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.

4 thoughts on “Philosophy of Christmas Gifts”

  1. The quickest way to break the agony of ” What to give? How much to spend? Who gets what? Should I exchange it for something I could really use? Would the giver be hurt if they never see it in my home or on my back?” is simply to make the decision to stop the fuss. Years ago we made the decision to stop the gift exchange among adults and only give to the children. Dire financial circumstances prevented us from gifting little nieces and nephews and so the list of gifts to purchase almost disappeared. The first Christmas felt a little strange, the second felt wonderful. We were able to concentrate on the real meaning of Christmas and share love and joy and hospitality and not “things”. Surprise…we never lost a friend or were alienated from extended family members.
    Try it…you’ll like it!

  2. I wrote you a big long article on this, but it got too personal, so I had to delete it. Sorry. Perhaps we’ll have a chance to talk about it in person.

  3. I enjoy the process of coming up with gifts that fit the person. I don’t feel pressured by that. What I don’t like is a feeling that I need to buy something for someone just because they did or might give me something. Those people are usually non-family and/or not close friends. Giving out of obligation is the bad thing.

    We could always do the “draw names” thing, so that each adult gives to one other adult. But I reserve the right to always give to my grandkids. 🙂

  4. You know what I realized as I received cards from new friends? I would have no idea what their handwriting looked like if it weren’t for those notes. It’s a simple thing that adds depth to what I know about the person, and I really like knowing what their writing looks like! I think the impact of words can be enormous, and I also think that a heartfelt note would embody the spirit of Christmas beautifully.

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