Oh, the scary business of giving a Christmas gift!

The new trend in holiday gift-giving appears to be … caution. If not downright terror. Not necessarily about how much money is spent, but more a risk-averse attitude toward the possibility that we might buy recipients something that wasn’t exactly what they had in mind or (gasp!) might return.

Last week, Today.com reported on the popularity of kids’ gift registries, which have been replacing the old Santa lists so that everyone knows exactly what will make Aiden or Sophia happy. There isn’t necessarily anything terrible about making the list digital, but the story makes clear that, between people’s more harried lives (less time to get to know what the recipient likes or think what he or she might like; less time for gift returns) and children’s specific expectations, there’s a lot of anxiety about gift-giving, even for the toddler set.

The article quotes Joel Waldfogel, an economics professor at the University of Minnesota, who bemoaned the $14 billion that he said is wasted each year on what he calls “gift mismatch,” or the difference between the price paid for a gift, and how much the gift is valued by the recipient.

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Similarly, a Sunday financial story by Kiplinger sternly warns consumers not to waste money on gifts that might be returned or regifted. Among the things we are instructed to avoid: Exercising your own taste (better to give a gift card); clothing (unless it’s your kids or spouse, it could be the wrong size); tchotchkes (they might have a point here).

At this point, why not just stuff cash into envelopes?

Our intentions are generally the best. We want a gift that delights and fulfills. Sometimes, we want to satisfy a child’s deepest desire. And of course it makes sense, when in doubt, to ask for advice from a relative who's with the recipient every day.

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But are we really going to listen to “experts” telling us to fear putting something of ourselves into the gift-giving process? Are we so timid that the best we can do is what the recipient already expects? In which case, we might as well not bother with the wrapping paper.

Certainly, I’ve gotten my share of disappointing gifts in life. The used church-bazaar dress that an aunt bought me a billion years ago, obviously donated there for an excellent reason. I don’t know what my mother did to save me so quickly from that dress, but I’d barely choked out the nicest “thank you” I could muster before it disappeared forever. My husband’s penchant for herding the kids to the nearest drugstore the afternoon before my birthday, where they all bought items that had nothing to do with me or what I use or do, finally led to my putting my foot down. I’d far rather get nothing than more junk from the drugstore that involved no planning and no thought.

At the same time, when I think of my favorite gifts, none were things I’d asked for. The white-fake-fur dress-up purse with the red-silk lining, from my impractical uncle, when I was a kindergartner. I remember the magic snap-up-snap-down flaps even now. I may not have used it on more than three occasions, but countless were the times that I peered into the drawer where it was kept and ran my fingers along that clean white fur. That thick, heavy book that looked so intimidating and boring to me at age 11--its romantic story of the orphaned girl who was sent off to a cruel charity school but who found love with the tortured Mr. Rochester converted me from Nancy Drew to literary classics.

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Our lives are already overstructured and overinstructed by work, school, homework, organized activities. Our room for creativity and personal expression has narrowed. At least when it comes to giving gifts, let’s be thoughtfully daring from time to time, and who knows, even exercise our own taste.

Just include a gift receipt. And not from the church bazaar.


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