The thing I’m about to tell you has a curious effect on people. Some think I’m joking, or exaggerating for comic purposes. Some think I’m just being dramatic or deliberately provocative. Others think I’m lying. Some get angry and call me selfish or self-righteous, as though I’m attacking some fundamental part of them.
It’s strange, because what I’m about to say isn’t really a big thing, and I don’t find it very interesting at all. It’s simply that I don’t give gifts, and therefore – to make sure things are fair – I don’t receive them either. Whether you are friend or family or work acquaintance, if you invite me to your Christmas or birthday or wedding, don’t expect me to bring you something you can unwrap and squeal about or push aside in disappointment. And the same goes for your kids.
We are currently at the end of January – “Januworry”, say the folks on Twitter, hilariously lamenting how the festive season tapped them out and how it will take a couple of paychecks to get them right side up and just about ready to deplete themselves again next Christmas. I’m a freelance writer and my income dips greatly and diminishes over December, when magazines and newspapers and TV shows shut down so that everyone can go spend money they can’t really afford, but I don’t have Januworry, nor Febuworry either. My expenses in December are very similar to my expenses every other month. Probably less.
My no-gift policy is undeniably good for the wallet, but it’s more about emotional peace of mind than financial. The decision to spend money is always wrapped up in a complex web of motivations; it’s always on some level emotional. It’s not that I don’t like money or material possessions – I do, and very much – but I don’t like entangling them in the currents and currencies of emotion.
It started with my wedding. For years I’ve been grumbling about taking gifts to other people’s weddings. Why does it happen? These people getting married aren’t 18-year-old virgins who have never had their own home and urgently need toasters and bed linen – they’re grown-ups taking advantage of this situation to refresh their domestic stocks at my expense. Why? If you’re inviting me to share an intimate personal moment, why should the price of entry be something hastily selected off your registry of acceptable tributes? Is your wedding a Kanye West concert? Are you Marlon Brando in The Godfather?
It’s natural to think this way about other people’s weddings, and then when it’s time for your own to think, “Well, I’ve given out so much over the years, now it’s payback time.” I was tempted, but then I thought about my wife and the kind of life I hope to lead with her, and about why we’re having a wedding at all instead of just cohabiting or eloping. It’s because we want to formally make a deeply meaningful commitment, and share it with people we love, and ask them to be a part of our lives going forward. Where do money and gifts come into that? Friends don’t need to pay a tax on friendship.
“No gifts,” I said to my wife-to-be, as she was writing the invitation.
“No gifts?” she said.
“No gifts. No donations to charity, no money stuffed in an envelope. No gifts.”
She chewed her pencil for a while. “No gifts,” she agreed.
Maybe our wedding would have been just as beautiful anyway, but it felt inexpressibly good to be able to tell people there’s no entry fee, to be able to say that their presence in our life is gift enough, and to mean it.
It grew from there. I noticed the mild anxiety when my birthday came around: the pressure to find just the right gift to express how well she knows me, a gift slightly bigger or better than last year’s, a gift that won’t look bad stacked against the gift I gave her. What was going on here? We were using credit cards to perform acts of love, and those acts were being ruined by it.
“No gifts,” I said.
“But I want to give you a gift,” she said.
“I know you do, but I don’t want one. And I won’t give you one either.”
She thought about that. “Okay,” she said. “No gifts.”
That birthday was a lot like my wedding: we spent the day together and laughed together and ended it slow-dancing to a sweet old-fashioned song, and there was nothing in the world missing from it. We do give each other gifts on other occasions, by the way – spontaneously, when we come across something that seems just right, but never when it’s obligatory or expected, and we don’t keep score.
The day before Christmas this year I walked through a mall, free and easy with nothing to do except see a movie, and I looked at people’s faces. They were tense, frustrated, impatient, resentful, tied up in contradictory feelings about families and friends, trying to unravel those knots with their credit cards. I’ll buy these gifts because I’m a good friend, sister, daughter, father, husband. I’ll buy them because they’re my ticket to getting through this season without consciously feeling guilt and unhappiness, and without having to examine exactly what is missing.
Not all my friends and relatives are crazy about the no-gift policy, but I try to compensate for not giving presents by being present instead, by honouring my commitments to them, by showing up even when I’m tired or overworked or would rather be home with my wife. I write letters long-distance and send postcards when I travel; I try to give them time. I may not be a great friend, but since I’ve stopped confusing gifts with friendship, I think I’ve become a better one.
Photo by: BMiz, moustache via Flickr. CC by 2.0.