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Jessie Raymond: Merry Christmas — now go buy stuff

A hundred years ago, Christmas shopping was a snap. You’d buy an orange and a handful of walnuts for each of the kids, a silk handkerchief or a pouch of pipe tobacco for the spouse, and bang, you were done. No Black Friday madness, no anxiety about the January Visa bill, no Christmas Eve runs to the Hammacher Schlemmer section of T.J. Maxx to grab Dad an electronic golf ball case (on the off chance he starts playing golf this year).
Times have changed.
Over the years, thanks mostly to advertising campaigns involving lots of jingling bells and insanely overjoyed individuals, the robust exchange of gifts has become expected at Christmas, regardless of anyone’s needs or desires. You buy gifts every December not necessarily because you are moved in your heart (in which case you’d do it year round) but because it’s Christmastime and retailers need to turn a profit. Plus you’d look like a jerk if someone got you a present and you didn’t return the favor.
OK, so you must buy gifts for everyone in your immediate family, at least. But what?
If you were truly thoughtful, you’d know instinctively what would make them happy, because you’d have been paying attention to their words and actions all year long. In other words, you’d better come right out and ask.
But even that isn’t always very helpful. A partner, trying not to sound greedy, might say, “I don’t need anything. Just get me some chocolate or something.” Whatever you do, do not just get them some chocolate or something. Nine times out of ten, these words translate to “Get me something good or you will be sleeping alone until New Year’s.”
And there’s the question of parity. Even if a loved one sincerely asks you not to buy them anything big, and you set a tastefully wrapped can of macadamia nuts under the tree, how are you going to feel when you open their reciprocal gift — let’s say, a first edition of “A Christmas Carol,” signed by Dickens himself? Aim high, just to be safe.
Gift giving walks a fine line. If you buy something whimsical and unnecessary, the odds are it’s something the receiver really doesn’t want, or they would have already bought it. Conversely, buying safe-bet, practical gifts can backfire, too. Social scientists studying data from around 1980 have noticed a disturbing correlation between sales of the Dustbuster and a jump in divorce rates.
Some families, sick of trying to come up with gift ideas, exchange wish lists indicating specific sizes, colors and item numbers. Some, going even further, buy their own gift and sign the giver’s name on the tag. This ensures fewer returns on Dec. 26, but if you’re going to go that far, why waste the wrapping paper?
Even with lists in hand, most people tend to gravitate toward gifts that they secretly would like for themselves. I may have been guilty of this the year I surprised my husband with a Kitchen-Aid mixer. (Hey, he bought me a reciprocal saw the same year, so he’s no saint either.)
I, for one, like giving and receiving homemade gifts. The recipient always appreciates the care that went into a handmade creation and in most cases will say they love it, no matter how hideous or ill-fitting it might be.
Unfortunately, homemade gifts lack a “get it by Christmas” guarantee. What starts as an idea in November turns into procrastination by Thanksgiving, a late start around Dec. 10, and a full-fledged panic heading into Christmas, often culminating in an all-nighter on Dec. 24.
If the gift is indeed completed by Christmas Day, the maker is sometimes so exhausted and resentful that it’s all they can do not to throw the package toward the recipient and say, “Here are your handknit socks. I hope your stupid size 13 feet are happy.”
A small number of enlightened couples and families have figured out how to avoid the challenges of Christmas shopping: They don’t exchange presents at all. Instead, they share the joy of being together, and bestow upon each other intangible gifts such as patience and compassion.
Those are great if all you care about is the true meaning of Christmas. But they aren’t going to cut it at a Yankee swap.

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