote in there? Took me five seconds to find it. Cost me two bucks.”
And that’s at the heart of my modest card-rebellion. We all seem to participate in this convention because it’s long-established as a societal norm, and it’s supposed to demonstrate our affection for the recipient (and, more self-servingly, our thoughtfulness). But does it really?
I’d argue that in most cases, the answer is “no.” And at the risk of sounding a little materialistic, I’d add that the gift itself, far more often than a card, shows how you see the recipient; the things about them to which you pay close attention; and what your hopes are for them. Even when you’re choosing from a registry or a wish list, we still all tend to look for the items we want to give – and that’s largely based on the nature of the friendship we have with that person. It’s about who we are to each other.
Maybe part of the issue for me, because I’m a writer, is that the messages in cards generally fall so flat. Admittedly, greeting card writers – yes, I do know someone from grad school who went to work for a greeting card company – have a nearly impossible needle to thread: be specific but universal; be cautiously cute or unrelentingly schmaltzy; feel fresh while still being familiar.
But the very elusiveness of the writer’s task in this context may point us in the direction of noting this: the reason it’s so damn hard to be both specific and general is because unless you’re the person involved in that friendship/family/relationship, you can’t easily convey something meaningful. (Even when you are personally involved, it can be tough, but you’ve at least got the right tools to make a decent go of it.)
Perhaps I’m just bitter because I’m one of those people who, when buying a card, spends a downright stupid amount of time reading nearly every one in a section because I want it to give me, and by extension the recipient, a particular, unnameable feeling.
Needless to say, I often leave the store empty-handed and frustrated. That’s a tall order for something that’s going into the recycling bin within days.
Historically, greeting cards had their origins in holiday messages that people gave to each other centuries ago, in ancient Egypt and in China. But since that time, getting a card with illustrated firemen putting out the million candles on your cake – har, har, you’re old! – has become de rigueur.
Am I saying we should all be making handmade cards? Good God, no. As I write this, the kids’ “art table” is currently buried under piles of toys, dolls, notepads, coloring books, etc., to the point where they can’t reasonably pursue any kind of project there. So my messy, barely-treading-water family is simply not together enough for the Pinterest set.
What I am suggesting is that, from where I sit, we can and should all brainstorm our own life hacks for wasting less – in terms of money, time, and the environment; and going mostly card-free checks all three boxes for me.
Furthermore, the kids opening presents at parties seem to be just fine with my Sharpie-scrawled “To, From” message on the wrapping paper; I didn’t bother to get cards for my daughters, but instead focused on what they might really like for their birthdays; and tomorrow, when the hubs and I celebrate our 13th anniversary, he’ll receive a couple of modest gifts from me, with no envelope to stall up the works.
For the thought is still what counts, in the end; I just prefer knowing that the thought is my own, and not a distant greeting card writer’s best guess.