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“Do you really know me?”: Ending Christmas Hell

Updated: Dec 23, 2021

Yeah, this is about finding a way to end Christmas hell and bring back the joy of giving.

It starts here. Let’s say I happen to know that you wear sweaters. And I’ve seen you in some of your sweaters, which gives me some clues as to what you like.

So figuring you’re a sweater person, I buy you a sweater as a Christmas present. I put time and thought and $225 into this enterprise, and off goes your present via UPS.

What’s really happening here? What’s happening is that I’m placing a bet that the size, and the fit, and the color, and the material, and the texture, and the weight, and the cut, and the design of the sweater I picked out are all just what you’d want. So that when you open the box you go, “Oh, PERFECT!!!”

The odds are against this happening. Big time.

What the odds are in favor of is my getting you what you’d pass up if you were shopping for sweaters. Because I can’t possibly know you that well. Certainly you’d pass it up for $225. Now if the same sweater were on sale at Marshall’s for $14.98, who knows? Maybe you’d pick it up as a bargain. Maybe not. Not that it’s an awful sweater. Just that you wouldn’t want it.

And if you would buy it but only for $14.98, what have I done? I’ve spent $225 on something you only value at $14.98.

That’s not even the worst of it. If you manage to thank me for the gift, you’ll thank me effusively, since it costs you just as little to thank me a lot as to thank me a little! So I’ll feel complimented on my gift-buying expertise, and off I’ll go to inflict myself on others, thinking, My, what a great gift chooser I am!

You on the other hand will feel disappointed. Cheated even. You knew I meant well. But jeez! All this to do about a sweater you’ll never wear that’s supposed to serve as a token of love and respect. That demands a phony show of unfelt gratitude. Does it really make you feel loved and respected? Not in the face of the sad fact that I don’t really know you.

I don’t know of any part of life that is filled with more hypocrisy and bullshit, disappointment and pain than giving and receiving presents, especially at Christmastime. The gap here between what we hope for and what actually happens, is too often enormous. There are more hurt feelings when it comes to giving and getting presents than any part of our family and social lives.

But the myths and fantasies live on.

“It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Sure! When you’re talking about helping those much less fortunate!

“It’s the thought that counts.” Well, sure, when it’s your kid in the first grade who works hard to make you a necklace out of painted macaroni’s.

In comes the hypocrisy. We receive these gifts, express huge gratitude, inwardly feel disappointed, and then regift them, or exchange them (making work for us), or just sadly tuck them away somewhere in bad-gift purgatory.

There’s a trillion-dollar industry plugging away at keeping us going with this insanity of getting people to pay $225 for gifts the recipients would at best pay $14.98 for. It’s the scam of the ages!! Getting people to buy gifts for others is 2,000% more profitable than getting people to buy stuff for themselves.

It gets worse! Because we’re insecure about how our shot-in-the-dark presents will be received, we over-spend to make up for our suspicion that our gift might be more of a miss than a hit. This is where “it’s the thought that counts” really kicks in. As in, well, even if she hates it, she’ll know I spent a ton of money on it, so she’ll know I cared.

There are time-honored workarounds to just leaving people guessing. The whole hinting business. Which is a mess. Subtle hints go unnoticed. The can’t-miss hint has to be pretty obvious: “Oh, look at that [tremendously expensive Hermes] scarf! I’d love that at some point!” Which is not really a hint at all and can make the hint-er feel she might as well just tell the other person what to buy, which is supposedly a no-no.

It's a mess. Am I overstating the situation? I don’t think so. Now for sure it’s not always this bad. Sometimes we make good guesses. Except that how do you know that the conventions of effusive gratitude aren’t conning you into thinking you’ve made a good guess when in reality you haven’t?

There is a way out of this. It’s not a new idea; it’s just new to most people. I got it from my husband. For years now he’s had a wish list going on Amazon. (But there are lots of other ways you can keep a wish list.) Anyone can access it. Anytime my husband runs across a book (it’s usually a book) he’s really interested in but doesn’t need to buy immediately, he puts it on his wish list. Which is now very long.

When his birthday comes up, we in the family go to it and have before us a long list of the exact things we know he really wants! He’s not only perfectly satisfied with what he gets, he’s also surprised: “Oh, so this is what you got me! How nice!!” Everyone’s happy.

It’s certainly a lot better than my situation. I don’t have a wish list. I barely know what I want. When my birthday rolls around and people ask for ideas, all I can say is, Surprise me. Well, I get surprised for sure. But how can people hit the bullseye if I don’t even know my own bullseye?

Bottom line? We’ve gotta put an end to this guessing game, this bullshit romantic fantasy of being able to intuit the perfect present, of hearing back the words, “Oh, I just LOVED it!” which are so not reliably true.

Instead, somehow, please, let people know what you want. And find out from the people on your life exactly what they want. Wish lists are good because there are still lots of surprises involved. Or you can be more direct. But if someone tells you what they want, listen to them!

I knew a woman who was delighted to tell her husband, "Honey, you know, for Christmas this year what I’d really like is Bernstein’s 1963 recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic.” She meant it! But the guy was too dumb to take her at her word!! He managed to screw up simplicity itself because he thought that in spite of her words she’d appreciate a more creative approach. But, of course, no. Disaster ensued.

With Christmas approaching let’s get clear about what giving people presents is really all about. Love, yes. Generosity, yes. But in the end, it’s about making the other person happy. Otherwise, what is the love and generosity for!?! What they’re not for is trying to win some stupid guessing game that people almost always lose, even though they delude themselves into thinking they’re good at it.

This Christmas let’s make more people happy. Find out what the people you love and care about really want.

Now wouldn’t it be lovely if you found out that one of the things they really wanted was one of our books! Of course, you could just get one for yourself.


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