Yesterday I was chatting on the phone with my mom about Thanksgiving next week, and the lead-in to the Christmas shopping season.
“Soon,” she said, “it will be time to go on our annual shopping trip.”
“Oh, right!” I replied. Translation: “Ugh.”
My mom, an elderly widow, has more or less lost her confidence in her own ability to buy gifts for people. I’m not sure when this all happened, because there used to be a time when she was quite a respectable shopper and gift-giver.
But now, for kids’ and grandkids’ birthdays, she mostly gives gift cards or cash, and for Christmas, she
makes me asks me to take her to the mall, where I pick out gifts for all the people on my side and she pays for them.
I love my mom so much, but this event is really challenging for me. I’m thankful it only comes once a year. Because when it comes to shopping for Christmas, we ascribe to different philosophies.
You know how when people want to make a certain point they’ll say that there are two kinds of people in the world? Then they go on to describe two antithetical human characteristics and place everyone in one or the other of those categories. Well, I happen to believe there are two kinds of gift givers, and in this sense my mom and I are … opposites.
One type of gift giver wants to give you something you really want or need, and will directly or indirectly try to figure out from you what that is. Then they will go out and buy you that exact thing, and when you open it up on Christmas morning, there it is: the very thing you said you wanted. A tidy little arrangement, with minimal surprise.
The other type of giver doesn’t necessarily consult the recipient, but instead thinks, “Based on what I know about this person, I think he/she would appreciate having X,” then goes out and finds X and wraps up a gift that will most likely be more of a surprise than in the first scenario.
Granted, the risk the second type of giver takes is that she will have read the signals wrong and gotten a gift that for whatever reason is less than appreciated by the recipient. But success hinges on that conditional: “Based on what I know about this person.” In other words, there’s a little more work — in the sense of thoughtfulness — involved in this type of gift-giving.
I believe the burden is on you, the gift-giver, to know who you’re giving to. And I get that it’s hard during the stress of the Christmas season to get it exactly right with every single person on your gift list, but still: when we’re talking about your family, shouldn’t you sort of have a clue as to what might float somebody’s boat? Or at the very least, you get them something you think “looks” like them, you know?
(And as you can imagine I tend to have a hard time when people approach me with the dreaded question: “What do you want for Christmas?” My answer is usually — through clenched teeth — “Oh, you know me; whatever you think I’d enjoy.” I’m still trying to make converts, but I suppose it’s a lost cause.)
Oh, well. The way I’ve learned to deal with the fact that my mom and I are different in this respect is by changing my expectations for her (and probably more importantly: for myself). Our little system, where I select all the gifts and she pays for them, works for her, so it has to work for me. So here’s what I do: I just make a separate gift list of all the people she wants to buy for — based on what I know about them — then we go straight to each place where those things are, buy them, and we’re outta there.
That’s right: no browsing, no “What do you think of this idea?” — no discussion of the merits of one over the other. A shirt and a pair of pants: perfect; box it up, and let’s go.
This requires me to behave like the first kind of gift-giver, which obviously I’m not, but if I unclench my teeth and think of it as something like having fluency in a foreign language, well, then I guess it’s win-win for everybody.
Plus it’s something I get to do for my mom, and isn’t that, at least somewhat, what Christmas is about?
I had a bad experience in 1988 (as a new employee) and the coworkers in the department told me every bad gift they’d gotten at the office party for the previous two decades. I panicked while shopping for their gifts and my friend ended up deciding what to get them. She said if they hated the presents, I didn’t have to feel bad because SHE picked them out. But I’ve never gotten over it, and I’m your first example of gift giver, all the way.