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The Great Gift Grab-O-Rama

"Gimme that, gimme that, Gimme, gimme, gimme that!

Gimme that thing, Gimme that, gimme gimme that!

Gimme that thing, Gimme that, gimme gimme that!

Gimme, gimme gimme that thing!"

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…what I sometimes think is the Real "National Anthem"…

Once upon a time, not so terribly long ago, the giving of gifts was an act of love and friendship. The gift to be given was chosen with thought and care and consideration for the recipient, and its bestowal on the recipient was a moment of joy and surprise and camaraderie for all involved.

What the high holy hell happened? When did the choosing, giving and receiving of gifts become a greedy grabfest of obligation, stress, and even hostility? The prime example of this shift from joy to jousting is Christmas, but that whole wretched mess deserves an essay of its own, which it will get.

No, I’m talking about the slow, but steady erosion of birthdays, anniversaries, wedding and baby showers, graduations from things other than high school and college; holidays other than Christmas and Valentines Day, and all sorts of corporately created ‘holidays’ that shove a palm under our noses with the petulant cry of "Gimme!"

Nothing spotlights the sad incursion of blatant greed into the world of gift giving worse than the gift registry. Once registries were the sole domain of the moneyed young brides to be. Carefully crafted lists were kept at the high-end shops to discreetly insure that all the crystal, silver, and china she would be receiving would match. After all, she would be using it to entertain guests at her home to help her husband advance his fortunes.

Today, you can find wedding registries at both the high-end stores, and at ‘working’ places like home improvement stores, discount department stores, and other decidedly non- wedding places. You can dial into the internet and take a look at the list of things the bride and groom want to receive- which includes many other things besides the silver, china, crystal, and linens (which usually sit unused for years because the couple eats out more than they entertain). If they wanted to, they could outfit their entire home with such a registry, if the guests were so inclined to pop for, say, a $2000 sofa. (Yes, I have seen that...and worse...)

I wouldn’t be writing about this if the registries stopped at weddings. After all, there are still some young couples who really need to outfit a home, and the generosity of the friends and relatives at this special time is a long-standing tradition, even if the ‘white wedding’ is not.

No, the art of writing a list of stuff you want, and waving it under all and sundries noses is no longer the purview of the bride-to-be and the small child. Today, registries abound for nearly every occasion: birthdays, baby showers, anniversaries, graduations, you name it. Kids today can go to their favorite toy store, and with a scanning gun, scan in all the goodies they want for their birthday, and the resulting print-out of the registry (and the internet address) is enclosed in the birthday invitations. No more ‘unwanted’ birthday presents and hurt feelings!

Expectant moms can do the same thing- create registries for their upcoming showers, and get whatever they want. This wouldn’t be so bad, but the century has ushered in what I call the ‘serial’ shower: moms who already have kids having showers for their next kid. These, like the serial wedding showers of divorcees, or multiple showers for first timers, are nothing else but blatant displays of naked greed. Quite often the gifts given at these grabfests are returned to get the cash value.

Graduations have become grabfests, too. Going to college is a good reason to get your dorm outfitted, and perhaps get a new computer, but kids today aren’t stopping at that. Registries list things like home theater gear, skates, water craft and sports gear, clothes, and furniture. Cars, too.

And today, it doesn’t stop at the high school or college graduation. Kiddies in KINDERGARTEN are doing the mortarboard and hand-out dance- perhaps to practice for the Big Grabola when they graduate.

Gift-creep is starting to contaminate other once ‘hands-off’ holidays, too. Valentines Day fell first- the Holy Day of Obligation for lovebirds. That was almost to be expected. But now, Easter, once just a simple basket of candy and colored eggs for little kids, has become a gift fest of its own. I heard someone call it ‘little Christmas’ this year. Halloween is still primarily a ‘decorative’ holiday, but more and more ‘gift’ items are turning up on store shelves as early as August. Thanksgiving is a ‘food’ holiday, but again, the gimme bug is slowly eroding its homey sanctity.

Don’t get me wrong- I see nothing wrong with gift-giving. There is nothing more delightful for me than to be handed a beautifully wrapped little morsel when I least expect it, and find a delightful surprise within- or do the same for a close friend. But today that isn’t really the case- the exchange of gifts often is a cover for barely restrained hostility in some quarters. Christmas is the worst culprit- with weddings following a close second. Got something you want to get rid of, and can’t afford the stuff on the registry, and resent the hand held under your nose by Bridezilla or Mom-to-be? Dig in your cupboard for a gift that you got, but didn’t have the time to return, and hand that away.

In Japan, this recycling of unwanted gifts has become a national pastime. People there have closets full of them, and keep logs of obligatory gifts given and received, so they don’t commit the faux pas of giving back a gift which was received from the giver. Prices are carefully calculated, and gifts of certain prices are chosen as not to give offence. There is a whole elaborate set of rules of what to give to whom and when. This isn’t a ‘greedfest’ like in the US- this is a quaint little national custom which has gotten entirely out of hand, to the embarrassment and expense of the Japanese.

So, how can you break yourself free of this grab-o-rama? First, you have to decide how you feel about the whole misdirected frenzy of consumption. Do you want to participate? Will you allow yourself to be prodded by corporately-generated ‘guilt’ at not participating in the greed-fest? Will the feelings of people important to you be hurt?

Next, you must differentiate between genuine friends and colleagues and acquaintances. Does your gift-buying budget go beyond your family and close friends? Do you really want to spend THAT MUCH? My rule of giving gifts is to only give gifts to people whom I’ve either shared several meals with, had over to my home (which is very private), or both. If I am not close enough to a person to dine with them, or go to their home, or have them over to mine, I do not feel that I know them well enough to get them a gift. A card, perhaps, but not a thing.

And what about eschewing the whole practice altogether- especially during the frenzied holiday season? This might be the finest gift of all- to both you and your friends and loved ones. No stress of shopping the crowded malls, spending too much, not getting the ‘right’ thing (or it not being in stock), and disappointing your recipient. Why not declare a moratorium on holiday gift giving altogether, and either postpone it until after the holidays when the shops get back to some semblance of normal, or not doing it at all, thereby saving money, time, and heartache? This should go for receiving gifts, too, although there are some people who will insist on giving you gifts no matter what you say. If you are the receiver, be effusive in your thanks, generous in your non-holiday friendship, and gracious in your kindness.

Gifts should be a small physical token of friendship, appreciation, and yes, love. They should not be objects of war, obligation, greed, or guilt. They are, after all, a symbol only, because it is your time and presence as friend, colleague, and lover that is the greatest gift of all.

May 2001 by Sunfell

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