Christmas means different things to people all over the world. Some see it as one of the holiest days because it is Jesus Christ’s birthday, for which we are told three kings (or wise men if you prefer) brought gifts to honor him. Others see it as a day when Santa Claus comes to give children gifts. Adults also exchange gifts as a sign of love and caring for one another, so the concept of gift giving is inextricably linked to the holiday.
One element of gift giving that has become increasingly disturbing and a bit annoying in recent years is the aspect known as the gift receipt. This concept immediately signifies that a gift is returnable, which means the giver of the gift is not certain you will like it. Now, perhaps, that is not the gift giver’s real intention, but it sort of feels that way, and knowing that the receiver of the gift desires that gift receipt also changes the dynamic of buying the gift in the first place.
How have we come to this place in giving of gifts is uncertain for me. Can you imagine Santa coming down the chimney with his big bag of gifts and toys worrying about having a gift receipt for each? No, the Jolly Old Elf would find it unacceptable that toys made at the North Pole could be returned, nor that too small sweater or the handbag that in no way matches your personality or taste. Santa expects us to suck it up, say “How lovely,” and move on to the next present.
Many years ago when I worked in a department store, we set up a special return desk for the day after Christmas. The only requirements for customers were the items had to still have tags and the gift boxes or store bags. The returns were processed and the customers were given an exchange or store credit. In this way the giver of the gift never had to know that the receiver was unhappy with it – an old fashioned process that was infinitely more civilized and easier on both parties.
Unfortunately, we have moved beyond the gentility of giving and receiving gifts gracefully. Now we have the mentality that matches our throwaway culture – gifts are expendables and so you better have given a gift receipt! It puts the giver in a bind way before the gift is ever wrapped and presented.
Shopping this year made me extremely nervous and was quite stressful. It is bad enough that before Christmas the department stores are mad houses filled with people with eyes bulging out of their heads as they roam the aisles like zombies from The Walking Dead looking for the last scraps of flesh in the form of items on the shelves. As I held a potential gift in my hand and considered the possibilities of giving it to someone, an old lady nudged me with her elbow and asked, “Are you gonna buy that or not?” Yes, it was the last one on the shelf, and my indecision and her query came together to make the choice easier – I just handed it to her and went on my way.
Of course, after braving the wilds of the aisles in each store, the next indignity is waiting on the long lines to get to a cashier. If you are in a store that does not provide shopping carts like Walmart or Target, you are forced to hold all your items in your arms, making the passing of time by looking at your cell impossible.
As I stood there with my arms brimming over with gifts on an interminably long line, I kept thinking that I should avoid this ordeal and buy everything online as so many people do; however, I am still of the mindset of being able to touch an item before purchase, to feel its heft, and to examine its quality. This is impossible online no matter how many images are available. Then, when I finally get to the counter with purchases, I get asked the most pressing question – “Do you need gift receipts?” This year, despite my trepidation about the concept, I said a resounding “Yes” and got gift receipts for everything I purchased, even if something for me was mixed in with everything else.
After all that shopping warfare was over, then it was time to come home and wrap the gifts. I am not a good wrapper of presents to be sure. I recall watching my mother and aunt wrap Christmas presents with the precision of surgeons – the cutting, folding, and taping of gift paper all seemed perfect every time. For me it is sort of like making a bed, and even after I have tried to measure, cut, and tape, the present looks as if someone is still sleeping in it.
Nevertheless, before doing this I faced what felt like a moral dilemma – should I put the gift receipt inside the box or not? One possibility I considered was just keeping all gift receipts separately for each person and handing them over after opening gifts had been accomplished; however, I decided that idea was even more awkward. So, yes, despite my trepidation, I did put the gift receipt into each box under the internal tissue paper and item, almost as if I didn’t want it to be discovered by the recipient.
During the frenzy of opening presents with so many people in the room, other people kept saying, “The gift receipt is in the box.” Thus I developed a plan – I would I refrain from making this statement as I watched people opening my gifts, waiting for a reaction – elation would be met with silence, but vacant stares or troubled expressions would be followed with, “There’s a gift receipt in there.” Of course, this plan was thwarted by everyone seemingly opening boxes at once; therefore, I had to start opening my own gifts and could not concentrate on what anyone else was doing.
In the end I got gift receipts for all my received presents, and I was relieved to have one for a hoodie I would never wear, but I still felt bad about it because I am sure that the person who bought it really thought I would be happy to have it. Then again, is the inclusion of a gift receipt just a fail-safe mechanism or is it a coded message that the giver thinks the recipient will not like the gift?
Perhaps I am overthinking the whole process, but I still go back to the reason for giving gifts – we are showing that we love and care for people. That equation is one of magnanimity and certainly should not be treated with disdain but rather gratitude. I am not sure if giving a gift receipt is worse than expecting it or not, but I sure as hell wish we could get back to a time when we didn’t have to give a gift receipt, which is like announcing that giver believes the gift may not be right for you.
This whole Christmas gift giving tradition started with those three kings/wise men giving Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Ostensibly, these were truly birthday gifts given with honor, respect, and love. The concept of Santa Claus giving gifts derives from this event, and in that way parents all over the world become imbued with Santa’s spirit and give their children presents. We adults have joined in on the practice, and it should be noted that the old “it is better to give than to receive” is still an adage that feels damned good to follow.
I wish we could get back to a time when gift giving itself was simple and less tenuous – when a gift given in love would be cherished rather than returned, but I doubt we can go back now. Of course, there is also the long tried and true tradition of re-gifting that is still in full vigor (I know because I got one present this year that had the old name tag taped on the box underneath the new wrapping paper), but that is a whole other story.
For now we live in a world where giving and receiving gifts with gift receipts is a reality, and no matter how much I detest it, I have to live with it. Now, where is that ugly hoodie? I’m taking that back right away!