The Price Tag on a Gift

I know it sounds crazy, but I look forward to Christmas shopping because every year my sister-in-law and I celebrate the joys that are Christmas shopping and gift wrapping, together. It’s a staple of our Christmas season, but I fear it’s a tradition that’s coming unraveled.

Things have went swimmingly for years. Granted, we only exchange gifts with my husband’s family (his dad, his sister and his brother-in-law) and they only exchange with us, and that automatically makes shopping easier. But we’ve simplified it even more. My five kids get gifts from everyone, and the five adults draw names. Every child and adult  provides a detailed wish list. I learned early on that in my husband’s family, gifts come from the list and the list is never deviated from.

My sister-in-law and I spend one whirlwind weekday in mid-November shopping. My father-in-law gives us money to shop for him too. On that one day we get ALL the gifts for everyone, ourselves included. In other words, she and I pick out our own gifts.  Then she and I have a gift wrapping party at her house in early December and get it all wrapped. We have a lot of fun all the way around.

Over the years, we occasionally run into a snafu.  My father-in-law and sister-in-law can buy what they want, when they want it, so when gift giving time rolls around sometimes they don’t need/want anything. For the past few years they’ve been opting for cash or gift cards instead of a “real” gift. Recently my father-in-law asked me why we exchanged gifts at all. “All we’re really doing is giving money back and forth. Maybe we should just stop exchanging gifts.”

Even though I saw the logic in it, my heart dropped. I confess I don’t think I could be one of those selfless people who give the money to a charity instead of exchanging gifts. I admit I like getting gifts. And our method allows me an anxiety free, guilt free shopping experience. Money does not grow on trees for my family, so whenever I purchase something for myself  it’s usually accompanied by guilt and anxiety  “Is this sweater taking food from the mouths of my children?  Will we lose the house because of this sweater? Maybe S¹ has outgrown the shoes I just bought for him and he already needs new ones. Maybe I should buy him another pair of shoes instead of this really gorgeous sweater.”

But when Christmas and my birthday (which happens to be the day after Christmas) roll around, I’m able to get things I otherwise wouldn’t spend money on, from dishes to  designer handbags, to winter coats (one year a red leather jacket. It was hot!), to a dress for the Christmas ball.

But my father-in-law makes a good point. If we didn’t exchange gifts, the thought is I’d be able to go shopping with the money we didn’t have to spend on gifts. Honestly, it would never happen. I’d never use that money on a designer handbag or a red leather jacket and if I did it would definitely be an anxiety inducing experience.

And so, I ponder the mishmash of our tradition: the cockeyed giving money for a gift, just to get the money back,  and my personal fondness for receiving gifts. But under that superficial stuff, I wonder “What’s the purpose of gift giving? Why are humans compelled to give gifts?” I know it’s more than trading money we have boiled it down to.

For those of you (and you know who you are) wondering what the point is, there is no point. Basically I’m confused about it and looking for other’s thoughts on the subject. I see it like this: it seems impractical to continue exchanging gifts when it’s become simply an exchange of money, yet there is something fundamentally off-kilter in discontinuing for that very reason. And to put it crassly but truthfully, I like having the guilt-free shopping experience and I know that’s affecting my judgement on the subject.

The countdown has begun– Christmas Shopping Extravaganza 2011 is on the calendar (Tuesday, November 16). Will I be mentally prepared?


10 comments on “The Price Tag on a Gift

  1. I’m not just saying this, but if I never received another wrapped gift on a holiday or traditional gift-giving day, I wouldn’t mind at all. For me, the spontaneous little thoughtful things people might do on their own–not because of obligation–mean more. But when it comes to gifts, I LOVE giving them. I don’t just give to give and i never just give money, but when you find that perfect, personal present for someone you care about? Priceless.


    • Thanks for the perspective. It’s what I needed, because it’s helping me focus. And I wish I was more selfless about it. Maybe this is the year I’ll grow up 😉

      I agree about the giving “the perfect, personal, present” for someone you care about. That’s how my family did it when I was young. And that’s how my immediate family (husband, kids and I) does it.The kids love making or getting gifts for everyone and they don’t expect back. Yet, I know it’s a matter of time before they’re affected by the attitude I talked about in the post.

      My husband’s family has a different attitude towards gifts. They give for the right reason, but I think the “reasons” for giving got buried by the gift over the years. They place more value on giving something someone really wants, rather than trying to guess. And because we exchange with them, it’s become my default attitude with them. And I honestly never had a problem with it until it started becoming the money exchange.

      I guess we need to figure out how to get back to the right reasons.


  2. Bah Humbug!
    Deep down inside that sounds logical, but holiday gift giving isnt logical. Ever since man has been able to find extra time and resources past the point of finding securing and putting food on the stone for his family, (as in cave man history) man has enjoyed getting and giving gifts. Oh yeah, at first it was an extra rabbiot or a leather pouch of huckleberries. Soon it became a Macy’s sweater and deep down inside wouldnt it be great to get his and her matching [insert lavish item] at neiman marcus. Yeah baby! OK, so you have a system, keep it up because that is YOUR holiday. And if father Scrooge doesnt want to participate, wel, get him something anyway. Call it what you will, Christmas, happy holiday, a reason to enjoy hedonistic gift giving without any meaningful purpose commercial buying binge whatever holiday normally at the end of the calendar year [sucks having birthday right after Christmas, doesnt it?] participate in your time honored way. The rest, drive the car, hold onto the great parking spot and rub my tired feet when i am finished in the time honored orgy we call [insert fav holiday name]. It isnt about logic, its about emotions. Logic is cremation, not a full blown burial in a rosewood casket. When you die you can get logical. The rest is what it is, enjoyment in the form of traditions. [The legal beagles high grand poo pahs require this disclaimer…No actual traditions were harmed in this post]


    • Larry, I agree with all the points you made wholeheartedly. Thanks so much for clarifying so many things for me (and not harming any actual traditions in the process 😉

      We love our traditions and I should remember they don’t all revolve around the gifts. Maybe our traditions aren’t in trouble. Maybe the trouble is inside me.


  3. The danger with me leaving a comment on this one is that it’ll will be longer than the original post.

    My life is gifted by the people in it. Hopefully, (all pompous kidding aside) some people feel the same about having me in their life. The giving and receiving of material gifts can be part of this.

    On the one hand the over-materialistic, “show-how-much-you-love-someone-by-how-many-things-you-give-them-and-how-much-you-spend” mentality is a huge problem around this time of year.

    On the other hand it is nice to give, and receive gifts, especially ones that hit the mark.

    Since I’m part of this family I see that there’s a different type of gift giving going on. Some of us (myself included) hate shopping for gifts and like wrapping them even less. You and my sister like spending a few days together doing the shopping and wrapping. The kids and I like spending the time at my sister’s during the wrapping party playing video games. So one set of gifts is the avoidance of shopping for those who don’t like it. Another set of gifts is additional time together with people we enjoy being with. These are gifts we give each other with our “system” and they’re usually the best ones of the season.


  4. I’m not a person into shopping or the holidays. I love to give more than receive any time of the year.

    Your post is very thought-provoking. I love the way you describe in such delightful detail your passion and process around gift buying and “presenting.” But you go one step further and ponder the meaning of it all. So often we say, “It’s the thought that counts.” Try saying that to a teen who wants cash! Gift cards are the same thing–maybe a little more thought went into them, but they are impersonal.

    I love to make gifts for people. But this year I don’t know…I’m spending all my time blogging! Should be interesting… 😉


    • Maybe a special blog post as a gift. Of course it would be a gift shared with the rest of the world…

      I love making gifts too, but I think that will have to wait until the kids are older. For now I’m happy to help them make their own.

      And I hope I didn’t give the wrong impression: I love to give too, but it’s fun to be on the receiving end sometimes.


  5. It does take a little out of the experience to be bound to lists of exactly what someone wants. My cousins have done this for years, and it’s a little sad, especially when you bought something on their list (which might be a little bit out of your budget) and then see them return it to the store for store credit or gift card in the days after Christmas.

    I typically do not go by a list, and try to find something that I think will have great meaning for the person I am buying for. I will admit that I ask (or demand) a list, and will usually buy something on the list, but this will be supplemented by a “surprise.”

    But the real reason we give gifts are that it is a tangible way of expressing the love that we have for another person. And while the process may boil down to an elaborate exchange of money, I think that the symbolism and meaning of the gift-giving is important enough to maintain the tradition.


    • At first I didn’t like going by the list, but then I remembered my childhood. Every year I asked for this really cool nurses kit and every year Santa left the dollar store version. It sounds selfish, but when you’re a kid, it’s a big deal.

      So, now for my kids and husband, I do pretty much what you do and get them stuff on the list and supplement it with a surprise.

      I love your last paragraph. You summed it up perfectly. Thanks for sharing it.


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