Notes & Essays

The Tradition of Gift-Giving Has Become Little More Than a Transaction; So Why Do We Still Do it?

What do we really get out of it?
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Children figure out early on that the reason for wrapping gifts is to conceal what’s inside; to make a guessing game out if it, even for just a few seconds after being handed the gift, or for an entire torturous week while it sits beneath the Christmas tree. Even before Schrodinger’s cat, generations of children imagined all sorts of things that could be inside a box.

Growing up in the 90’s, I have lots of memories of gifts from Kris Kringle. But back then, a box of Jack and Jill’s choco pretzels, a box of Sour Balls, or a box of Gard bath soap would do. Anything you could buy in a sari-sari store was good enough as long as it came in a box, because, once wrapped, it would look like any other gift. The fun really lay in finding out who it was that had a gift lined up for you and had been thinking about you.

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But somehow, things changed in the decades since. Maybe it was the economy or an increasing financial literacy rate, because suddenly we had rules to ensure fairness and quality. Some rules were innocent at first—it had to be something “soft,” or something “red” to fit a particular theme. Then food items got banned; the gift had to be more “material,” and less ephemeral. Then it became a standard that the gift had to be worth a certain value. There had to be a minimum amount one had to spend.

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And to satisfy expectations, people came up with wish lists. Of course, it sounded like a good idea now that you wouldn’t have to be hassled spending so much time deciding and looking for what to give. You wouldn’t have to worry whether the person will like it or not. It’s quick and easy, like everything else in our ever-growing consumer society.

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The pinnacle of this trend I encountered a few days ago, when at a party, I found out it was becoming normal for people to just put “money” on their wish list, thus guaranteeing that they got back the full value of what they put out.

It seems that the tradition of gift-giving (at least the ones we do in schools and offices) has now become a mere transaction. We’re literally just buying things for each other now that we could buy for ourselves anyway, and which we’d probably do a better job at. Knowing what one is getting eliminates the element of surprise and the need for it to be wrapped. Knowing that you asked for it negates any effort and thoughtfulness on the part of the giver.

So why do we still do it? What do we get out of it? What are we really hiding beneath all the wrapping paper?

Some people I asked said that our wish lists are things we don’t have time to get, or things we would feel guilty or unsure about if we bought them ourselves. But I suspect the real reason is more of a consequence of our corporate and alienated culture. That because of our innate need to feel loved, we now go to great lengths to make ourselves feel loved, even if resorting to simulated gestures of thoughtfulness and generosity. We have become dependent on a system to give the impression that yes, someone remembered us! The feeling is that someone took the time and effort to get me something and understands me enough to know what I actually wanted!

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If Christmas has become a consumer holiday, then exchanging gifts has become a consumer service necessary for self-validation and self-worth: “I am what I receive,” is the underlying message.

But “gift” and “give” share the same etymology and we ought to be reminded that the former is more of a verb than a noun. A gift is about the hows and the whys instead of what. “It’s the thought that counts,” isn’t just some holiday cliché—it is age-old wisdom citing our deepest needs to be part of a community that genuinely cares and thinks about each other, which in our age of being constantly distracted by technology, work and social media we are experiencing a serious drought of.

Looking at it this way, we can realize that we wrap gifts not just to make them look pretty. The beauty of a gift wrap is that it conceals the item for the time being to allow us “to see” the real gift—the fact that someone else thought about us. That we are part of something beyond ourselves. It invites us to pause and consider the unknown as already a gift in itself. To render the material invisible, and make the act of giving visible.

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May we all understand gifts this way this Christmas.

Derik Cumagun is a college instructor from Lipa, Batangas.

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