Sunday, February 25, 2024

To Give Or Not To Give: Are Christmas Presents Positive Or Pointless?

Emma Clifton and Sarah Lang have different takes on a certain long-standing Christmas tradition: is buying Christmas presents part of the joy of Christmas, or just another exhausting thing to tick off the festive to-do list.

Sarah: ‘Why I Do Believe In Christmas Presents’

I’m not a ‘big consumer,’ so to speak. I go to clothes swaps and op-shops (and, of course, Augustine) for clothes. I don’t often buy accessories, gadgets, things for the house, etc. I’m not ‘tight’ – that’s actually a quality I dislike in others – but I prefer to spend money, when I can afford it, on ‘experiences’ rather than ‘things’: trips, brunch, maybe a massage.

‘Come Christmas, the ultimate exercise in over-consumption and overspending, somehow a switch gets flipped in me.’

My husband and I don’t do anything for the very over-commercialised Valentine’s Day (okay fine, it would be nice if he surprised me one year). But come Christmas, the ultimate exercise in over-consumption and overspending, somehow a switch gets flipped in me.

I have three siblings. Growing up, opening presents around the tree in the late morning was my favourite part of Christmas Day. Yep, more than my mum’s insane trifle.

I’m still that person who says ‘No don’t open your present yet because Lucy is still looking at hers. Wait til she’s done!’ As in I use those exact words, just switching out the person’s name and pronoun. I like to stretch out the process for maximum enjoyment, like you might suck a pebble (the lolly, not a stone) for the longest-possible time.

I like watching people’s expressions when they open presents. I like to see them surprised or stoked, unless they’re barely managing to hide their disappointment, which, hey, is always a risk and is occasionally slightly funny (if I’m not the giver). Do I subconsciously like all this as a type of physical theatre where some people act better than others?

Seriously, though, I like giving presents more than receiving them, and I’m not just saying that. I feel that giving a present lets me show that family member they’re important to me, or that I listen to them, or that I know them well, by getting them something they might like. Perhaps I know they wanted to buy a certain thing for themselves, but hesitated because of the cost. Or maybe I’ll give them something they didn’t even know they wanted! TBH this can go well, or badly.

Warning: don’t give a goat from Oxfam on someone’s behalf, especially if they think you’re actually giving them a goat. The person might be altruistic and hard to buy for, but any charitable donations should probably be up to them. If you’re really stuck – you know, there’s that in-law who lacks nothing – then a box of chocolates and bottle of wine are a good go-to unless the recipient announces just before the unwrapping that they’re going keto the day after Christmas (yes, this happened once).

But my delight in Christmas presents got ripped away from me three years ago, when my mum suggested we do ‘Secret Santa’, and my siblings voted in favour (traitors!). So now Mum typically draws the names of her children and their partners out of a hat, to see who each of us is giving a present to; you don’t give something back to the giver, but to another person. (We all give presents to the under-18s.)

It turns out the process isn’t so secret, and in my opinion flawed. The suggested amount is $200, so that’s a lot of pressure to make sure someone really likes a gift of that value. So what ends up happening is we ask the person what they want; talk about an anti-climax. It’s more like placing an order. To me, it’s like getting $200 out of an ATM, and passing it around a circle until it comes back to you. Really, what’s the point, because in this scenario you might as well just buy something for yourself.

My mum breaks the rules and gets something for everyone, but I can’t because I got outvoted by my siblings. I can’t exactly give them something anyway, because they might be annoyed that I put them in that position of not having something to give me.

Will I continue to campaign for individual presents? Or should my present to everyone be that I no longer rant about the topic?

This probably is all about the fact that I still enjoy Christmas nearly as much as I did as a kid. It’s about celebrating, and celebrating with, family members. Presents are just how I like to do this. You could call them my love language.

Emma: ‘Why I Don’t Believe In Christmas Presents’

It’s hard to think of a, well, GRINCHIER headline than the above but I recently realised that I don’t really buy Christmas presents any more, when friends were panicking about their Christmas list and it occurred to me that I… didn’t really have one.

‘Presents for the sake of presents, because it’s December 25 and It’s Just What We Do… I don’t get it.’

Presents are important for kids, I guess, because they’re trained to love THINGS, but once you get to a certain age and/or have a certain amount of disposable income you can use to buy your own damn things, then the most precious gifts someone can give you are a) time or b) money. And having a mutual decision not to buy presents for each other gives you both, sorry!

Slowly and unconsciously without realising it over the years, I have whittled down my present list to just my parents and for everybody else, done the whole ‘let’s just meet up for a coffee or dinner instead’ rule when it comes to the festive season. Very early on in my relationship with my now husband, I established a ‘let’s spend the money on a weekend away’ festive decision instead.

(I have used the term ‘festive decision’ here as I was trying to think of another word for ‘rule’, because I didn’t want sound like the Type A person I really am. But it is a rule. Another present rule).

Years ago, while learning about The Love Languages for the first time, I worked out that ‘gifts’ was absolutely bottom of my list and felt absolutely no qualms in telling people not to buy me things. I realise that not everyone feels this way – it’s a key love language for a reason – but for me, it’s not really a priority, and I think it comes down to three key things.

1) I come from a teeny tiny family – no siblings, no first or second cousins my age, so have never had a huge list to buy for 2) I am a renter in Auckland and have moved too many times, and cursed every f—king knickknack I have while doing so, and 3) I have coal for a heart never earned a huge amount of money (this third one might be the most key, frankly) and so my entire financial worldview is basically ‘no-one has spare money, don’t ask things from them.’

Do I love sending flowers when someone has had some bad news, or – even better – some good news? Absolutely. When something comes across your path and you absolutely know it’s going to improve the life of a loved one, or brighten the day of a colleague, absolutely *add to cart*. If I read a book that changes my life, the first thing I’m going to want to do is give it someone else. But presents for the sake of presents, because it’s December 25 and It’s Just What We Do… I don’t get it.

My main argument against buying presents – awful start to a sentence, I know – is that I would rather have another of the other Love Language values instead, e.g. quality time, words of affirmation etc (‘touch’ as a love language is probably not HUGELY applicable in this context).

Case in point, my best friend and I used to do quality time like a dinner or a weekend away for birthdays and Christmas until she moved to LA, and now we do presents, because it’s an easier love language. Would she rather have had a nice dinner together than the soft blanket I bought her that had a giant photo of her beloved but recently deceased cat on it? Sure, but that wasn’t possible at the time. (The photo was of the cat when he was alive, I want to make clear).

Maybe it’s less of an argument against buying presents and more of a question as to why we have this assumption in the first place that we should? Who decided that Christmas = presents (and how much money have they made from inventing this tradition…). Because a lot of that pressure comes from a consumerist standpoint, rather than a values-based one. It’s hard not to sound just like a grouchy millennial renter, but after a while, presents eventually end up as just another thing you have to dust, pack, or get rid of. At a time when we’re all trying to live more lightly – and cheaply – on the planet, why do we need more things?

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