January is the month when buyer’s remorse over deeply flawed Christmas presents invariably sets in. That’s when the bills come due. Sometimes the buyer regrets the gifts he gave others; sometimes he regrets the amount of money he spent on the gifts. Most of the time, he regrets both. But that is only one side of the equation. The most searing regret is usually experienced by the person receiving the gift. He’s the one who has to deal with the gift-giver’s poor judgment or appalling taste or tightfistedness, and who wishes the money had been spent on something more rewarding, like tickets to the Super Bowl or lunch for two at Applebee’s or a 20 percent-off coupon for his next colonoscopy, rather than the usual festive bedroom slippers or enamel mixing bowls or representative collection of Vermont “fun cheeses” or the dreaded yuletide collection of Winston Churchill’s most memorable speeches. In all but a few cases, some form of regret sets in. Was it not Ben Franklin who said, “It is a far, far better thing to give a bad Christmas gift than to curse the darkness after receiving one?”
Or was that Dickens?
Here is a case in point. One year, I spent a ton of money to take my family to see Hugh Jackman’s Broadway show on Christmas night. The outing was a gift to my daughter, Bridget, who had been born on Christmas morning 28 years earlier. The four tickets – I also took my wife and son – ran me $700. It was the nicest Christmas gift I could think of, and it bailed me out of a tough spot, because after 28 years of trying to think up new and exciting gifts to buy for a child who requires a flotilla of Christmas and birthday gifts every 25th of December – because Christmas babies never get cards or parties or gifts from anyone but their parents – you start to run out of ideas. But 700 smackers is a lot of money.
Jackman did a good job, but I think he could have done a better one. The first half of the show – lots of show tunes and standards – was more enjoyable than the second half, and I could have done without the extended tribute to his native Australia, especially the didgeridoo material. And what was I going to do for an encore the next year? Hugh Jackman in Vegas? Hugh Jackman on Mount Vesuvius?
I am not alone in confronting this problem. Every year, well-meaning but misguided people the world over spend $8.6 trillion on unwanted Christmas gifts. The amount of money wasted on Christmas gifts could erase all global debt, rebuild the devastated infrastructure of every Third World country, persuade the Rolling Stones to retire, and secure desperately needed late-inning bullpen help for both the Chicago Cubs and the San Diego Padres. Everybody knows this. Yet no one does anything about it.
The most amazing thing is this: With the exception of impressionable toddlers, who haven’t been around long enough to experience full-blown Xmas Gift Grief, everybody hates giving Christmas gifts, and everybody hates receiving them. Christmas gifts are like trips to the dentist: You don’t know what’s coming, but you know it’s not going to be pleasant. Yet the tradition refuses to die. I can count on one hand the number of Christmas gifts I have received over the course of my life that I can actually remember – my daughter’s birth and a netbook my kids gave me three years ago – but I would need 50 hands to count all the gifts I have detested. The Vermont cheeses. The Vermont teddy bears. The Vermont maple syrups. The collected speeches of Winston Churchill. The lamp in the shape of a pretzel. The singing leprechaun. The pre-Columbian-map-of-the-world screensaver. The Jackson Pollock mouse pad. The out-of-focus poster depicting a woman with an ineffective parasol, or Budapest at sunset. More Vermont cheeses. The uncollected speeches of Winston Churchill. Quirky books by zany pop scientists. Zany books by quirky pop scientists. Decades-old books about iconic sportsmen subsequently exposed as frauds. Biographies of people like Vic Damone and Lola Falana and Alcuin of York. Earnest books by earnest newsmen warning that America is in big, big trouble and better get its act together. Tongue-in-cheek books about words that do not even exist, like kryptonberry and swamp-dearth and lofalutin. Mysteries set in Laos. Books that bust myths about things I was not even aware were mythical. Books with titles like The Secret Lives of the Baroque Composers! and How the Welsh Saved Civilization. Maroon ties. Bathrobes with the words The Martin Short Show emblazoned on the back. Compact discs with titles like Every Version of Pachelbel’s Canon Ever Recorded – And Much More!!
And there is much more. Guidebooks to places I am not going. Baby-blue track suits with white piping. Coffee-table books with titles like Hidden Genoa and Zagreb After Dark. Architectural guides to buildings I will never visit, bridges I will never cross. Socks that will not fit. Jaunty sweaters. Whimsical hats. Form-fitting athletic gear that shows off muscles I do not have. Scarves so long they could have killed off the entire Duncan family, not just Isadora. Books about stents. Books about achieving inner peace via tai chi or tighter glutes or less gluten or divorce. Books with titles like Can Polar Bears Drink Armagnac? and What Color Is Your Sarcophagus? Greatest-hits collections by bands that never had a hit in the first place. Five hundred and eleven copies of Angela’s Ashes. Even more Vermont cheeses. Framed photographs of cities I have never visited and would not visit if the opportunity presented itself. And, of course, more books about Winston Churchill.
Wrapping paper is part of the problem. Wrapping paper writes a check the gift cannot possibly cash. Colorful or sparkly or multilayered wrapping paper triggers the hope that the gift hidden inside will rival the Hope Diamond or the Star of India. Instead, once the wrapping has been torn away, the gift proves to be a pair of nonrefundable tickets to a supper club performance of Pal Joey or an unofficial biography of Nostradamus or a pair of furry gloves.
Many years ago, when my wife and I used to go to Philadelphia at Christmas to visit friends, we would come back to New York on the Trailways bus laden with mixing bowls, Snoopy phones, clocks in the shape of Texas, and other items my friends would dredge up at going-out-of-business sales. My friends were salt-of-the-earth material as human beings, but they were no great shakes in the Christmas gift department. So one Christmas, when we arrived at the Port Authority bus terminal, we snuck off the bus and left the gifts behind. We hoped that whoever found them would have a Miracle on 34th Street-type moment and cherish them forever. But realistically, we figured the finder would toss them into the trash and then get on with cursing the darkness.
Nowhere is the Christmas gift crisis more evident than in the home. Wives complain about how hard it is to shop for their husbands. Men complain about how hard it is to shop for their wives. Significant others complain about how hard it is to shop for other significant others. Well, there’s an obvious solution to this: Stop shopping and simply fork over the cash. The reason it is hard for my wife to find a suitable Christmas present for me isn’t because I already have everything I want – as of this writing, there is still no Lamborghini in the garage – but because I already have everything I don’t want, and she gave it to me. And the reason it is hard for me to shop for her is because I always pick the wrong color, always pick the wrong size, and am absolutely certain that I have already given her that jade pendant in the shape of a praying mantis on six previous occasions.
Last year, my kids gave me the gift that keeps on giving: They gave me nothing. They said, “You already have everything you need, and you hate wasting money, and you know we don’t have any spare cash anyway, so how about if we just tell you we love you and let it go at that?” I said that was fine. I said that was reasonable. I said that if everybody did what they were doing, the world would be a better place.
But my kids aren’t getting Hugh Jackman tickets again.