2022 HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE FOR OVERTHINKERS
(or: i’m shit at giving presents and i’d like very much not to be)
Walking downtown feels like walking through a mall now. I can’t see the city for the stores. On Allen Street, I weave past tourists and sigh the exasperated “locals-only” sigh. I turn onto Delancey with the Rolling Stones blasting in my earbuds:
TAKE ME TO THE STATION AND PUT ME ON A TRAIN
I HAVE NO EXPECTATIONS TO PASS THROUGH HERE AGAIN
I stamp out a cigarette and catch the train out to Ryan’s apartment. We go shopping for dinner supplies and buy three jars of olives. Olives are our new thing now. I like the Sicilians and Ryan likes the stuffed queens. “You are what you eat,” we joke.
While we wander the fluorescent-lit aisles of the grocery store, I tell Ryan that I didn’t have any luck this afternoon. I spent hours aimless in Soho, trying to find the perfect Christmas presents. But I didn’t buy anything for anyone.
Ryan is the best gift-giver I know. (I once made an offhand remark about how, as a kid, I loved backgammon boards and used to carry my mom’s around the house like it was a briefcase. Months later, on my birthday, Ryan handed over a vintage backgammon set made of light blue corduroy.) I ask how he finds good presents and he says, “I don’t know. Last year I got it done early. Went downtown and knocked it all out in one day.” Just before we reach the check-out, Ryan turns around and heads back to the aisles to pick up snacks for his partner. He’s always doing this, buying little things with the sole intent of seeing someone else’s smile later.
For birthdays and Christmases, I have gifted Ryan a pasta maker, some fancy soap, and a vintage metal spoon. Each of these presents has been a reference to something we’ve done together, but none has felt satisfactory to give. As soon as I’ve handed each gift over, I’ve felt the weight of regret. I know that it’s not just the thought that counts.
In 1951, Theodor Adorno was already complaining that people had forgotten how to give meaningful gifts. He was pissed about the existence of gift guides. (If you needed to browse The Strategist or Google “gifts for dads,” that showed a distance or lack of care.) In “Minima Moralia” Adorno wrote:
“private gift-giving has degenerated into a social function, which one carries out with a reluctant will, with tight control over the pocketbook, a skeptical evaluation of the other and with the most minimal effort. Real gift-giving had its happiness in imagining the happiness of the receiver. It meant choosing, spending time, going out of one’s way, thinking of the other as a subject: the opposite of forgetfulness. Hardly anyone is still capable of this. In the best of cases, they give what they themselves would have wished for, only a few shades of nuance worse.”
The act of “real gift-giving” is, according to Adorno, one of the things that makes us human. And those who are not capable of it wither “in the isolated cell of pure inwardness.”
At times, I have thought of my poor gift-giving skills as a reaction to that large overarching sense of doom we refer to as “late-stage capitalism.” I’d sigh that nothing was immune to the market. (You couldn’t even love someone without presents coming into it!!) Yet it’s not true that I constantly fight the marketplace. I am more than capable of understanding how to communicate myself through objects. There is no one I think of more in a mall than me. I know instantly which boots, which books, and which weird windchime from that patchouli-thick New Age store I want to buy.
About 20 years ago, sociologist Joseph E. Davis wrote that “we judge the quality of our inner experience through identification with the things we buy.” According to Davis, in the 1970s, we began to shift our sense of identity from “institutional roles” like worker or mother and put “more weight on internal criteria or ‘impulse.’” We knew who we were because we knew what we wanted. That quickly translated to the marketplace. We knew who we were because we knew what we wanted to buy.
So if we take Davis and Adorno’s critiques together, we see that successful gifts not only think “of the other as a subject,” but also reflect back the other’s “internal criteria.” It’s a near-paralyzing standard to consider. I’m convinced that gift cards were invented not out of uncaring laziness but overwhelming anxiety and self-doubt. We want to gift people something that they would like…but do we really know them as well as we think we do? If you’ve ever offended a friend by pointing out a sweater you thought was *just their style* only for them to recoil in distaste, you know exactly the type of damage that’s on the line here.
After dinner, I say goodbye to Ryan and catch the train back to Manhattan. When I’m above ground again, I pass the VR Squid Game Experience, where people put on headsets and jump around glass boxes. I sigh the sigh I usually keep for tourists, then walk by stationery shops and clothing stores and neon advertisements for lipsticks to “give beauty.” I duck into each shop and hope some object will speak to me on behalf of someone I love. But nothing does.
I walk the downtown mall and pass people whose arms are loaded with paper shopping bags. Lights twinkle. It’s all the Christmastime in the city shit. I put the Rolling Stones back on loop in my earbuds to try to drown it out. But I can’t escape the material world. We all live in the mall now. And I know that I should have some purist stance like ~THERE IS NO ETHICAL CONSUMPTION UNDER CAPITALISM~ but more than that...I know that you can put a present in a box, wrap it with a bow, and make it say “I love you.” I know that these types of things matter.
Cynicism around capitalism, as superior as it may make me feel, doesn’t actually do anything at Christmas. Presents are compromised conduits of human care, yeah, sure, of course. But the best gifts somehow transcend these limits. They are physical manifestations of the intangible: reminders that we are held, remembered and cherished in another person’s mind.
Yes, our shared rituals have been corroded by commercialism. But…I don’t know…I think it might be possible to resist the isolation perpetuated by a consumerist world if we imbue our market-based interactions with (ugh) love. I think it might be possible to reclaim consumption as a site of genuine connection. This doesn’t require buying more or better presents. After all, what makes Ryan’s brand of gift-giving so special is rarely the object itself. It is the material reminder that we linger in our loved one’s mind long after we leave them.
The question at stake here is: how do we make objects meaningful? The answer requires us to leave our own personal pillars of meaning and temporarily use another person’s. To give a gift is to translate something about your relationship to the material realm. So the problem of how to become a better gift giver, I’m afraid, will not be solved in any gift guide. If we must exist within a capitalized material world, we have to figure out how to imbue it with integrity, compassion, and recognition of the truth of another person.
Perhaps it’s trite and too close to a Hallmark Christmas movie to be truly meaningful but…like all troublesome but worthwhile endeavors, I think that the answer of how to bring Christmas back from its consumerist hellscape can be found in consistent care and attention. We must watch how our loved ones move through the material world, learn who they are both in and outside of their “consumer” identity, then somehow try to replicate that as we search the mall for signs of them. Sure, it’s a mindfuck and possibly a capitalist trap. But gift-giving is a mode of communication that we can’t exactly shirk without seeing consequences in our relationships.
Whatever. Fuck. Good luck making up for your utter lack of attention this year, ya heathens. You’ve got 10 days. Praying for a festivus miracle for you. Blah blah blah.
P.S. Anybody have any ideas what I should bring to my family White Elephant this Christmas? Pls help.
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Sorry about that one time, Caroline!!! I’m a monster!!
Reminds me of a tenet from the BDSM community: what sadists want, often, is not to inflict pain per se but to inflict experience/sensation. They want proof that they exist, that their actions can be felt by another.