Ben French asked his colleague what she wanted for her Secret Santa. She requested that he turn one of his regular rants into a piece of writing.
Gifts – a nicety, once considered essential in any respectable human relationship – have slowly become a socially pressurised test of manners and protocol. In spreading needless, excessive consumption, giving a gift now rarely achieves a net positive impact on both the receiver and giver.
The premise of gift giving is simple; identify what someone you care for wants or needs, acquire said item, present them with their gift, watch as they feel good about it, in turn feel good yourself. A simple formula that results in happiness all round. In theory. When put into practice today, there are two factors that interrupt gifting as a guarantee of good times.
The first factor to consider is consumer culture. Nowadays, it’s near impossible to buy someone a good gift! It used to be more expensive to buy small items, and harder to find good things as it required physically visiting multiple places. The price of small goods in a globalised automated economy has plummeted, and advances in marketing algorithms ensure we always know about anything that might even slightly interest us.
Buying something your loved one will actually want and use is now incredibly difficult – the odds are stacked against you. Even if you directly consult them, people are responding more than ever with the unhelpful “I don’t want anything”. The only sure to succeed gifts left are major life purchases (car, smartphone, house) which are well outside the budget of any reasonable, everyday person.
The second factor is caused by our reluctance to accept the changing nature of gift-giving. We’re desperate to keep this beautiful bonding tradition alive and well because, in our minds, everyone still loves giving and receiving gifts. The reality however, is this is much more likely to be a test of acting ability for all involved. It starts with the giver having to pretend that the whole debacle is no big deal and they won’t be disappointed if the gift isn’t appreciated.
This is followed by the receiver having to feign appreciation for yet another useless bobblehead figurine or other small purposeless item despite having no more room on their bedroom shelf to even display it.
Round it off with an encore of the giver hiding their frustration that the receiver didn’t explode with tears of joy upon receiving their useless junk.
So should we stop giving gifts all together? While this argument paints a dark picture of a time-honoured tradition, it’s not a reason to stop giving gifts entirely. Giving or receiving a good gift is still one of the most brilliant human experiences and that’s not likely to change. Maybe we should stop thinking of gifts as mandatory, instead just giving when we know there’s something someone really wants or needs.
But first, we must accept that turning up empty handed at Christmas doesn’t say “I don’t care about you at all,” but rather “I care about you so much, I don’t want to clutter your life with crap you don’t want and put us both through an awkward social situation”.
Merry Christmas Jess
From your Secret Santa
With special thanks to Jess Smith, who was the inspiration, and editor, for this piece.
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The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.