The best gift I ever received was a talking toy chimpanzee called Chester O'Chimp. He was manufactured by Mattel in 1964, but I felt certain that Santa's elves would have no trouble making an excellent knock-off. Chester was about the size of a baby chimp, and when you pulled a string on his back, his rubber lips moved while he said any one of a dozen wise cracks. Santa really came through for me that year, big time. I loved Chester for a solid two or three years. I have not received any kind of gift since then that made me so exquisitely happy, and I cannot imagine that I ever will.
I have been asking friends this two-part question lately: What was the best gift you ever received? Without fail, every one of them has answered about something they received for Christmas in childhood: a bike, a Big Wheel, a BB gun, a skateboard. The follow-up question was this: If you received a Lexus for Christmas this year, would it top the joy you felt when you got that bike, that BB gun, etc?
And the answer to that has also been consistent: a flat "no."
These inquiries were inspired by recent TV ads for Lexus. Few things would cause me so much stress at Christmas as receiving an item as grandiose as a car. For many people, myself included, the holidays are a depressing time. These ads have caused me to question why I feel such a lack of enthusiasm for gift giving. Why were presents such a source of delight for me when I was a child, while now they steal my joy and make me see giving as a chore?
I think the joy-stealer of Christmas gift giving is this: The custom isn’t really about giving, it’s about exchanging. For children, especially for tikes of the believe-in-Santa age, gift giving is not a reciprocal obligation. Gifts are given to young children with no expectation that they must return the gesture. To young children, presents simply come to them like the bounty of the universe, no questions asked. But when children become old enough to participate in the reciprocal aspect of giving, it gets painfully complicated. What kind of gift someone gives to another at Christmas is weighted and twisted with all kinds of implications that often don't have a damn thing to do with love or charity or generosity, but have everything to do with social class, the income of both parties, the status of the relationship, social obligations, and big heaping doses of guilt.
No matter how much people might argue that these considerations don't matter to them as recipients, most of us feel the onerous responsibility to give exactly the right thing. We all know that a gift should be equal to or perhaps greater in value than what we received from the giver last year. The size and value of the gift says something about the status of your relationship, so you must be careful that your gift doesn't say too much, too little, or something altogether inappropriate about your feelings. Generic or non-personal gifts can reveal how little you know or pay attention to the receiver and can cause hurt feelings. Some gifts have to reflect your class or your station, especially gifts between work colleagues. And the only thing worse than giving someone the wrong thing is getting caught unprepared and empty-handed when you receive a gift from someone to whom you hadn’t planned on giving a gift.
How different this is from other gift-giving occasions, like birthdays, that don’t involve an exchange. The tradition of Christmas gift giving was inspired, after all, by gifts that travelers brought to celebrate the birth of a child, a child who did not have to fret about being empty-handed and whether he had time to sneak out to Target while his guests were having coffee. It’s so much more joyful to give or receive a gift without expectation of return. No gift is without strings, but if gifts can be received without being entangled in a Jacob’s ladder of binding obligation, it sure is a step back to that time when I could hug Chester in my arms and be happy because getting him meant that Santa loved me.
All through the holiday season I feel a pervading sadness. Instead of the joy I’m supposed to feel about giving, I instead have doubt that I met all the obligations implied by the bows and the giftwrap. And that is why a Lexus could never top the joy I felt in receiving a stuffed toy animal.