What Should We Do When We Receive Bad Christmas Gifts?

Andrew Tallman
Posted: Dec 25, 2007 12:01 AM
What Should We Do When We Receive Bad Christmas Gifts?

In my previous column on bad Christmas gifts, I explained why we give bad gifts and how to avoid doing so. The main point of that column was that bad gifts are a burden because they fail to show real love. But what should we do when someone loves us this badly? The most habitual response is to say that we should be polite, smile, and say, “Thank you.” The most habitual response is wrong. Why? Because lying is a sin.

“But being polite is not a sin.” That’s a discussion worthy of it’s own attention. Fortunately for this column, acting pleased in the reception of a bad Christmas gift is not a form of politeness. Being polite is what we are supposed to do to strangers and people we don’t know well enough to be fully honest with. Such people are not usually giving us Christmas gifts, and, if they do, that’s a different case. I am talking about bad gifts from friends and family, people with whom we have a relationship, or are supposed to.

“Still, why is lying and acting grateful not acceptable? Isn’t it the thought that counts?” As I explained in the previous column, no. But the danger of lying is already well-known to anyone who’s tried this approach: it only makes things worse. I once had a good friend give me a book as a gift. I added it to the 3,000+ other books I own and forgot all about it … until he asked me a few months later if I had enjoyed it. I told him I hadn’t read it yet, and I distorted reality slightly by saying I intended to do so. Another few months passed, and he inquired again. Now I had to make a choice, either continue to lie and act as if I intended to read this book as soon as I could make the time or else tell him the truth.

And that’s the point, bad gifts accepted gratefully only cause further problems. Your friends visit and inquire if something went wrong with the lava lamp you’ve been storing in the garage sale pile. You get asked why you never wear that hand knit green and orange sweater you acted so glad to get from your grandmother. Or perhaps your realtor notices that your skin tone doesn’t seem to be responding to the Siberian anchovy cleansing cream he sent you.

Maybe you lie. Maybe you have to invent subsequent outrageous lies to cover over the first. But the worst part of lying is the awful thing that happens when you do it well: you receive another bad gift next year from the person who thinks he’s doing you a blessing. Alternately, at some point the deception becomes so fraudulent that you rightly recognize it as being incompatible with the honesty that’s supposed to be the cornerstone of any non-pathological relationship. So you tell the truth later, which turns out to be messier than if you’d done it earlier, before the scope of the fraud was so extensive.

Let me come at this a different way. When you give a gift, do you want it to be a blessing to the other person? Of course you do. If it isn’t one, do you want to continue falsely thinking you’ve succeeded while the person secretly deceives you and harbors resentment over having to do so because of your bad gift? Surely not. Unless you’re so selfish as a “giver” that you’re really doing it only to please yourself and you don’t really care about whether they are pleased.

When I give someone a gift, I make sure it’s going to be something the recipient wants. But even so, I will make it as easy for him to tell me it isn’t as I possibly can. “Here’s the receipt. If you want to exchange it. I won’t be offended at all. Please, if it isn’t what you really want, get something you’ll enjoy. I want to bless you, not be a problem, and I’d be truly upset if you didn’t exchange it.” Precisely because I know that bad gifts are an awful moral burden, I want to eliminate that possibility in giving something. But, of course, we all know the paradox. People who give gifts so selflessly are also the same people who give good gifts. It’s the bad gift-giver who makes honesty so challenging.

But honesty is your only viable option. Bad gifts are immoral, and just as a child needs guidance when he does something foolish, bad gift-givers need honest feedback if they are ever going to learn to do better. Not because it’s a way of punishing them, but because we care about them and about our relationship to them. But I get ahead of myself. You’re probably still balking on the idea of objecting to a gift in the first place. Allow me to persuade you with some examples.

I’m a Christian man. Imagine someone were to buy me a subscription to Hustler and a VIP pass to a local strip club. Should I smile and say, “Thank you?” What if he gave me a couple of ounces of cocaine? Perhaps a copy of the Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce? What if someone bought my 3½ year-old son a hunting knife? What if someone gave my Muslim friend a one-year subscription to the pork-of-the-month club or my Mormon friend a copy of “Polygamy for Beginners?” Now, obviously, these are ridiculous and even sometimes evil gifts. But that’s the point. Some gifts are so inappropriate that being polite is clearly wrong.

If my son comes to me one morning with a dripping paintbrush in his hand and says he decided to give me the gift of painting my car for me, he would be in deep trouble, not in deep affection. If someone decided to “clean up” my desk and papers “as a favor,” this act would be such an affront that to act grateful would be nearly as inappropriate as the act itself. And that’s the point. When a gift is really bad, it demands an honest response. So why don’t we react honestly when it’s only moderately bad? The real answer here is painful to admit.

It’s because we’re selfish.

Bad gift-givers are selfish (see my other article), and polite bad-gift receivers are also selfish. It’s simply easier to avoid the conflict honesty would cause. It’s easier to make jokes about the person to a sympathetic spouse than to tell him the truth to his face. So we take the easy way out and deceive ourselves into thinking that we’ve done something loving. It’s almost perfectly symmetrical with the immorality done by the person who gave the bad gift. Both parties are selfish, and both parties think they are behaving lovingly. Now isn’t that ironic?

But there’s more wrong here than first meets the eye. We lie to them with our gratitude, but we lie to ourselves about our motives. We say that being polite is the loving thing to do for the other person, but we are equally motivated by the desire to protect our own reputation. See, you worry people will think less of you if you complain about a gift, so you do whatever is necessary to keep this fear from happening. Instead of voicing your ingratitude, which you fear will make you look mean, you lie and seem like a perfectly decent person. Thus, what seems like selfless etiquette actually turns out to be a very deceptive maneuver to prevent yourself from being judged for who you really are.  What did the Bard say about webs and deceptions?

Here’s further irony. We would never feel such a burden in dealing with our enemies. Although I admit it’s a bit weird to imagine, consider how you would respond if someone you despised gave you a bad gift. Likely you would feel no compunction about telling this person the truth, and rudely. Why? Because you care neither about this person’s feelings nor about his image of you. But isn’t there something askew in a moral system where we only feel at liberty to be honest with those we do not love? I suspect our notions of love and truth need revising.

There is an explanation: we’re bad at telling the truth effectively. The reason for rules of politeness (though I repeat this isn’t about being polite) is because it’s easier to not mess them up. Honesty is really difficult. Nonetheless, there’s enough light at the end of the tunnel to make it worth trying. A bad gift is a kind of rupture in a relationship. It shows lack of knowledge and, therefore, lack of love. But any rupture is also an opportunity.

Bad gifts create a sort of crisis, and the relationship can’t stay where it is. It must either become stronger or weaker, and ignoring the breach can only make it weaker. Confronting it runs the risk of total ruination, but it also runs the risk of deeper intimacy. So you have to ask yourself a very simple question: Would you rather keep such relationships forever trivial by protecting them from the stress that might break them, or would you rather risk losing them in the hope that you might gain real ones in exchange? Every meaningful relationship I have is so because it survived one or more crises of honesty. The only way to get respect and real love is to tell people the truth. So here’s how to do so successfully.

The three keys to effective confrontation:

1. Apologize in advance. “I’m sorry, John.”

2. Admit the obvious. “I have something really awful to say to you, and I’m genuinely afraid that it’s going to hurt your feelings or make you mad and ruin our friendship. I’m really scared right now because you mean a lot to me and I don’t want to lose that. ”

3. Get permission. “So would you rather have me tell you the truth or keep it hidden from you?”

Certainly, the frenzy of Christmas morning may not be the correct time for such a confrontation. This you must decide for yourself. The Bible wisely teaches that we should confront people and resolve our issues with them privately, in part because defensive anger is a more likely result in public encounters. But some form of honest confrontation is the only loving way to proceed, and the benefits should by now be clear.

You’ve taken a breached relationship and tried to heal it. You’ve dealt with the giver honorably, as a loved one who deserves your honesty. You are likely helping that person to become a better gift-giver to you and others in the future, which should make everyone a lot happier. And you’ve cleared your conscience against the need to indulge in subsequent deceptions. But there’s one more benefit to this approach. When people know you react honestly, they know your expressed joy at a gift is real. Precisely because my friends know I’m honest, they also need never second-guess my reactions. I yield no false positives. And as a symbolic reinforcement of this very concept, my honesty about the need to be honest is my possibly unwelcome Christmas gift to you. I sincerely hope you enjoy it.