Why Giving (And Receiving) Gifts Really Sucks


Christmas is Zetta Elliott's favorite time of year, but she doesn't participate in the gift-giving bonanza that typically marks the holiday season.

"I'm fortunate enough to have everything I need," the Brooklyn-based author and educator told Mic, so she decided to opt out of the tradition of material gifting altogether a few years ago, to the slight dismay of some friends and family. "I thought it would be more meaningful if we made gifts for one another so I tried gifting everyone with personalized haiku... That didn't go over well!"

Meanwhile on Reddit, the appropriately named user shitxmas still participates in the tradition, albeit rather begrudgingly.

"Currently I am wrapping gifts that I purchased today to the tune of several hundred dollars," they wrote last December. "I know that at least half of the value will be either unwanted or unappreciated. Yet the recipient will have to act like they like it. And I will have to like whatever they give me. I fucking hate this."

So are these just a bunch of Grinches talking, or does Christmas gift culture really suck?

The pressure to be a jolly lil' Santa to everyone: Neither Elliott nor shitxmas actually dislike Christmas. They just dislike the anxiety, pressure and general bullshit that comes with gift-giving.

"I actually really like this time of year (I love my family and everything, have great friends and am totally blessed out the ass)... I just can't handle the fucking gift giving," shitxmas said at the end of his (or her) impassioned posting. "Can we please all just stop?"

Frank Kobola reiterated this sentiment last year for Cosmopolitan with "Receiving Gifts Gives Me So Much Anxiety and I Hate It," arguing that he hates gift-giving because of the holiday season's shopping stress. Buying gifts, he argues, typically involves overspending and mental anguish over "get[ting] the most expressive, thoughtful gift possible". 

Worse than figuring out what to get other people, he wrote, is figuring out how to react when others bequeath their gifts unto you.

"There is so much pressure on you, the recipient," he wrote. "Sure, if you like it, you're in the clear. But what if you don't like it? Or worse, what if you actively hate it?"

What does the data and research say? Well, those who get stressed out over the holidays are certainly not alone. 90% of respondents to a 2011 Consumer Reports survey reported that they get stressed out over at least one thing during the holiday season, with 28% citing gift shopping as a specific stressor.

Marjorie Delbaere, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, who has studied the phenomenon of gift-giving from a consumer behavior perspective, told Mic that "people get stressed out over Christmas gift giving in part because of the relationship implications of gift giving... There are many cultural norms, or unwritten rules, surrounding gift giving."

One of these rules is that of reciprocity, which Delbaere said can make many feel like they have to predict what each person in their life is going to get them for Christmas so they can present them with a gift of equal thoughtfulness and value. Another source of gift anxiety can be our culture's general obsession with perfection, which can lead some to develop a preoccupation with finding the ideal gifts for those on their Christmas lists.

"Some people love it and really go out of their way to figure out what special, unique gift would be perfect for the people on their list," she said. "But perfect gifts take a lot of time and effort because the giver must have in-depth knowledge of the recipient as well as ensure that the gift is appropriate for the relationship between the giver and recipient."

Also not helping matters? Having peoples' eyeballs on you. "The fact that there is often an audience present during the exchange of a gift, which means that if we receive a gift we don't like, there is extra pressure on us to suppress and negative emotions we might be feeling," Delbaere said.

There's also the fact that gifts are making us go broke. Beyond the social anxiety and mental anguish, there are straight-up financial concerns raised by gift-giving as well. According to a Gallup poll, the average American plans on spending $830 on gifts this year (a number which rises to $908 when you exclude the 8% of Americans who don't intend on spending anything). Considering how much debt so many Americans are already in, can we actually afford this? Probably not, which is likely why the 2014 Survey of Affluence and Wealth, from Time Inc. and YouGov, reported that as many as 1 in 10 American families have given up on holiday gifts.

And even if you do intend to partake in a meager lil' gift exchange within your means, the desire to look cool on social media may wind up forcing you to overspend.

"I think gifts are fine, but I think many people spend more than they have in order to create an illusion of abundance," Elliott told Mic. "And that really is not what Christmas is about."

Krystal D'Costa, a New York anthropologist who focuses on the human experience, told Mic that this pressure to make ourselves seem richer than we are via extreme gift giving can be magnified by social media.

"One of the issues we're facing today is the high visibility of gifts due to social sharing," she said. "This visibility existed prior to online social sharing, but in the offline experience was limited to specific, local displays of wealth. When this experience plays out online there's an added pressure to acknowledge the gifting habits of others as well."

Should we just boycott gifts altogether or what? The answer depends on the individual. D'Costa believes that gift giving doesn't have to be such a pain for those who do partake.

"It's hard to tell people not to care when our social practices are designed to make people care, but ideally that would be it: stop worrying about what others are doing and do what you can do," she told Mic. "Remember that social media can be crafted to show specific things, so worry less about what's transpiring online and more about the memories you can make offline."

Delbaere told Mic that one way to stop caring so much is to "take solace in the fact that good gifts do not have to be perfect gifts." If your relationship with someone is solid, then a gift (or lack thereof) isn't likely to make or break the connection. "At the very least, people really do give credit for the thought and effort that goes into giving a gift even if it isn't something that suits them very well," she said.

And if you're just ready to be like, "fuck this" and give up on gifts altogether? That's OK too, provided you're ready to be a trailblazing pioneer.

"I think it is OK to tell your family and friends that you are not giving gifts this year. What you can't really do is tell someone they shouldn't give you a gift. That is really up to the giver to decide, not the recipient," Dalbaere said. "If you do choose the strategy of opting out of gift giving, be aware that gift giving is firmly embedded in our culture and you do risk breaking some unwritten cultural rules."

For her part, Elliott believes that at the end of the day, the experience of being surrounded by friends and loved ones during the holiday should trump the exchanging of gifts. She told Mic that every year, she and her mother agree to make donations on each other's behalves in lieu of physical items. Elliott gives money to a literacy nonprofit and her mother donates to Hands Across the Sea, an organization that helps build school libraries in the Eastern Caribbean.

"What I hate most about gift culture is the idea that it's believed to be better to give something — anything — than to show up empty-handed. And for me that isn't true," she told Mic. "If you truly care about people you're spending the holidays with, your presence will be a gift. Be a good listener, give hugs, lend a hand."

There's certainly nothing Grinch-like about that.