Anybody who knows me will know I love Winter. I love the early nights, the twinkly lights, I love the excuse to wrap up warm. I love the abundance of warming spices and biscuity candles, I love the seasonal drinks at Starbucks, and I love Christmas.
Christmas is such a magical time for many and now, for a lot of people, does not resemble a religious festival. I fully respect Christianity and all of the ritual and tradition that accompanies Christmas but personally, as someone without a faith, Christmastime is a celebration of Winter; a celebration of family, friends and love (in whatever form all 3 of those things means to you). However, there is one thing about Christmas which really bothers me; the mindless gift giving. Not gift giving itself, which I think is lovely, but mindless gift giving and the real/imaginary expectations we try to meet.
I have friends and family who have said to me “Oh, I really don’t know what to get [insert name] for Christmas”. That phrase has three things; worry, doubt and expectation. All totally unnecessary. Maybe [insert name] is expecting something from us, but that is their problem. My rule is – if I don’t know what to get you then I’m not getting you anything. Likewise if I can’t afford anything this year I’m not getting you anything. Expectation is such a big issue with Christmas and I’ll be damned if I ever start to expect anything from anyone. I had a friend once who told me that their Dad “owed them” a Christmas gift from last year. No, dear chum, your Dad does not owe you a gift and you’re an ungrateful little crap-weasel.
For me, I would rather no gift at all than a gift that screams “Well, I’ve gotta get him something.”
One thing I cannot abide is, what I call, the Checkbox Gift Givers. These are people who will walk through gift departments of supermarkets/shopping malls with a list of names and an empty basket. A list akin to Santa’s own naughty or nice list (emotional blackmail included). This is so impersonal. We’ve all received mugs with a pair of socks rolled up inside and had to thank Auntie Cath (who isn’t an actual relation) for them even though you don’t drink hot drinks and you wear sandals all year round. Without sounding too much like Carrie Bradshaw: It makes me wonder; who actually benefits from this ritual? Sure, Auntie Cath has the gift-giving warmth, but I’m stuck with a gift I’ve no use for (and Tesco has an extra £10 profit). You may say “It’s the thought that counts” but frankly I’d rather you didn’t think of me if I’ve gotta put on a fake smile and say “Thanks for the unicorn hoopla set I’m never going to use”. If you must give me a gift and you can’t think of anything, just give me the cash and I can finally pay my electricity bill.
I love giving gifts. Giving gifts is proven to have an emotional effect on the giver; it releases a hormone called Oxytocin (aka the love drug) and makes us feel warm and lovely. The same hormone is released when we get likes or comments on social media, and we are probably all guilty of striving to achieve more and more likes or recognition for the rubbish we post online (this blog included). The difference here, however, is gift giving affects other people directly. What sort of person are you if you’re happy to give someone any old tat? You’ll get the rush of gift giving but they get another Soap and Glory gift set that they hate. You’re no doubt going to get a bigger rush of Oxytocin if you give someone a gift that they are going to appreciate (and they’ll feel good too!).
If you’d like some advice, take a leaf out of my book. I do unintentional Christmas shopping all year round. If I am browsing and I see something and think, like all of us do, “Oh [insert name] would love that!” I will buy it and save it for Christmas. Done. It doesn’t matter when I see it, if it’s months before Christmas I will store it and give it at Christmas. If someone says to me “I would love [this]” in August, then I’ll make a note, and if they haven’t got it by December I’ll get that! Think about it, we all better appreciate gifts when we know that someone has put thought into it.
Gift giving at Christmas can also be a status battle. A you-give / I-give situation, and if the scales aren’t balanced then OMIDAYS someone might be upset (but probably not, if they’re decent people). Martin Lewis has spoken a lot about Tit for Tat Gift Giving and it’s true. Hands up if you’ve ever been in the situation of “Oh, John and Carol usually spend £10 each on my kids, so I have to match that for their kids”. What this says is “I can afford just as much as you can!” and isn’t actually about the presents at all. John and Carol have two incomes and twice as many kids as you; you’re a single Mother and you’re now unable to afford January’s TalkTalk bill because you needed to Meet Expectations™. Anyway, John and Carol probably only give to you because you give to them. If you need to: agree a budget, explain your situation, or just give what you can afford (if anything); if John and Carol get upset with that then that saves you £10 per head next year too!
My Mum used to occupy the dining room table for days writing hundreds of Christmas cards to people she hadn’t seen in 20 years because they send one to our family every year. My Mum is extremely caring, but I am willing to bet this was mostly to meet expectation and return the ritualistic favour rather than because she wanted to actually communicate with that person. Hundreds of pounds in cards and stamps, and a serious case of RSI later, a card is received a hundred miles away by someone who still spells my Mum’s name incorrectly, and is shortly after disposed of and forgotten about. Merry Christmas, eh?
People even attempt to meet the expectation of their own children. We’ve all seen Facebook on Christmas morning and witnessed the parents posting pictures of the gargantuan mountains of presents they have bought for their children (who proposed that competition?) We’ve seen the videos of children ripping through layer upon layer of Christmas wrapping paper, maybe uttering a word or two of gratification, then throwing the gift to the side to claw their way through another layer of paper.
I remember being that kid. At the time I had no care in the world that my parents had slaved for months to scrape and save to give me and my sister the best (I do now!) I just wanted to rip open each and every gift to get to the sweet 5 second rush of joy that happened when I found out what was behind the wrap. I know full well I would have been just as happy with half of the amount of presents I actually received (and still loved my parents just as much!) I’m 29 now and my Mum still apologies every year that my pile is not as big as it used to be – Mum, I don’t expect anything more than a Christmas hug anymore, you are hereby released from the guilt!
Sure, people just want to give their children the best of the best, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t seem very festive to me to be trying to win some imaginary competition. Nobody on Facebook really cares about how much you bought your children, and your kids won’t love you any less if you reduce their pile from mountain to molehill. Surely giving your children everything they could ever want at Christmas is not just giving them a sense of entitlement, but also giving them a bad message about what is important. It’s likely they won’t grow up and get everything they want from anybody else so why not teach them about respect, appreciation and moderation? Quality is always better than quantity, but apparently not at Christmas.
It is important at this time of year, in the run up to Christmas, to remember why we give gifts. We give gifts to make the recipient feel happy, and express our gratitude of having that person in our lives, in turn making ourselves feel good for doing something nice (good old Oxytocin). People have the right to give gifts, and the right not to. When expectations occur, when gift giving becomes a mindless chore, nobody really benefits – you’ve stressed because you’ve haven’t got your nephew the same amount as your niece, and they’ve stressed because they now have to find a place in their studio flat for a musical snowman cookie jar. Give wisely and in moderation and everyone’s a winner.
Love you, bye.