It’s that time of year, the holiday season, where you seemingly feel an overwhelming urge to grit your teeth and bare the discomfort to spend time with judgmental people you dislike the other ten months of the year. You sit and eat meals, you send christmas cards, and you also fight tooth and nail to the death for the best deal on a flat screen TV you don’t need in a house that is getting tougher to afford so you can watch assholes on Survivor in 1080i HD. Indeed, this season of barfight-like kerfuffles in the aisles of Toys ‘R’ Us and Best Buy across the nation to appease little Timmy and Susan Q American so as to keep them from hating you to the point they cut their wrists when off their meds, is a testament to the real spirit of the season as it stands today. It wasn’t so long ago that gift cards were lame and price tags on gifts were taboo, as you shopped with thought and care as to get the right thing for those special people in your life so as to light up their faces with joy and wonder. What it has become is the tabulation of a P&L sheet as to see how much you spent and what profit you may have made while sliding all the thoughtless plastic tender in to your wallet to get the things no one knew you well enough to know you might want. ‘Tis the season…
I remember when I was growing up and Christmas came around. As a youngster I rarely received gift cards, if ever. As a tiny tot I got a check from Grandma, but that is as close to a Best Buy card as I got; what I had under the tree were actual gifts wrapped with care and purchased with thought by those that loved me. When I got to ravage that pile of commercialized wonder I opened item after item, knowing I had wanted every one, and that ‘Santa’ had me in mind when every enslaved Elf built it…ok, not really, but you get the point. When I was a kid you bought people stuff, you actually went out and shopped. You thought long and hard about that thing you saw them looking at six months ago and they just never got for themselves, or that item of conversation in passing while waiting for a table at the Sizzler on some idle Sunday evening. These were the days when people put real care in to what they gave to you, and vice versa.
When I was growing up my mother always taught me to take the price tag off of things I was wrapping. In my mother’s eyes the price of something was between you and the poor, suicidal clerk at Cash/Wrap 1 who rang you up, no one else. My relationship to the price tag was that of a sin confessed between me and my priest, not for others to know. The greatest of follies in gift giving was for there to be any remnant of the price tag, so before wrapping you carefully inspected every crevasse to ensure that no evidence of the monetary value was present, even though the poor recipient would be walking through Target the next week and take a gander at the $19.99 discount price you snagged it at. A present was to be a gift and the price tag was removed to both keep the recipient from feeling guilty if you spent a lot, and to keep you from feeling foolish if you spent only a little. Money was taken completely out of the picture and gifts were to be given in ernest, never making either party feel like they got gipped, or owed, in the exchange.
There was a shift a long time ago as I got older. When I got in to my teens it started innocently with gift receipts from Grandma in case I already had one, or didn’t like it. With Grandma it was acceptable, what did she know, I only saw her three times a year; birthday, christmas, and thanksgiving; so it was forgivable that she was out of the loop on my interests and desires. After all, with Grandma it was really only talk of my grades in school and what I wanted to be when I grew up; would it have killed you to talk about anything but my job, really? But it started with my parents once I got a bit older, receipts with every gift, and now Grandma wasn’t the only one rolling out the money. My parents didn’t write me a check, that was Grandma’s gig. How weird would it have been to get a check from your parents at 12 years old? “Don’t cash it ‘til Friday, love you.” Parents started giving you cash and then some generic gift that seemed like an afterthought to the money, like they felt they couldn’t give you JUST cash, so they got you a piece of Coca-Cola merch or an eight ball skull. Thanks…for the money.
Thought in gifts was taking a turn at this point and once I hit puberty it was less thoughtful than ever. First off, your parents just asked you what you wanted in advance, if you weren’t dropping hints with with Sunday newspaper ads open to what you wanted, circled and highlighted as they drank their morning coffee. So they never thought about you, they just didn’t want you pissed when they got the wrong thing, you were distant enough already, so they just asked. So, if they got you something it was exactly what you asked for. Worst was when they would call you from the store and play the “Hey, what was that thing you mentioned last week, my co-worker was trying to get something for his son, your age?” game, and you had to play coy like you didn’t know what was coming home with your name on it.
Then went the wrapping, my parents and friends stopped wrapping things themselves. If they didn’t get it wrapped by some poor sap at the store then some girl scout troop was wrapping your gifts for you for donations so they could go camping in Spain in the summer to get their ‘running of the bulls’ merit badge or something. What’s even worse is the bag, you know the one, $2.99 and stuff with tissue paper with handles for easy transport. You see someone pull out the bag by the handles like it’s left overs from a Thai joint and plop it down in front of you, and you go through like a grocery bag making sure that you got everything before putting everything back in to it and tossing the tissue paper. By the way, how much does that bag take the fun out of ripping open a wrapped package!? I mean, there is no great reveal satisfaction when you look down in to a bag, but when you viciously strip a gift naked, then we’re talking some Christmas cheer.
Now we’ve skipped forward and the whole system is plastic today. Rare is the truly thoughtful gift. Price tags and receipts are standard on all gifts and they are given with the disclaimer, “you’re so hard to shop for, the receipt is in there in case you don’t want it,” gee, thanks for giving me an errand for Christmas, my favorite time of year to jam in to crowded streets and get stabbed for an Elmo doll, so glad to get back out there once my stitches heal. Now we don’t even give gifts, we just give the ‘gift card’. Boy did those make a huge leap. Remember when they were like paper gift certificates that sometimes looked like fake money. Now they went digital looking more like credit cards, good way to train up the little ones for a life of debt, get them comfortable with plastic early. So now we don’t even try, and we don’t wrap, and we don’t think. We instantly decide, at the register, what you are worth and what store we think you might like; Bath and Body Works for women, Sears for men, and Best Buy is gender neutral.
When did this happen? When did we go from taboo price tags on thoughtful gifts to arbitrarily assigning a person in our lives a monetary value on a piece of plastic? Well I guess I could go in to deep psychological and social issues and trends in the nation that have curved towards simply passing economic funds from one consumer to another, allowing them full buying potential leading to money spent beyond the gift card value on full priced items after the holidays which lead to higher profits in the first fiscal quarter of the following year which can float stock prices on publicly traded companies keeping liquidity intact allowing for a better projected earnings sheet in the next year, but that might just be a little convoluted. I could go on to say that the advent of the gift card in the shape of any normal credit card is the greatest invention since poker chips, removing the true value of money and replacing it with an item of almost no value except the agreed upon terms, which removes the ability to spend said item anywhere but at the table/store. The genius behind the gift card is actual turning cold hard cash in to funny money that has value in only one location; the gift card is actually worse than money since you have now limited it’s buying power to just one chain, locking your money up in them like a goods & services bank until you withdraw the money in the form of a liability(item) with limited longevity. Genius.
I think we can blame commercialism and the fact that once you turn 15 you become a bitch to shop for until you turn 40. Sadly, this is the prime target market for consumer propaganda to be designed for; everyone in this category is the prime spender with disposable income and emerging identity and status issues for which to compensate. Before puberty and after the midlife crisis image is less of an issue, before 15 you aren’t secure, but you don’t really notice the differences in status and in items as much, after 40, generally, you have accepted yourself and lived long enough that you can cast those types of impulsive behaviors aside (you stop giving a shit), my father not included, he bought his first house and first Harley in 2009…he’s 48. Well in this market there is so much stuff to buy that no one knows exactly what you want at any given time, what you wanted last month is not necessarily what you want this month, so people err on the side of caution and get you money to a place where you can get the stuff you want, yourself. The exchange of gift cards is not so much trying to please someone as it is not wanting to disappoint them with a poorly thought out purchase.
Why is there this shift though? My mother raised me to hide how much was spent, and to get someone something they really wanted so they never would return it, receipts were never included either. Now it seems that if a gift is given it was purchased so as to not just be buying everyone gift cards. Gifts have turned in to place holders for thoughtfulness and are bought in haste, wrapped by someone else, and given to you with a disclaimer and the means by which to return them, in addition to a gift card so you can get what you want…shit, now I’ve got to go to two stores Saturday, a full day of shopping, for me. It seems that we have grown comfortable with the recipient of your gift card knowing exactly what they are worth to you at any given time when they calculate what you spent and figure out what that equals in love. It’s like a supply and demand chart, where the love and the money intersect is where the price of the gift card will be, less love equates less money. After all, you’re not going to give Bob Q Jackass from the office a $100 gift card and your wife the $5 one…think about it, I’ll put together a graph later.
In this country we have gotten so busy and fear the embarrassment of giving the wrong gift that we have been bullied in to giving out funny money to the people in our lives. This disconnection with the good ol’ days of scratching price tags off of carefully wrapped items has fallen just short of Grandma’s $25 dollar check and turned in to the game of the gift card. No longer are we scared of letting people know just what we think of them at a time like this. I fear the distaste for our families during the holidays has seeped to the surface and is now poisoning our shopping. We now relish in giving people $10 gift cards to Applebee’s to passive aggressively tell Uncle Rich he can shove his snooty corporate-job digs. Every one of us is guilty of giving the gift card, the modern equivalent of a new tie for dad, but now we give them to everyone and expect the same in return so as to get our money back. But now the hostage exchange of gift card for gift card can really stick the shame to a friend when you give them fifty and they only give you twenty five. Like savvy Wall Street brokers we’re investing gift/shame equity in our friends and loved ones so as to turn a profit somewhere down the line. I’m just spitballing here, but let’s leave the gift cards to Grandma and actually get a thoughtful gift, carefully wrap it, a watch the disappointment fill your sister’s eyes when she rips it open on Christmas day and sees how little you actually care, like Jesus intended. Happy holidays, folks.