A (modest) defense of the family gift exchange

This past year, the call to stop exchanging gifts surfaced in my husband’s family first.

“We’re all stressed and overwhelmed,” the irrefutable argument goes. (Plus, you know, PANDEMIC.) “Let’s lighten everyone’s load and just focus on getting each of the kids something.”

My family of origin, meanwhile, made the shift to kids-only presents years ago; for in the time leading up to that initial change, the holidays had essentially become — where the adults were concerned — a gift card swap, and someone pointed out that buying stuff for the sake of buying stuff was both wasteful and meaningless.

Indeed. Score yet another point against the family gift exchange.

But this year marked the first Christmas without my dad, who died suddenly in October; and as we continue deal with the complicated financial and emotional aftermath of that, my family-of-origin determined that to simplify things in this tough time, our gift ban should probably now extend to the kids, too, some of whom are grown.

These are absolutely rational adjustments. They make perfect sense. And I sympathize with and understand every reason provided.

Yet I find myself pushing back, at least a little, every time.

Not because I’m “a material girl,” or because I’m doggedly beholden to holiday traditions, but because to me, gift-giving demonstrates that you truly see, and have paid close attention to, the recipient. You’ve listened to them, and you know their tastes and values (even if you don’t share them).

And that familiarity, that sense of being understood, is what floods me with happiness when my best friend sends me a saint candle with “Queer Eye”’s Jonathan Van Ness on it for Christmas. Every time I light it (or even look at it, frankly), I’ll tap back into the joy I felt upon opening it, realizing that my gal pal “gets” me.

That’s the true gift — not the object itself, but what the thing makes you feel: that you’re worthy of someone’s attention and love, and that you matter.

For this reason, I’d propose that instead of jettisoning gift exchanges all together, we consider re-framing what “gifts” can look like. When I was in grad school, my three girlfriends and I (all of whom lived on a pretty modest stipend) got into the habit of concocting top 10 lists for each person’s birthday. We’d list 10 things we loved about her, or 10 of our favorite shared memories; and being on the receiving end of these lists, year after year, always felt like stepping into a love bath.

Similarly, when I turned 50 early last year, and I couldn’t have even a small party because of COVID-19, my husband assembled a handful of my old Michigan Marching Band friends to play “Happy Birthday” (and “The Victors”) in our driveway while shivering in the February cold. Plus, he coordinated a number of Zoom calls with old coworkers and friends. So again, gifts are not so much about the “thing,” but rather the way a gift can make someone feel understood and valued.

Of course, lots of people say, “I’m not good at buying gifts” — including an ex-boyfriend of mine who once shuttled me to a bookstore on my birthday and instructed me to pick something out. (Red flag, anyone?)

This, of course, is the exact inverse of the joy that comes from feeling seen. Nothing’s more depressing than learning that the person you spend more time with than anyone draws a blank when considering what might bring you a little happiness.

And yes, determining what kind of gift will feel meaningful to someone is often hard. But aren’t our relationships worth some occasional extra time and effort? Being thoughtful about gift selection cultivates a practice of getting quiet and tuning in to our loved ones’ frequencies once or twice a year. And if, as a compromise, your extended family draws names so everyone has to buy a gift for just one person – a compromise I’d be totally fine with, by the way – it’s all the easier to narrow your focus, poke around that person’s social media posts, and take a little time to brainstorm ideas.

I know I’m out of step in saying all this. I know we’re all supposed to eschew “stuff” and instead focus on “the reason for the season.” I’m the odd (wo)man out.

But for me, “the reason for the season” still boils down to one thing: love. And one of my favorite ways to show love is making — or, fine, buying — a thoughtful gift for someone that will make them feel special.

Gifts are my love language, whether that’s on-trend or not.

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