Notes & Essays

Opinion: The Tradition of Exchanging Gifts has Gotten Out of Hand

You shouldn’t feel pressured to give gifts to people if you don’t feel like it or you can’t afford to.
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I used to get together with a group of friends every holiday season. We’d plan the whole thing via our Yahoogroups (remember that?) and talk about the gifts we wanted to receive. We even started drawing up a “wish list” for ourselves to make it easier for the others to figure out what to get. 

In the beginning it was exciting. I had just begun to earn money for myself and it was a good feeling to go out and get nice gifts for friends. There were about seven or eight of us in the group and we’d all exchange gifts after dinner and then spend the rest of the night doing what barkadas do: drink, chat and then drink some more.

Eventually, the whole thing started to get more complicated and stressful. The minimum price for the gifts began shooting up, ostensibly because we were starting to get paid a bit more than minimum wage. Items in our “wish list” got more and more exorbitant, and we started planning bigger and grander parties in fancier venues.

I went along with it for a while. I loved my friends and figured they deserved the best. We even started buying gifts for boyfriends and girlfriends as our little group expanded from the original seven or eight. 

But then there was that year I switched jobs, to take on something I loved, but for which I had to take a significant pay cut. That holiday season, I explained the situation to my friends, saying I probably wasn’t going to be able to buy stuff from their wish lists and may be a bit behind paying my share of the hotel suite we rented for the festivities that year.

I thought they would understand. Boy was I wrong. I remember vividly one friend’s stinging rebuke: she said it was my responsibility to figure out a way to cough up the payment for the hotel and the other expenses for the party and buy gifts for everyone.

And that makes one really take a step back and question the whole exercise of gift-giving. It wasn’t an issue before, when I had the money and was happy to splurge on gifts. But when the whole thing becomes a chore—when you’re left feeling like you have no choice but to give—then you have to wonder why you do it in the first place.

When the whole thing becomes a chore—when you’re left feeling like you have no choice but to give—then you have to wonder why you do it in the first place. 

It’s a similar situation in countless schools and offices and in every small group of colleagues and friends. Giving gifts has become an essential Filipino holiday ritual—right up there with simbang gabi and eating bibingka and puto bumbong. There’s nothing inherently wrong about it: handing somebody a box covered in Christmas wrapper and tied up with a ribbon is a basic expression of fondness and gratitude. It’s an age-old tradition that, in itself, is harmless and can actually be quite uplifting to the spirit. 

The problem begins with the expectations we put on others. Giving is an act of altruism—we do it because we want to, without thought of getting something in return. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

What does it say about us when we go to all the trouble of picking out the right gift for someone only because we know we’re getting the same or something better? Aren’t we completely upending the “spirit of Christmas” if we judge people based on their less-than-ideal gift and even resent those who refuse to join the “exchange gift” pool?

Nobody should be forced to do something they don’t want to do. And that includes giving gifts for Christmas. But the tradition of monito-monita or Secret Santa has blurred the lines somewhat. It’s entirely voluntary, they say, but you know, deep down, that you’re obliged to come up with a gift, no matter if you’re broke, or werent planning on giving a gift to your asshole officemate or you’d prefer to make a donation to a charitable institution. When you say no to something as banal and as innocent as a Christmas exchange gift, suddenly, you’re weird, uncooperative, stingy and even mean.

When you say no to something as banal and as innocent as a Christmas exchange gift, suddenly, you’re weird, uncooperative, stingy and even mean.

Look. If everybody in a Secret Santa group agrees to the specifics—what kinds of gifts should be given, how much they should cost, how they’re going to be distributed, etc.—then there’s no issue. But don’t hold it against someone if they opt out. You’re not supposed to compel somebody to shell out cash for a gift if they can’t or don’t want to. Forced generosity isn’t generosity at all.

 

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Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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