By the time you read this, it will be too late. Those who leave their gift shopping until the malls are decked with ornaments and sinister context cues (Mariah Carey and Boney M competing in public) will know that the error is great, and the misfortune that follows greater still. The ordeal of gift buying is repeated each year, and each year we fall into the same fallacy of believing we will have enough time.

“Christmas comes but once a year” is as much a threat as an exhortation. Miserably, this annual holiday throws up a perennial problem. Who knows what anyone actually wants?

Gift giving is an anxiety-inducing dramatisation of society’s thraldom to consumerism. Christmas is presented as a testbed for how well you get on with people, an opportunity to demonstrate your good taste and the esteem in which you hold those around you. It’s a lesson in maintaining a warm demeanour even as you wonder whether Yuppiechef will be open on the 27th for you to return the bone-handled salad servers that are currently furrowing your vegan wife’s brow.

The giving-receiving nexus is complicated and potentially sorrowful. Why else would one of the most popular Christmas songs feature George Michael lamenting his having given his heart to someone who gave it away the very next day? When you’re a child, Christmas is a simple affair. You wake in the pitch-dark and tiptoe to the lounge to see if Santa has been and gone. Then, gifts sighted, you go back to bed and await the hour when the wrapping can be deliriously ripped off and the presents ogled. We weren’t expected to furnish gifts for our parents, and so we passed from one Christmas to another believing that our pleasure was the only gift our parents needed. If you were to ask anyone around you what their most memorable Christmas gift was, the answer would invariably be something from childhood. Mine is a burgundy 1/24-scale Ford Sapphire Cosworth I received at the age of six.

I recall nothing of what prompted that gift, or when it disappeared from my life (I was an incorrigible loser of things), but I still remember it some 30 years later, which says something about the role gift giving plays in teaching us about thankfulness, generosity, and other important life lessons. Adulthood is generally where the mythologies burn away, but it brings with it the burden of moving from gift receiver to gift giver. The positions of gift giver and gift receiver are disparate. The giver is motivated by something not altogether altruistic. You want to convey your gratitude for someone’s existence via some physical placeholder. That tchotchke is only known when seen, at a location that is invariably the first place you begin the hunt, but that can only be arrived at after unhappily throwing yourself into the democratic throng. You may think that in the age of online shopping such clumsy methods are a thing of the past. But you’re wrong. The effort is the thing.

I’m resentful of good gift givers, and I believe we all should rightly be angered by their careless anticipation of our desires

Nothing feels more inappropriate than a gift procured on grounds of convenience. That’s why vouchers are always a poor idea. It’s like handing your guest several unbroken eggs when you’ve invited them over for an omelette. I’m resentful of good gift givers, and I believe we all should rightly be angered by their careless anticipation of our desires. By showing how good they are at finding the right thing, they make the fact of their competitiveness too obvious.

You see this in the odd dramatised interaction that plays out around the exchange of gifts. The giver demurs, downplays, and gestures to the presence of a receipt the receiver knows not to ask for. The receiver is pinned down like a featured extra in a soap opera, because receiving a gift calls for the right mix of sincerity and surprise. (Nothing is ever really a surprise, unless someone has managed to sneak an Eames chair under the Christmas tree without your noticing.) You’re left mumbling thank-yous and you-shouldn’t-haves, and considering if you have anything on your person you could discreetly swop out for the Takealot voucher you stuffed into a gift bag purloined from your bag-of-bags. Many of us are bad gift givers, and the knowledge of this fact is galling.

Several years ago, in a moment of panic, I gave a Bluetooth hands-free car kit to someone with whom I was besotted, who mercifully accepted the clunky imposition with good grace and never mentioned it again. The cringe shakes me to this day. Being expected to peer into someone’s soul is stress inducing, but the alternative is worse. What a picture of neglect is conjured when you tell someone (for all practical purposes), “I thought of you, but only to the extent that this domestic object suggests.” It says that all your shared background and history with the receiver can only find its reduction in an object that is unavoidably banal.

The air fryer assumes laziness. Whisky infers age. Cufflinks suggest fussiness. And candles connote pyromania. There’s no formula for escaping banality, and this terrible realisation is perversely soothing to me, even if it is a wilful delusion. Don’t be tempted to do away with gifts — this is a tragic capitulation. Ignore the rules and the listicles: giving is the important thing. It’s an excuse to see the face of the one you care about, and that, after all, is the oldest and simplest of our social compacts. 

 From the December issue of Wanted 2021.

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