You really shouldn’t have: when gifts become forced

When any well-intentioned individual proudly hands me an object wrapped in bright paper and adorned with a shiny bow, I experience a gnawing sense of foreboding. It’s comparable to the sinking feeling in my gut when my history professor handed out an eight section packet assigning our ten-page term paper, to be completed with original research and Chicago Style footnotes. Of the two scenarios, I prefer the latter (a potentially enlightening challenge), to the former (a multifaceted and protracted onus). Let me explain.

I know what you must be thinking. But before you accuse me of being an ungrateful, spoiled, cynical, grouchy, bah-humbug-y killjoy, please note that I embrace gift-giving when presents are heartfelt, and when givers bestow them spontaneously, purposefully and sparingly. Indeed, I have enjoyed many a triumphant bounce out of the mall with bulging plastic bags in hand and visions of damp-eyed recipients’ genuine “Thank you’s!” in head.

But unfortunately, the gift-giving rituals that have come to characterize birthdays, holidays, graduations and the like are too often stress-inducing, time and money-sucking manifestations of consumerism that serve as incubators for social awkwardness and peril. Their obligatory nature often breeds exchanges bearing (almost) as much emotional genuineness as the Clinton-Trump handshake preceding presidential debate number one.

The gift-giving protocol begins with my forcing a bright-eyed, wide-grinned “Thank you!” to (hopefully) conceal my instinctive dread of the ensuing ordeal. See, there’s a certain sense of impending terror associated with the gift’s pre-wrapping-ripping, enigmatic state. It’s like that scene from “Psycho” when you know the slasher is lurking behind the shower curtain, and you’re anxiously anticipating his knife-wielding figure to emerge and bear down on you with violent enthusiasm.

So when the giver inevitably suggests, “Why don’t you open it now?” I want to respond with, “Why not now? Because what if you wrapped up your ill-tempered cat and a jello mold like the endearingly unhinged Aunt Bethany from ‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation?’ Please allow me to call the Humane Society and run the InSinkErator in the privacy of my own home, and not with you standing over me, grinning expectantly.”

But of course I can’t. Instead, I exclaim, “Ok!” and start ripping off the wrapping like it’s a band-aid that’s gonna sting. Sometimes, I’ll forgo band-aid-style and slow down with the hope that I’ll glimpse the item while methodically peeling away each piece of tape and can, sans the giver’s knowledge, quickly concoct a tactful response to a potentially awkward interaction, featuring a hurried exchange of pleasantries. The great reveal mandates a gift-specific compliment, even if said gift is the homemade birthday cake to which you’re allergic (just toss it in the InSinkErator along with the jello mold), the sweater that is two sizes too small (which becomes uncomfortably obvious when you hold it up to yourself so as to demonstrate its swankiness) or a cryptic object which requires a quick Google search for identification (again, better done in the privacy of home). All the while, the giver is watching you, scrutinizing your expressions and analyzing your “Thank you’s!” and “You really, really shouldn’t have’s.”

So I bring home the present, which inaugurates the next phase of the gift-giving venture: figuring out what in the name of Hallmark I’m going to do with it. Regifting is a very risky endeavor. The gifter could come over for dinner and ask, “Where’s that vintage vase with the clown face engraved on the front?” Years later, you could inadvertently regift the gift to the gifter. Or, if you’re my hapless mother 13 years ago, your simple-minded five-year-old daughter (guilty!) could matter-of-factly announce at a neighbor’s birthday party, “We got this from a friend last year, but we didn’t want it, so we’re giving it to you.”

Gifts are like cockroaches (which, by the way, should never be gifts); if there’s one, there’s bound to be more, since birthday, graduation and holiday gifts usually come from parents, extended family, friends, co-workers… I know I sound like an over-indulged Veruca Salt, but indulge me this hypothetical: Suppose that, 50 years from now, you scoured your cluttered closet, begrimed basement and grubby garage for every gift you’d ever received and dumped them all into a pile on your bedroom floor.

It would appear as though Santa’s workshop had vomited all over your room; gifts, bows, presents and all. The motley mishmash would probably feature clothes (some with tags), obsolete gadgets, stuffed animals suffering from mouse nibbles, shoeboxes, movies you never quite got around to watching, some seriously stale chocolates, flat mylar birthday balloons, seasonal decor, a couple bars of decorative soap, picture frames featuring models, an array of other well-intentioned clutter, some wrinkled tissue paper, ripped bags and wrapping paper balls. Indeed, Hurricane Holiday would have ravaged your room, leaving an unsightly, colossal and altogether overwhelming pile in its wake.

Every one of those decaying thingamabobs represents not only an unhappy hunt for a home, but also a thank you note (or one you should have written but never did). Furthermore, while many of us might not need all of this stuff, someone else does [though I’m not certain anyone needs a “Sun-Mate Solar Powered Electric Fan Hat” (vagabondish.com) nor an inflatable unicorn horn for your pet cat (offthewagonshop.com)].

There really are millions of hurting people who can’t afford life’s basic necessities. With this in mind, that hypothetical pile looks less like an eyesore and more like gluttonous waste; every one of those gifts represents a missed opportunity for a charitable donation. (Maybe this article can be a lesson to us all in our gift-giving and donating tendencies.) (You should try donating to Goodwill next holiday season instead of going out on Black Friday.)

But alas, I perpetuate the ceaseless cycle by reciprocating, for I fear that failure to abide by the tacit laws governing gift-giving will result in my empty-handed friends and family shunning me once and for all. Plus, I am pitifully competitive. As a result, I feel the need to outdo, or at least match, the gift I have received; the more elaborate the present bestowed upon me, the harder I must work, the deeper the dread.

Perhaps we should proffer gifts strictly when we feel so moved, and not at socially mandated times. First of all, that would definitely remove stress from my life and probably yours as well. Further, that might make giving more surprising, memorable and sincere, and less liable to result in a viral pet video of a befuddled, unicorned cat.