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On gift giving

by Ellie Hopgood

Well, I apologise in advance for how un-festive this blog post is. I really like Christmas, I do. This post won’t show it, but I like mulled wine and snuggling up under blankets to watch Elf and eating my bodyweight in cheese. It’s all good stuff. And I do like giving and receiving gifts – but, collectively, I think the way we do gift giving as a society has its problems. That’s what we’re talking about today.

Of course, it bears mentioning that this is a criticism of the gift-giving culture that I am used to in the UK. I have no doubt that other nationalities and cultures do gifts totally differently – I have been treated to many stories from other people as we’ve discussed the subject of this very blog post in recent weeks – and that every family has their own traditions. Furthermore, it is a privilege to be able to exchange gifts at all, let alone many items with many people. The idea of giving gifts is, of course, lovely. What’s not to like about presents? What’s not to like about showing people that you care about them by presenting them with thoughtful gifts that they otherwise wouldn’t have?

But, as I’ve written about this year ad nauseum, we are in a climate emergency. So when I look around at people frantically buying hand cream, socks and random edible items for distant relatives, all I see is waste. Waste of resources, waste of money, waste of energy. And I want to talk about it.

First of all, I have always found the idea of ‘it’s the thought that counts’ weird. Mainly because, if I am given a gift that shows that the gift giver knows nothing about me, it doesn’t feel like it does anything other than emphasise just how disconnected we are. The thought just says, ‘we know very little about each other but I’m trying to avoid confronting that.’ When I give a gift that I know is impersonal, it feels almost like I’m insulting that person. I would so much rather sit and talk with this person, spend some quality time together and not waste money on things that neither of us want or need.

Secondly, I wish there wasn’t such a taboo on getting people the specific items for which they asked. I’m talking about the exact pair of boots that someone is lusting after, or the next book on their to-read list, or a refill of a particular lipstick they love. I want to get people things they truly want. Something they’ll be excited to bring back home, use regularly and be glad to have in their life. Sure, sometimes you knock it out of the park, finding something absolutely perfect that the receiver loves immediately. But that’s not always the case. I wish it were more acceptable to send over an exact book title or direct link to something, to make sure that you get what your friend or family member actually wants, rather than a slightly different version that ends up at the back of the wardrobe.

I know that I’m a control freak – maybe other people care less about the things they use or bring home. Maybe it’s just me. But I don’t think it can be. I just want to get something that my friends or family really want! And while I sometimes can manage that based off everything I know them and what’s going on in their lives, often it’s hard (I promise I love you guys!). We are all very fortunate people – most of us have everything we need. If I’m going to get something, I would love be sure that it’s the perfect present.

In the same vein, I wish it was more acceptable to give people truly practical gifts. I’m not just talking about shoes and clothes; I mean conditioner, forks, a sturdy backpack, a quality portable phone charger, whatever practical item might be missing from their lives. Especially for young people, many of whom are in entry level jobs, gathering furniture for first apartments and generally getting set up in life, lots of obvious things might still need to be acquired. They’re the kind of things no one wants to buy; people want to buy fun, novelty items, not functional toiletries and bland electronics. But then people find themselves shelling out cash for random, novelty items for other people, and receiving similar items in return, instead of being honest about what they need in their lives. It feels so inefficient! And a sign of our consumerist society that how much you can spend has become partly synonymous with how much you care. Yes, you can make Christmas cheaper, but most people are still frantically buying mass-produced items in the week leading up to Christmas, because making beautiful or delicious gifts by hand is difficult in a different way.

Look, the process of giving things to people is wonderful. Generosity has kept humans alive and communities together for millennia. It’s an important part of maintaining relationships. But I fear that we have warped the purpose of generosity – which can take many forms, which are by no means all material or financial – to mean the act of merely giving anything to people, however random, is inherently meaningful. I don’t think that’s true. I think giving material gifts can be hugely significant, caring and kind, but it depends on the specifics.

What is the point of gift giving? I’m genuinely asking. Yes, it’s to show love, but it could also be a way of exchanging resources intelligently. That might sound cold to some of you, but we are in the midst of a crisis of both climate and consumerism, and we need to think about how we use time, money and energy. There’s no shame in thinking about these things critically – indeed, we need to think critically about the norms and patterns that underpin our actions. As modern societies fracture emotionally from the loss of community, freedom and creativity – core human needs that have been plugged with more material crap than any person could ever use – it seems worth asking if the way we do relationships needs a refresh. What if, instead of buying random, wasteful gifts for people we barely see, we took this time just to be together? It would save money and resources while deepening our relationships in a real way.

I think it would be nice to gets gifts for people when you find or think of something truly special. But if you can’t – that’s okay. There are other ways to show that you love someone, of which being a regular, supportive, loving presence in their lives – not just at Christmas, but throughout the year – is perhaps the most meaningful. It’s okay to feel like you have enough already, it’s okay to be conscious of what you keep in your home and it’s okay to question why we have decided that this is what generosity looks like. The next few decades will probably involve a lot of change – part of that will be rethinking how we do gift giving in a way that is more meaningful and less wasteful. I know, I’m the worst. Merry Christmas!

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Sander December 25, 2019 - 10:11 am

You are not the worst, you are cousious. And that is exactly what we need now. More Ellies in this world please! Onwards to the next decade.

Ellie Hopgood December 25, 2019 - 10:32 am

Ha, this made me smile. Thank you Sander!

Esther December 27, 2019 - 9:11 am

Our family has a policy of ‘only from a charity shop’. The benefits are: money goes to good causes, stuff is getting a second life, you can’t request a gift – it’s what ever is available in the shops, there’s no need to visit any commercial retailers and if people aren’t so keen on the gifts – they just send them back to a charity shop!
I found some corking presents inc a whole range of cycle wear for all the family!
Essentially I’m with you on the spirit of generosity – so much more meaningful to spend time listening to and supporting people all year round!

Ellie Hopgood December 27, 2019 - 2:01 pm

Yes I know! I’ve always liked hearing about Kate’s finds. I love this idea, and you’re right, there are plenty of ways to exchange gifts that aren’t expensive, financially or environmentally – for me, I want to be sure that I’m always being thoughtful about what I’m doing and why, and your tradition is a great way of doing that. Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Esther, it really does mean a lot ❤️


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