One Christmas, years ago, my mother opened a delicate, clear bottle inscribed with tiny blue letters, sprayed it on her wrist, dramatically inhaled, raved about the refreshing scent, and thanked my cousin’s husband for the new perfume. He sheepishly clarified that it was actually cleaning solution for glasses. (He was an optometrist, so the gift kind of made sense—but not really.)
Another time, a different cousin received a travel mug that was already her property; it had been accidentally left at the gift giver’s home and wrapped up at the last minute.
In 2019, my dad—in what turned out to be an uncanny pandemic premonition but was just a very strange choice at the time—presented my husband with a bottle of Lysol. That was the same year my mom bought my dad a Friends trivia game, because he loves … Seinfeld. Close enough!
I say all this to make it clear that my family is challenged when it comes to holiday presents. And I know we’re not alone. Gifts are hard. In the letters I’ve read for Slate’s Dear Prudence column this year, there’s someone who is in agony because she has forgiven her abusive parents enough to celebrate for them, but not enough to buy for them. There’s a woman whose husband demands thousands of dollars of gifts that she can’t afford. There’s a twentysomething who’s mad because she makes a detailed wish list and people still buy her whatever they want, and a letter writer who can’t figure out how to get her mother-in-law to stop giving her fox-themed presents.
Anyone can see how ridiculous this all is. So I propose that this year, we just put an end to it. Keep giving children presents, by all means. (They don’t have jobs! They can’t buy their own stuff! They like almost everything, and often enjoy the box, too! They won’t stress themselves out about reciprocating! ) But I honestly believe that adults who have any level of anxiety or angst about presents should just agree to stop exchanging them altogether.
My family has attempted to revise tradition before. Once, in the ’90s, my mom tried to implement a no-gifts rule for our extended family. It flopped. That was the year one aunt ignored the new plan—because she was so excited to present another aunt a weight-loss book. When I recently attempted to lower expectations by suggestion a white elephant tradition with two simple guidelines (under $25 and gender neutral), someone brought a bag of potato chips. Not exactly a violation of the rules, but not quite in the spirit of the event either.
But it feels like time to reup the effort with new enthusiasm. After all, this holiday season is arguably even more complicated than most. In mid-November, in a supply chain panic, I bought my mom a cashmere sweatsuit—which I think is a pretty good gift—as a Christmas gift. The supply chain turned out to be fine, and when the outfit arrived I realized it would be too late for her to return it if I waited until Christmas, so I asked her to inspect it and make sure it fit. She really liked it and didn’t want to take it off, so I told her to just keep it. Now I have to figure out what to give her on the actual holiday.
Imagine holidays freed from the financial anxiety of buying for a long list of relatives, the worry that the gift you give someone won’t be equivalent in value to the one you receive, the pressure to come up with ideas for those who can’t figure out how to shop for you, and the burden of the unwanted items you’re left with when people mean well but miss the mark. Imagine if we all just got together to eat, and let go of this ridiculous ritual of spending tons of money and mental energy and not ending up with much we actually want.
If you must give something, agree to keep it simple: A little something consumable or small (think stocking stuffer or hostess gift) that is about the warm gesture, not the result of the detective work of figuring out what other adults with their own credit cards would have bought for themselves. A coffee mug or baked good is perfectly fine. But nobody over 18 should be making or shopping from lists of shoes and electronics.
Take the money you save and buy yourself something nice in the new year. Or put it in an envelope for your children’s teachers or a charity. If it’s too late to cancel gifts for this Christmas, now is a great time to announce to your family that you’ve had enough and make the case for scrapping the whole tradition in 2022. That may very well be the best gift you can give them.