How to deal with the presence of presents? It’s truly a gift

An illustration for Patt Morrison’s column, “How to deal with the presence of presents? It’s truly a
“What do you want for the holidays?”
(Sarah Wilkins / For The Times )

Who hasn’t watched “A Christmas Story,” that clear-eyed 1983 classic film about a midcentury Midwestern child’s Christmas in wails?

That child would be 9-year-old Ralphie, whining and begging for the air rifle that everyone assures him will put his eye out. With the forgiveness of memory, we’ve watched it for that moment that was the pith and marrow of our own kiddie greed: on Christmas morning, Ralphie’s little brother, Randy, shrieks at each coveted gift he lays eyes on, “Oh, boy, that’s mine!”

We’ve all been there, done that — and all grown out of it, except maybe for the men of the rapacious 1980s who drove cars with bumper stickers reading, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” That sentiment, with its starchy grammar, supposedly fell from the lips of billionaire Malcolm Forbes, who did indeed die with a higgledy-piggledy collection of toys he had given himself: Faberge eggs and motorcycles, model ships and a life-sized yacht. But as the ’90s pushback pointed out, “He who dies with the most toys still dies.”

As for the rest us, what do we want? Presents! When do we want them? [Almost] always!

Yet the sort of presents we want changes throughout our arc of years and alters with circumstance.

There’s the Age of Randy, the kid who loves Santa as a conjurer of loot, and measures the success of the holiday by volume, a good bit of it destined to be forgotten under a bed by Valentine’s Day.

The Age of Hormones takes us from quantity to cool, and for parents, these are the most challenging gift-giving years. Even coolest-dad Barack Obama often wound up mortifying his daughters. If your parents chose it, it’s probably tainted goods. Do you guys really have to take my stupid picture while I open this box? Oh my gawd that mohair sweater. Thanks, but I wanted it for my birthday, which was three entire months ago. Nobody wears that color now. Please, please, I just want a gift card that I can use anywhere, preferably at the stores that open on Christmas night so I can Get. Out. Of. This. House.

The Age of Singlehood and College Debt can now run well into the 30s and beyond. At a point in life when your grandparents were setting up wedded housekeeping — in 1950 the average woman married at 20 and the man at 23 — you could still be dreaming of your own roommate-free apartment and working several jobs on your way toward that dream career. In this age, there’s a crass but direct answer to the question, “What do you want for the holidays?” Want to know what to give me, Grandma? How about a little something toward my student loan?

The World Wide Web has made online gift registry into an etiquette breakthrough. And it kills off an important social skill of the last century: navigating the embarrassment and inconvenience of returning unwanted gifts. A nice Netflix subscription, a restaurant dining-out card, or a card from the coffee-monster-chain-that-shall-not-be-named — all welcome but all anonymized. In years to come, who’ll bring out that now-zero-balance gift card from Mom and Dad to tell fond tales of Christmases past?

Eventually, the Age of Changes arrives.

Marriage, house-renting [or owning, if you’re lucky], do-it-yourselfery and bringing-up-babying can get crammed into a hectic handful of years. It’s a tall step up in the adulting world, but it’s doubtful that a modern man of the house will welcome drawersful of neckties or that the no-longer-little woman will swoon over the “gift” of a new vacuum cleaner. Clean it up yourself, buddy — I need a gym membership.

A friend of mine complained that her newlywed niece absolutely refused the gift of her late grandparents’ exquisite china and their valuable and beautiful antique furniture. Family heirlooms may not fit into modern lives or modern spaces, but without just one or two of them, however unsightly, we lose one tangible link to our families’ intangible existence.

To give presents in the Age of Parenting is to reach the human tipping point from me to thee, from more things to fewer and better things to “Oh, nothing for me, the holidays are all about the kids.”

And then that eases us into the Age of the Boomers, populated by 50-and-ups who now — sorry, mercantile America — may want more experiences than stuff. Having grown up accumulating, boomers now want instead to go adventuring with their iPads and instant-translation apps.

There is one new-ish gift trend, the three-way donation. Person A says he’s donated money in the name of Person B to Cause X.

It’s a way of honoring both the cause and the person, but I learned of this because my old friend Marlon Brando called me to fulminate about it one day in 1999 or 2000. He’d received a note telling him that a rich acquaintance had donated a big wad of dough to a charity in his, Marlon’s, name. It wasn’t the charity Marlon objected to; it was the presumption of using his name.

I put that memory to use in 2001, just after George W. Bush became president. Women’s groups were furious that he had rolled back many women’s reproductive protections put in place by Bill Clinton. I recalled Marlon’s annoyance and recalled too the scene in the movie “Miracle on 34th Street,” when thousands of letters addressed to Santa wind up in a courtroom in a case over Santa’s identity. With Presidents Day upon us, I suggested an anti-gift antidote in my column: if anyone upset about the undoing of these rules donated anything — even $5 — to pro-choice groups in President Bush’s name, then avalanches of “a gift has been given in your name” cards would flood the White House.

My stunt raised about a million dollars for Planned Parenthood, making Bush 43 back-handedly one of the biggest-ever Planned Parenthood fundraisers. [Some of his supporters gave money to the NRA in my name as a return volley.] Since then, my stunt has been used for and against candidates from Sarah Palin to Mike Pence.

And now a warning word about re-gifting. In 1964, a Minnesota man named Larry Kunkel didn’t like the trousers his mom gave him, and he gave them as a Christmas present to his brother-in-law, Roy Collette. Roy didn’t think much of the pants or the second-hand sentiment and sent them back the next Christmas.

This launched a decades-long, one-upping duel of passing the pants back and forth in ever-more outlandish packaging: in a 3-foot pipe, a 225-pound homemade steel ashtray, a 600-pound safe, in the glove compartment of a crushed AMC Gremlin, in a custom-made 4-ton Rubik’s cube, until at last, one gift mishap reduced the pants to ashes that came to rest in an urn on Kunkel’s mantelpiece.

And if you’d like to know my gift wishes for the holidays?

First, please obey the inflexible rule, ironclad from the Iron Age to the era of deplorable designer dogs: Do not give anyone but your own kids a pet as a surprise. Ever.

Second: please, dear Santa, tell people to stop using the word “gifted’ as a verb.

Gift guides:

Support our journalism

Please consider subscribing today to support stories like this one. Already a subscriber? Your support makes our work possible. Thank you. Get full access to our signature journalism for just 99 cents for the first four weeks.