Opinion | Is Holiday Gift-Giving Really Worth It?
It’s a miracle my relationship survived the acid-washed jeggings debacle of 2009. My husband and I were engaged at the time, and as a holiday present, he bought me a selection of clothing from a local boutique. I absolutely detested everything he got me — including a pair of those hideous jeggings — and I have no poker face, so my reaction went undisguised: A for effort, D for execution. This wasn’t the first time he’d missed the mark on a present; we still don’t talk about the robot panda fiasco of 2007, though it was immortalized on a podcast.
I tried to rein in my visible displeasure, but the damage was done (the jeggings went over worse than the panda, which was at least kind of cute). We were both disappointed, and the episode confirmed my long-held feelings about compulsory gift-giving, especially around the holidays: Though I don’t begrudge anyone who finds joy in holiday gift-giving, I find the whole exercise to be emotionally exhausting and spiritually unfulfilling, often causing more anxiety for both parties than it’s worth.
I think this is in part because I grew up in a household that had no particular attachment to gift-giving rituals. I’m Jewish and I can’t remember not knowing that American Jewish parents give their kids gifts on Hanukkah so that the kids don’t feel left out of the gift-giving season, despite not celebrating Christmas.
As soon as I was old enough, around 12 as I recall, my parents just started giving me cash instead of gifts for both my birthday and the holidays. It was more efficient and about as sentimental as making a list and them buying from it. To this day, they refuse all gifts except handmade cards or crafts from my children.
But I married into a family that both celebrates Christmas and finds gift-giving meaningful, so I wanted to learn how to give and get gifts gracefully. And while I have improved over the 16 years my husband and I have been together, this still really isn’t my forte. We give our children and their cousins presents, but it’s getting fraught already with my older daughter, who is quite particular and has about as good a poker face as I do.
When I recently tweeted about my hatred of both giving and receiving gifts, I found many kindred spirits. I also learned that there are psychological, cultural and economic implications around gift-giving, and ended up in an internet rabbit hole reading Derrida and wondering if pure altruism really exists.
Joel Waldfogel, a professor and an associate dean at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management and the author of “Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays,” has found that putting sentimental value aside, goods are worth 20 percent less per item when they’re gifts. So if your boyfriend spends $100 on a robotic panda for you (you know, hypothetically), on average you’ll get only $80 worth of utility out of it.
As Waldfogel explained it to me, “We are usually pretty good judges of what we need and want,” but we are not very good judges of what other people need and want. He said that economists call this a “resource allocation problem” and that the whole exchange is “almost doomed,” quickly adding that maybe that’s too strong a word, though gift-giving is indeed “very challenging.”
Not all economists agree. Benjamin Ho, an associate professor of economics at Vassar College, who has studied the role of gifts for building trust, told me that “gifts have a lot of value in society” and that the reason gift-giving and receiving is so challenging is part of the point. “If it was easy to get a gift for people, anyone could do it,” he said. Giving a good gift shows that you know someone well, and it builds trust over time. Receiving a gift may be stressful, too, because reciprocity is part of the process, Ho explained, so we feel we need to repay the present at some point.
There’s another economic concept that may explain why I find it so hard to embrace holiday season gift-buying, Ho said — the concept of diminishing returns. When we buy so many gifts for people who are not close to us, and it’s compulsory rather than motivated by any sort of feeling or desire, the value of the gift drops for the giver as well as the recipient.
Though I appreciated the cold, hard, economic analysis, I felt most moved by the description of gift-giving I heard from Mark Osteen, a professor of English at Loyola University Maryland and the editor of “The Question of the Gift: Essays Across Disciplines.” First, he said that many people dislike Christmas gift-giving because the commercial process removes any sacredness around the exchange. “It becomes a drop of water in the sea now, one more purchased item, one more ordinary exchange we have no stake in,” as he put it. Many gifts — like family heirlooms — have significant emotional value that transcends the market, he said.
Osteen also said that “a gift is a story, because you’re telling a story about the person you give it to, and a story of how we know each other.” I identified with that, because my husband’s bad gift-giving and my ungracious reaction has become part of our narrative as a couple, and part of our lore as we created a family.
We of course got to know each other better over the years, including through our failures and successes at buying each other presents. My husband learned that he can buy me wearables only if his choices get sign-off from his very fashionable sister, who has excellent taste and has always done right by me. I learned that the gifts he enjoys most are experiences, not things, so for his recent birthday I arranged for my parents to watch our daughters and booked us a trip upstate for the weekend.
We’ve also come around to the other’s point of view to some extent: I’ve discovered ways to enjoy gift-giving, especially for new babies — and for my own children. Making my tiny tough customers happy by showing them how much I am listening to their interests is a particular delight. My husband can laugh at his past gifts gone awry, and he concedes that a lot of holiday gift-giving can feel phoned-in. And we decided together that we’re not getting each other anything this year. An empty stocking is better than a pair of unfortunate jeggings any day.
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Parenting can be a grind. Let’s celebrate the tiny victories.
I managed to convince my stubborn 3-year-old that taking nasal spray is like “spritzing” a flower. My little flower now looks forward to his daily spritz.
— Rachel Serkin, Hoboken, N.J.
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