Why Do We Give Bad Christmas Gifts?

Andrew Tallman
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Posted: Dec 24, 2007 12:01 AM
Why Do We Give Bad Christmas Gifts?

Have you ever received a Christmas gift you didn’t want? Idiot mittens from grandma. A subscription to the deodorant-of-the-month club. Membership to the “We Fix Fat People” gym and spa. Yes, we’ve all received bad gifts. 

But do you remember what it felt like? Burdened. Insulted. Irritated. Disturbed. All are candidates. Naturally, however, you smiled and said, “Thank You” while you secretly considered how to dispose of the new curse you’d acquired. And, of course, if someone gives you a bad gift once, next year’s gift is preambled with a nice holiday dose of anxiety to boot.  

So if that’s how you felt when receiving a bad gift, why would you want to risk being such an anti-blessing to someone else? If you love them, you surely wouldn’t. We all want to be the sort of person who gives the gifts people can’t wait to open and are thrilled to receive. If so, why does this process go so wrong with such regularity? 

1.  We live in America.

In the United States of America, the vast majority of us have enough money to buy pretty much anything we want. If I want a shirt, I buy it. If I want a DVD player, I buy it. And if I want a new CD, I buy it. In short, anything someone might give me that I would actually want, I already own. So in buying a gift for me, someone should ask himself a simple question: “Why doesn’t he already have it?”  There are three possibilities. 

One, I’ve never thought of it. This is obviously a good reason to buy it for me, and quickly, before I think of it myself. Two, I can’t afford it or don’t think it’s worth the price. This may seem like a fine reason, but such gifts then burden me with the obligation to be equally wasteful on you in return. That’s rarely a blessing. But the third and primary reason a gift recipient doesn’t already have this something is pretty obvious: he doesn’t actually want it.  Clearly, such gifts really aren’t. But wait, there’s more. 

2.  Some people are picky.

I can’t buy gifts for my wife. Not because I’m bad at buying gifts, but because she is extremely particular. The good news is she doesn’t care whether I buy a gift for her. She is unusual in that she is perfectly happy for me to tell her to go buy what she wants for herself, and I get the credit. Other people have the unfortunate disease of being picky and also desiring gifts. I’d love to tell you that I have a solution for such people, but I don’t.  However, I do have a thought. 

Picky people are usually unhappy people, and unhappy people are usually not worth trying to please. So, one viable option is to simply not get a gift for this person and see what happens.  “Why didn’t you get me anything this year” can easily be answered with an honest, “Because nothing I ever buy satisfies you, and I’d rather save my money and spare you the grief of receiving what you don’t want.” Isn’t honesty liberating?

3.  The nature of gifts escapes many people.

The real hang-up is that people don’t understand what a gift is. A gift is a tangible demonstration of your love for someone. 

Bad gifts are a burden precisely because they show your lack of love for the recipient. The prerequisite of love is knowledge. You cannot love whom you do not know. Thus, a gift shows love when it demonstrates a real knowledge of who someone is and what he desires.  Bad gifts are evidence of a bad relationship because they demonstrate that you do not know enough about this person to be capable of giving a good gift. 

Thus, an unwanted gift is a double failure. First you’ve burdened the recipient with something he wants about as much as more telemarketing calls. Second, you’ve actually insulted him by saying that he isn’t important enough for you to really know who he is. This may sound harsh, but it’s the truth that few people are willing to tell bad gift-givers. Unless the giver is a child who cannot do better, it’s not cute when someone gives a bad gift. It’s obnoxious. 

Let me be clear, the reason I’m writing this is so that people will swallow some pride and actually accomplish their (hopeful) purpose in buying Christmas gifts: to bless the recipient.  Just think of how awful the theological implications are in celebrating the Perfect Gift from God by giving someone a gift he neither wants nor needs. But just as a bad gift wounds a relationship, a good gift solidifies it. And, because I want people to have good relationships, I want people to learn how to be more like God and give great Christmas gifts. 

4.  But isn’t it the thought that counts?

There is one final myth that needs direct dispelling. The thought does not count. The gift counts. And I’ll tell you why this phrase disgusts me. When do we say it? We say, “It’s the thought that counts,” precisely when the gift is terrible. But if the gift is terrible, that means that the thought wasn’t really so great either. It takes a lot of thought to give a good gift. It takes only a little thought to give a terrible one. So, a bad gift is actually evidence that you don’t care enough about the person to bother taking the time to have a quality thought about what would make a good gift for him. Thus, rather than the thought being the thing that counts, it’s the lack of thought that winds up counting.   

By the way, this is why it’s so tacky to ask people what they want to be given. If you have to ask, you’re admitting you don’t know them well enough to be giving them a gift in the first place. It’s sort of like saying, “Gee, I really want to pretend that we have a strong relationship and I want to earn false affection from you, so can you tell me who you are and I’ll just act like I already knew?” Now, granted, it’s better to ask and get it right than to not ask and get it wrong. But the real challenge is to not ask and get it right. And if you can’t get it right without asking, maybe you shouldn’t be buying gifts for this person in the first place.   

5.  Categories of bad gifts 

To illustrate some of the pitfalls, here are my six categories for bad gifts:

·        The insult gift, which criticizes rather than edify the person. “Here’s your Thigh-Master video and a subscription to Escaping Codependency Magazine, hon.” 

·        The selfish gift, which shows you can’t distinguish between what you like and what others like. “Here’s your organic lotions that I’m really into all of a sudden.”

·        The narcissistic gift, which serves your ego, not his needs. “Here’s your own framed portrait of me.”

·        The gift from me to you for me, which looks like a gift, but it’s really selfish. “Here’s that uncomfortable lingerie I know you hate to wear for me, dear.”

·        The burden gift, which is the gift that keeps on giving you problems like stealing your time or space. “Here’s your own copy of ‘War and Peace.’ Let’s talk about it when we have lunch next week.”

·        The almost good but really bad gift, which shows you know a little about someone but haven’t really taken the time to realize that a person’s interests are actually a dangerous place for gifts precisely because you probably don’t know enough about the field of interest to gift well in it. “Here, Dr. Schwartz, I thought you could use this copy of ‘Basic Anatomy for Dummies’ in your neurosurgical practice.” 

6.  Being a good gift-giver 

Okay, sarcastic humor and acerbic comments aside, how do you give good gifts? It’s simple, but it’s not simple. Be humble, and do your homework. That’s it. You have to realize that there is no formula because every relationship and every person is different. The idea of giving gifts is to put aside every desire you have other than the one to bless someone. Then you just learn whatever you have to learn about this other person so that you can buy (or make) a really good gift. 

In fact, one of the most powerful gifts is a gift that you do not even agree with and the other person knows this because this is a statement of great love. “I love you more than I love myself, and to prove it I’ll submit my own desires to my love of you, and give you what you will appreciate.” 

Now go do the work necessary to give a gift so precious that the recipient would never even think of having to say something ridiculous like, “Oh, well, it’s the thought that counts,” because the thought really did count. If this column means you need to go make some returns, so be it. And look for my next article on what to do when you get a bad gift. A hint: the answer is not to politely say, “Thank you.”