Blog - posted on December 17, 2015

Why the best Christmas gift is no gift at all.

Best christmas gift is an empty shopping list

I haven’t bought a single Christmas gift for the past 5 years, and I haven’t received one either, and my life is so much better for it. I haven’t had to deal with Black Friday, wrapping paper, or lack of sleep.

I generally hate Christmas. I loathe the oncoming of tinsel and holiday decorations. December brings with it an uneasy feeling of “I’ll be glad when this is over”. I used to love it, but now I find myself retreating more and more inward, loathing even a quick trip to the store for milk.  It’s not actually Christmas that bothers me, it’s the shopping and materialistic mentality that has become an integral part of it, and what that does to people. I’m not particularly religious by any stretch of the imagination, but this is one situation where I think I see eye to eye with more hard line Christians. The holiday isn’t supposed to be about televisions and video game platforms. It’s not supposed to be about money and consumption. Where we part ways is when it comes to what it’s supposed to be about. They say Jesus, I say family and friends, but we agree that it’s not about getting 30% off a 5TB SSD that has a carbonite Han Solo on the front (although it’s still awesome nonetheless).

As a kid I was like most children, anticipating gifts under the tree, pancakes and bacon accompanied by ice cold Pepsi that had been left out on the porch the night before, stockings filled with chocolate and firecrackers, and the inevitable mess of wrapping paper we’d use to start a fire later that night. We’d have trouble sleeping the night before because we knew that it was all only a mere 8 hours away. I didn’t have to stay up all night wrapping gifts, or brave the hordes of people doing last minute shopping. All we knew was that we’d wake up in the morning, and “Santa Claus” had taken care of everything. We’d shout from the top of the stairs that we were up, and it was legally morning, and time to get things started.

I got older, the mystery dissolved, and things gradually changed. It’s hard to know whether it was society that had changed over the years, becoming more greedy and materialistic, or if it was simply my transformation from child to adult, gift opener to gift hunter. Whatever the cause may be, my experience of Christmas has gone from anticipation to dread. As I got older I found myself experiencing that familiar last minute frenzy to find some perfect gift that was somewhere, in a mall or department store, waiting to be discovered like a soul-mate that I didn’t yet know I was in love with. I didn’t know what to get (insert name/relation) for Christmas… but I’m sure it would jump out at me if I just kept looking.

Traffic map during christmas seasonYear after year I started to dread the inevitable stress I knew was coming, and it ceased to be fun. It stopped being magical and started becoming frustrating. The day after Thanksgiving marked the beginning of it. Black Friday. The worsening traffic, tailgaters, honking horns, short fuses, parking space stealers, pushy customers, aggressive drivers… It all starts on Black Friday.

I leave the house like I normally do, but after Black Friday there’s more cars on the road, and they’re different. They’re right on my ass. They’re not letting me merge. They see my turn signal but choose to block me rather than letting me in. They’re driving with the holiday spirit: Get out of my way, I’ve got shopping to do.

Car accidents. How many fender benders happen as a result of Christmas shopping? People are driving twice as much, tired and frazzled, and trying to fit more obligations into their day. They’ve got a small window between 5:30 and 10:00, and It’s going to take longer to get to Kohl’s than normal because so many more idiots are out on the road. People cut each other off, take more risks, and you add one texting teenager to the mix… kersmash!

I get it, and it’s not that hard to figure out. More people are out on the roads, and most of them are in the same state of mind. They’re not out to have fun, they’ve got business to tend to. They’ve been at work all day, and now they’re trying to find the one store that has the thing their kid wants, because it’s the same thing that all the other kids want, so nobody has it. They’re already tired, frustrated, and spending money they can’t afford, dealing with unusually congested roads and parking lots, full of other equally irritable people in the exact same frame of mind. It’s a recipe for disaster.

It’s like when the Ravens won the Super Bowl and everyone in Baltimore was happy and nice to each other for a couple days… but in reverse.
When a large portion of society is all doing the same thing, it has a cumulative effect, and it multiplies itself exponentially. Just like when everyone decides to go to the beach on Memorial weekend; traffic is horrible, and the only people that relax are the ones that stay home. Each person that goes Christmas shopping is adding to the mess too. It’s one more car on the road. One less parking space available. One more person circling the parking garage. One less night at home with the family.

Black Friday to Thanksgiving
Black Friday. It sounds like a tragedy that Bono should be imploring us to never forget. “Twas on Black Friday that the forces of oppression and greed made us all victims, dividing families, turning us on each other…” Black Friday is the zenith of what I don’t like about the holidays, and the end result of what I believe has ruined them for many people. I’d be curious to know how many of those Black Friday doorbuster shoppers are actually buying gifts for someone else; I’d wager a crushed Walmart greeter’s salary that most of those people are actually in line for the high dollar item that they want for themselves, not their kids.

Looking at watch thanksgiving dinnerIt used to be the last few days before Christmas that were chaotic and scary, Christmas Eve being the worst.  Over the years retailers have wised up and moved the chaos earlier and earlier. Get the shoppers early and stretch the buying season. Eventually the season got stretched all the way to the watermark of the day after Thanksgiving; most people were off of work, and it kind of made sense. Then Black Friday started happening at midnight. After that it crept earlier and earlier to the final stopping block: Thanksgiving dinner. Black Friday starts at 5:00 pm on Thursday. Now there’s an imaginary starting gun that gets fired as soon as the cranberry sauce dish gets picked up off the table. “Well that turkey was much better than last year!” and you can see the deal hunter rolling his watch over, making sure that slice of pumpkin pie isn’t going to derail his BestBuy battle plan. Even before grandpa starts to doze off in the recliner, someone is warming the car up as a sign that it’s time to get to business. No time to dilly-dally with the relatives, there’s rock bottom deals to be seized upon. Just like the god awful “Back to School!” sales have been ruining kids summer earlier and earlier, retailers have crept backwards and started ruining Thanksgiving as well.

The Gifts
Trying to find good gifts is draining, and the odds of it going well are stacked against us. It’s especially hard if the people we’re shopping for already have what they need, because now we’re essentially guessing. “What do they secretly want or need, but haven’t thought to ask for or know about yet?”

There’s a subtle equation that happens here: Good gift=I get you. Bad gift=Who are you? If they open your gift and go, “Holy crap… this is perfect! How did you?… I didn’t even… “ then it demonstrates how well you know them, what they really need in life, because they’re important to you and you’ve been paying close attention. If someone opens your gift and blankly stares at it, we know they’re trying come up with a polite lie about how, “I’ve been thinking about taking up this obscure hobby that I’ve never shown interest in or mentioned before!” Therein lies the rub; if the gift doesn’t elicit a beaming smile, both parties get hurt feelings.

In a way it’s not quite as bad as the generic gift. At least with a bad gift the person made an effort, even if it was uneducated or irrational. They think they know us, but they’re just misinformed. The generic gift says, “I don’t know what you want, so I just got you paper towels. Everyone uses paper towels, and you’re everyone.” They could’ve given that to anyone, and anyone could have bought it; there’s nothing special or personal about it at all. This gift could easily be thrown into the secret Santa pile at the office and still be considered a valid gift.

Then there’s the “I didn’t know we were doing gifts” gift. I don’t like being ambushed by gifts, because it means I don’t have one to give. You didn’t give me a gift, you gave me a cold bucket of guilt. Regardless of what comes out of your mouth, I now feel bad that you’re handing me something and I’m handing you nothing. That’s how my brain works. I don’t like owing people anything, and now I feel like I owe you something.

What do I want?
What I want for Christmas? I want to avoid all that headache. I want to avoid the stressed out road rage. I want to not get angry because I’ve been cut off, tailgated, and forced to drive like Lord Humongous in order to survive. That’s what I want for Christmas.

“What about the spirit of giving?”, some might ask. Okay, I’ll tell you what I want to give. One hour that my friends and family don’t have to spend dealing with that headache either. Take the hour you would’ve spent purchasing a gift for me, and spend it with me instead. Let’s get coffee, or go for a ride. Instead of money, I want you to spend time. Time is more valuable anyway, it’s the one commodity that we can’t amass and get more of, which makes it more precious than any gift we could buy. Give me peace of mind and and a stress free December. Give me some face time. I’d enjoy that a lot more than socks.

I don’t participate anymore for the same reason I don’t watch TMZ or Entertainment Tonight: I don’t want to add even a drop of complicity to something awful. Even if my contribution is negligible, I don’t care. My absence in the parking garage or checkout line might not register a blip on society’s radar, but it has already allowed my bottle of Xanax to accumulate just a bit more dust.

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