Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Gifts at Christmas: What's Your Strategy?

I love everything about Christmas except for one thing: the presents. Shopping for gifts is like playing a game that's impossible to win. It's my Words With Friends.

You head into the store with several lists – this person wants an Xbox game, the other wants a gift card, and so on – but it's just too easy. It doesn't feel personal or thoughtful enough.

Do you go with the sure thing, or do you take a risk and buy something you think someone will like, as if to say, "Look how well I know you! You don't even have to tell me what you want because we're this close"?

Both strategies have the potential to backfire.

Shopping with a List

I give my husband a shopping list every year, and I have to admit that even I sometimes get it wrong. For instance, last Christmas, I asked for a set of cloth napkins that I planned to embroider with our initials. One year later, those napkins are not only monogram-free, but they're in a bag destined for Amvets. Embroidering, it turned out, was more time-consuming that I anticipated, and who needs monogrammed napkins anyway?

Going Rogue

For our first Christmas as a married couple, there were no lists, just intuition. I unwrapped a box of cereal (to go with the ceramic bowls he'd given me) and a gold-sparkled journal that would make Lisa Frank proud. Instead of saying "thank you," I escorted my husband to the store to return the journal. Terrible, I know.

Yes, Christmas gifts can bring out the worst in people. Every year, I give my nephews exactly what they ask for, and every year, I'm met with a mumbled, "Oh," as they toss the gift aside and move on to the rest of the pile in their excitement. I want to say, "Hey, hang on a minute. Let's talk about how great this thing is," but the moment passes and I'm left wondering what happened.

How Much to Spend?

Then there's the question of how much to spend. I've shied away from gift cards for this very reason. They have a definite price tag, and how do you know what is too much or too little? Who draws the line?

I usually try to match what the other person spends. If we have a history of gift-giving, I have something to go on. But people can surprise you. My dad is planning to install a remote car starter in my car for Christmas. Yay for the car starter, but suddenly my $50 gift to him seems inadequate.

Do We Even Need Presents?

There's a third approach to Christmas that I've never seen in action, at least not successfully: no presents.

One year, Ben and I tried to skip gift giving altogether, thinking that we'd have a more meaningful Christmas. Not so. It turns out that even if you tell your family and friends that you're skipping the gift exchange, they'll buy you something anyway, at which point you feel like an absolute mooch. After Christmas, we played catch-up and bought the gifts that we had so steadfastly refused to give earlier. So much for convictions.

I don't think that I'm experiencing Christmas as I was meant to. Growing up, my brother and I kept a watchful eye over the tree, making sure that one didn't get more presents than the other. As an adult, I still feel as though I'm counting presents, instead of being thankful for what I already have and being fulfilled by spending time with the people I love.

What are your thoughts about gift-giving at Christmas? Do you struggle, like I do, or have you found a way to not get bogged down by gift-giving?

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