The evolution of holiday gift giving

Stage One: People live close to their relatives and friends,
spend substantial time together, know each other’s likes and
dislikes. Present-giving is modest, largely symbolic of affection
and thoughtfulness. Holiday giving has little impact on the broad
economy.
Stage One: People live close to their relatives and friends, spend substantial time together, know each other’s likes and dislikes. Present-giving is modest, largely symbolic of affection and thoughtfulness. Holiday giving has little impact on the broad economy.

Stage Two: People spread out, spend less time with each other, have little contact with or knowledge of relatives’ and friends’ spouses and offspring. Present-giving expands as the population becomes more affluent and feels guilty about not keeping touch. Shopping gets more difficult as the lists come to include more and more people about whom little is known. Present-giving becomes mildly irritating as the size of the crowds in malls stands in inverse correlation to the number of good ideas for gifts. Throughout America males acquire collections of sweaters and neckties beyond all reason. The national economy is buoyed annually by the endless purchases of unnecessary household accessories, devices requiring batteries, and clothing of dubious appeal.

Stage Three: People relate to each other primarily by e-mail; they have increasing difficulty remembering which sibling has which children, how old they are, or, with the proliferation of New Age first names, their gender (“Let’s see – is ‘Sierra’ my niece or my nephew?”). Holiday shopping becomes a two-month root canal of trudging through store after store trying to recall if Aunt Em received a microwave do-it-yourself gourmet bagel-maker last year or is it OK to send her one this year, although no one knows if she likes bagels. The economy leans so heavily on holiday consumerism that it becomes the make-or-break factor in the profitability of most retail stores for the entire year. People begin to abandon all hope of finding actual presents for everyone, and increasingly resort to gift certificates. Purists decry the loss of thoughtfulness, while harried shoppers decry the impending loss of sanity. Gradually “presents under the tree” comes to consist of a series of heavily-decorated envelopes.

Stage Four: Gift certificates become passe as people tire of doing the same thing year after year, and they discover that too often they are guessing wrong on the store so that the recipient can’t find anything they like even when it’s free. People begin to simply give each other cash, although the tradition of decorating the envelope remains. \

Stage Five: Shoppers finally realize the ultimately successful form of holiday gift-giving: They make a list of how much they would spend on each relative or friend, and assume that person would spend the same on them. Then they simply shop for themselves and send nice thank-you notes for all the virtual gifts. Everyone is happy; the recipient can’t help but select a good present since they can shop anywhere they like, and the giver feels good knowing the gift was right. Most importantly, the economy booms because everyone assumes generosity on the part of everyone giving them a gift (“Let’s see — I’d probably spend about twenty bucks on a present for Aunt Em, so that’s how much she would spend on me. Wait a minute – I can’t buy anything cool for 20 bucks. I’ll bet Aunt Em would spend 30 on me; that way I can get a cordless power drill.”) Gift-giving is once again a great joy as throngs of happy shoppers flock to the malls to guiltlessly spend wads of money on themselves, and the cheerful spirit of the holidays is restored to all, with the exception of manufacturers of sweaters and neckties.

We ain’t there yet, but it’s coming.

Robert Mitchell practices law in Morgan Hill. His column has appeared in The Dispatch for more than 20 years. It’s published every Tuesday.

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