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Transactional Christmas


Well, it’s over. A new year has dawned and it will be months before we are again presented the dilemma of finding the perfect gift for people who, at least in my family, have everything they need and who routinely buy what they want.

I have always loved Christmas and I do not want anyone to assume I am a bah-humbug Christmas denier. I love the pageantry, the traditions, the food (too much, I fear) and the decorations (in moderation). In my childhood, there was nothing more emotionally sustaining than the quiet of my parents’ living room on a late winter evening, lights glowing on the tree and the grandfather clock in the hall tick-tocking away the minutes and hours of the season. I would gaze at the growing pile of presents under the tree, anticipating the excitement of Christmas morning and knowing at the same time that gratification would end the fun.

I have always especially loved giving gifts and used to shrug off suggestions that the holiday is too commercialized. Giving a gift is supposed to be an act of love and the process of thinking about family members, their likes and dislikes and then finding just the right thing for each is an endeavor I enjoy. My mother had a particular genius for this and I suppose I have always aspired to be as good a gift-giver as she was. Somehow, she could always find something that you never knew you wanted but, once you had it, was a source of joy.

I’m not that good but not for lack of trying and the trying now is much harder than it was in the past. I look at the plethora of toys that my young nieces and nephews have and am reluctant to add more—especially toys with small parts that endlessly need to be picked up. I look at my nearly grown older grandchildren, now living at a great distance, and at their younger siblings who I see so infrequently that I don’t know what they have or what they like. And I look at the adults with whom I still exchange who have everything they could conceivably want and shrug in resignation.

In recent years, there has been an increased dependence on gift cards by defeated gift-givers. I loathe this practice even though I can see its practicality. Easy to mail, always the right size and the right color, I concede that they are sensible choices—but how boring! Where is the thought, where is the creativity? Where is the brightly wrapped present under the tree to heighten anticipation? Opening a card and extracting a cold, plastic card is hardly personal, or exciting.

Only slightly less transactional than giving a gift card is the online “wish list” with links to what the receiver would like. One click on Amazon and the gift is on its way to the recipient—no muss, no fuss—and no thought, no recognition of the real person.

The younger generation seems to like these options. A friend tells me that she pledged to go shopping for her adult grandchildren one Christmas and was told by one and all to send cards instead. Research bears this out.

Psychologists studying giving and receiving find that the giver tends to invest in the emotional interaction of proffering something special while the recipient simply wants what he or she wants. Personalization is discouraged even among gift cards: cards too specific in scope are less favored than generalized cards such as Visa or Amazon. Who’d a-thunk that a gift card could be the wrong color! Or the wrong size? Research shows that most card recipients spend more than the value of the card when redeeming it.

Cards are favored over cash, according to researchers, who say that recipients see cards as “permission” to purchase luxury items. In that application, I suppose you would have to conclude that green is also the wrong color.

The ultimate in gift-giving must be the gift that not only becomes from the giver’s heart but also his or her hands. My granddaughters confided once that their mother had taught them that a homemade gift can be more emotionally satisfying than one that is purchased. They proved the point last year by creating attractive Christmas tree ornaments for us bearing the year, names and paw prints of our two very-much beloved pussycats. I returned the favor this year by creating photo albums that traced the many events we shared over the course of their lives before they left for their new home. Both represented love given and received and I believe will only grow in importance.

Dr. Marisa Franco, a psychologist who studies gift-giving and friendship, says there is skill in being good at accepting gifts. In a variation on the theme of “it’s the thought that counts,” she advises recipients should appreciate that “someone had a positive feeling that they wanted to express toward you in the act of giving.”

I suppose in this light, a gift card—even cold, hard cash—can be viewed as an acceptable gift. I’d just rather get a present from my mother.