Philosophy of Christmas Gifts

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve been thinking about Christmas presents lately. Not what to get my family (although, of course, I’ve done that, too), but more the philosophy and theory of gift-giving, specifically: Why do we give gifts at all?

Now, birthday gift-giving seems somewhat logical, with friends giving the birthday-ee gifts to express their appreciation for the friend’s life. Perhaps we’re using presents to say, “You are a gift in my life. Let me give back to you a token to acknowledge all the joy you bring to me by being my friend.” That completely makes sense, although since having Benji I’ve thought that moms should really get the presents on the kid’s birthday, but that a different story.

Christmas gifts, now. There are two perspectives one could take: Christian and non-Christian.

The Christian reason I can see pretty easily: God gave us Jesus, and Jesus gave his life, the ultimate sacrifice to give us the free gift of a redeemed life in Him. As Christians, we then would give one another presents to remind ourselves of that truth. However, if that were the only reason to give gifts, presumably we would simply give one another cards, or some symbolic token, like the bread and wine in Communion.

But we still give one another real presents, and often agonize over what to give, too. This leads us to the same place as non-Christians giving presents: Why? Why do we put so much time, effort, and money into one single day of giving presents? More, what I really want to know is, why do we agonize so much over finding the perfect gift for loved ones? The pressure to find many different people a unique, thoughtful, meaningful present can turn the holiday into a month or two of horror.

Is this some kind of evolutionary adaptation? Do we have an innate desire to find just the right thing in some evolutionary dive to keep our tribe happy, thereby keeping it together, keeping the individuals safer, and making it more likely to propagate our genes to the next generation? That seems a stretch, especially given the failure rate (how many times have you gotten something not right for you?) and the fact that we often give gifts to people who provide no evolutionary advantage, like old relatives or friends far away.

So, then, is this gift-giving mostly driven by marketing pressure, businesses spending months braying about finding the “perfect present for someone who already has it all,” leading inevitably to the unfulfillable expectation that we will find perfect gifts for everyone we know?

If we weren’t so obsessed with finding the exact right thing, presumably we would all give one another gift cards or cash with a note that says, “I love you this much*.” It seems like that should satisfy both the need to show your love for someone and the difficulty of finding an appropriate gift – let the recipient purchase his own thing, but with your money. But gift cards, although frequently given, seem to be perceived as a last resort or failure on the giver’s part: “I couldn’t think what to give her, so I got her an Amazon gift card.”

This makes me think there’s a happy medium we’ve been missing here. Clearly we value tangible physical objects (or their emotional equivalent), and want to give something real and appropriate to our loved ones at Christmas. And, despite what all the previous discussion may have led you to think, I’m all on board with giving presents in general. I don’t want it to sound like I think we should just toss out the entire tradition. I just feel that maybe it’s time to reassess our assumptions and expectations about what an appropriate gift looks like.

Christ never cared for stuff, and I can’t believe that He would like our current obsession with giving things at Christmas. He said it was harder to be a wealthy believer, because our possessions really possess us, distracting us from the point of life – loving other people.

How about if, instead of finding the perfect thing, we relaxed a bit and bought something enjoyable and at least moderately appropriate to the recipient, and called it good? Even more radically, what if we took a friend out to dinner, or went for a walk, or wrote an appreciative note, or made a donation in a friend’s name instead of having to spend lots of money and time cudgeling our brains into a thoughtful, clever, exactly-what-he-wanted (maybe) gift? I suspect that if we gave those kinds of gifts, Christmas would not only be more relaxed and enjoyable, but more authentic. (Plus, we could have much smaller trees, not needing tons of room beneath for lots of boxes!)

I think I’m going to try this next year, so if you get a heartfelt note from me in lieu of the perfect thing, you’ll know why. I would love to receive those kinds of gifts, too, so feel free to test this theory out on me.

And, if I don’t get to it between now and next week: Merry Christmas!

* Note: There seems to be an implied but not universal assumption that we should/do spend more money on people we love more, and therefore you can gauge how much the giver loves you by how much they spent. Again, clearly not true – a homemade gift may be far more loving and heartfelt than an expensive one; plus, many people don’t have the resources to put into that kind of giving – but still this idea does linger, presumably also driven by money-grubbing advertising.

Talking Highlights

There are some good things and some bad things about Benji starting to talk a bit more. One bad thing: We can’t do secret Christmas presents in front of him, because he’ll give stuff away! But mostly we have highlights of Benji talking:

– He calls fire or candles “poof,” because that’s how Nana’s has fireplace turns on.
– He can say tiller truck, as “tiwwa truck” and enunciates aid car and pumper truck clearly.
– He can say sea anemone, sea star, coral, and sea urchin, thanks to the Eric Carle Hermit Crab book.
– He calls cement mixers “bwabwabwa trucks,” making a bla/circling noise with his tongue. Other construction trucks are accurately rendered, however, except “suck truck” for pumper truck.
– Benji often says things like, “Red part gone? No.” (Referring to a visual timer.) Or “Nana bye-bye? No.” Or “More cheese please, yes!” (Telling us what to respond ahead of time.)
– When uncertain, he says, “Hmmmm… Hmmmmmmmmm…” and just keeps on saying that until someone tells him the answer.

We’ve been doing speech therapy for a few months now, and although he hasn’t caught up with his peers, Benji has started using far more words and phrases than before. Most noticeability, he had started imitating way more things we say, even if we don’t always understand him. I think understandability will continue to be an issue for a long time, but he’s figured out what words are for and that they can be useful, and therefore worth working hard to say.

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Today’s Highlights

Mom and Benji and I went Christmas tree hunting today. It was certainly different from cutting a tree in the woods, but one thing was the same: I somehow managed to get extremely muddy and dirty despite the suburbanity of our acquition location. Anyway, here are mom and Benji before cutting the tree.

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Let’s be honest, though: Benji really cared most about the tractor/backhoe combo truck, and the tractor.

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Highlights from the last few days

Not so much a highlight, but it’s gotten cold again, and that means I haven’t been getting out on my bike lately. I have been riding my trainer, which is fine as far as burning off Christmas cookies goes, but not so fun for getting outside and taking a mental break from my life.

But the bright side is that I’ve gotten to spend time with Ian and Benji together, especially in the snow (such as we got).

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And today I saw the secret Tesla cave in the Bellevue Square partying lot.

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On my way to my work meeting, I saw the quintessential Bellevue moment: A woman wearing a luxurious black real fur coat being shown how to operate her new white Tesla. I has to resist an urge to just stop and watch for a while, the same way you gawk at a roadside accident.

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Today’s highlights

“Wellllll… I guess I’ll put out the fire, but only if you ask nicely.”

Met up with friends John, Anu, and son Kiran at a new play area, which had trucks. ‘Nuf said.

Also my parents (Nana and Papa Joe to Benji) arrived back from Paris today, and I expect Benji to have a joyful reunion… With their trucks, since we haven’t been to their house or seen their toys in 10 days.

Edit to add:
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Home, and happy about it!

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Yesterday’s Highlight

I’m so excited to see the new logo I helped birth taking its first steps.

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I can’t overstate how much effort it took to get this m new branding running, but having it physically in my hands make it all worth it.

Also, the highlight for Thanksgiving: Having Ian’s parents and grandparents over to our house. It was a wonderful blessing to have everyone at the same holiday event.

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Today’s Highlights

I’m sure that, even if you’re not a parent, you’ve heard about how difficult it is to parent a toddler. We call it having a child in the Terrible Twos, or, a year later, having a Threenager, and there are smoke examples of how challenging it is to manage a young child, including the often funny-because-it’s-true Reasons My Son Is Crying. Enough of that; I’m going to try to start posting regular, if not exactly daily, highlights of our day, with pictures if I can get one.

Without further ado, today:
– The look on Benji’s face when he realized it was stamp time in dance class (also, instrument time is a close second).
– Both me and Benji getting a nap this afternoon.
– Benji feeding the Tube Worm knitted by my cousin Emma pompoms and tea:

– Benji walking up the stairs by himself all the way to the 3rd floor medical center after insisting on taking the stairs. I was sure I’d have to carry him, but he manfully walked the entire way himself, even letting left for have a turn now and then.
– Benji pushing the grocery cart for me in the grocery store – I steered, he pushed. Looked kind of like this:

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We had a pretty good day, really.

Dulcius Ex Asperis