By Emily Erickson
I love the experience of gift giving. I revel in the days of warm rumination about the people I care about, letting thoughts of their life and my relationship to them consume me as I consider what might bring them joy, make their life easier or spark moments of inspiration or indulgence in their day-to-day.
For me, giving a gift is an act of witnessing someone’s uniqueness, of considering who they are and what they like, and creating meaning through an object, an experience or a thoughtful expression. And being on the receiving end of a good gift is like being seen.
So when my partner stomped off his boots on our entry rug and blurted, “Could you get me a trash can for Christmas?” it felt like a cold needle piercing my warm, fuzzy, gift-loving balloon.
I spent days thinking about his request — about this trash can — turning it around in my head and trying to understand what exactly about it was off-putting to me. First, I wondered if what was irksome was the straightforward nature of it. I turned to my peers to ask about their thoughts on practical versus meaningful or experiential gift giving.
They responded with clear perspectives, most of which I wholeheartedly agreed with. One person shared, “Sometimes people really just need something, and getting them anything else can be less thoughtful than a simple, practical item they can’t afford to get themselves.”
I can remember so many holidays and birthdays where all I needed in the world was a card full of cash — and receiving that felt like a recognition of my situation and my priorities at that moment in time. Despite its practical nature, cash was the most thoughtful gift in the world.
Affirming this line of thinking, another person reflected, “My dad got us a ladder last year. We use it so much. It’s a constant reminder of him. He’s a practical guy and it’s fitting he got a practical gift.”
So, I knew it wasn’t the practicality of the trash can that bothered me. Although I’ll always prefer experience or emotion-based gifts, there are some instances where the most thoughtful version of gift giving is understanding and reflecting a person’s circumstances.
I then turned my thought-inspection to the fact that my partner’s need for a trash can wasn’t witnessed, but rather, requested. Maybe him having to ask me for the gift stripped it of its considerateness, leaving behind only the trappings of obligation and inherent consumerism wrapped up in the holiday season.
According to the National Retail Federation, Americans will spend an average of $1,455 each this holiday, contributing to a national spending total set to match or surpass last year’s $899 billion. There’s no denying that people feel obligated to give and receive gifts during the holidays, often conflating making a purchase (of any kind) with being thoughtful.
I again turned to my peers, asking “Do you have opinions on the enterprise-nature of the holiday season?” to which many responded with statements about “opting out” of the spending expectation and gift giving as an obligation around the holidays.
One person shared, “We’re boycotting — handmades gifts and travel plans only this year,” while another described, “When it comes to gifting for adults, I’ve declined to participate. It was met with resistance, but the responsibility of all the gifting fell on me and I never knew what to get and was receiving gifts I didn’t want or need. I’d much rather someone just get me a gift because they saw something and thought of me rather than doing it out of obligation because a specific holiday says gifts should be exchanged.”
And finally, someone shared, “I ask for lasagna from my aunt who otherwise gives me weird shit only she likes.”
These responses got me closer to the heart of my aversion to the trash can gift. I didn’t like the idea of it, not because it was practical, or even that it was explicitly requested, but because it would be purchased from a place of holiday gift-giving obligation — our household need conveniently close to the time of year in which we’re expected to exchange items. A trash can would be a self-serving purchase (as much for my benefit as a spare toilet paper) and I’d rather consciously opt out of gift giving than reduce the experience to putting a bow on top of items on our grocery list.
Still chewing on my feelings about it all, I loaded the new trash can into the trunk of my car, a note reading, “This is not a Christmas gift,” already written and taped to its lid. Next to it was my carefully wrapped, painstakingly considered package with its tag, “To: Reid, with love” next to a bright, tidy bow.
Emily Erickson is a writer and business owner with an affinity for black coffee and playing in the mountains. Connect with her online at www.bigbluehat.studio.
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