Sunday, December 6, 2009

Secret Santas and Emergency Gifts: The Generic Gift Problem

white elephant gift - thigh toner

You know those Secret Santa group gift exchanges, where each person gets the name of one other person, and buys a gift for him or her? And then you get the name of someone you barely know?

Or do you know someone who has a collection of "emergency" or "just in case" or "stand-by" gifts stashed away? Is that person you?

Both of these situations can lead to the generic-gift problem. If you give a generic gift, how likely is it that the gift will be something the recipient will enjoy? I've looked at some of the standard suggestions for such gifts, and few of the items would be a good gift for me, personally.

Candles: I have cats. They jump everywhere. You understand the problem.

Flowers: I have cats. They jump everywhere. They think flowers are toys, and drag them all around the house. (And some plants are poisonous.)

Picture frames: I just don't use them.

Chocolate: Yummy, but not so good for someone watching her calories. (OK, a couple pieces of a really good chocolate would be a nice splurge. But a bigger box of not-so-special chocolate is another matter.)

Scented soaps: Hit or miss. Your taste in scents and my taste in scents might match, or might not. I've been given soap that I just adore - but the person giving it had heard me comment on how much I liked one she had in her home. Someone who doesn't know me isn't nearly as likely to find a good match.

Scarves: Another hit or miss. I've had my colors done, and know which ones work best for me. Do you?

Gift cards: Hit or miss again. Do you know I strongly prefer independent bookstores to the big chains? Do you know which coffee shops I like, and which I try to avoid?

Gift certificate for a massage: Great, assuming it's anywhere within a reasonable distance! But who gives a generic gift that costs that much?

Of course I understand and appreciate the generous impulse behind the gift-giving, and will always accept a gift with gratitude, appreciating the thought if not the gift itself. (And I can always find another good home for anything I don't want to keep.) But are there other ways to handle this type of holiday gift-giving? Yes, there are.

1. Instead of a Secret Santa gift exchange, try a white elephant gift exchange - where all participants bring something useless they already own. No one spends any money, everyone declutters a tiny bit - and even if you get a useless item in return, you're no worse off than you were before. And I've never seen a white elephant gift exchange that didn't get everyone laughing.

Another option: Get the group to adopt a family instead of giving gifts among themselves.

2. Decide it's OK for someone to give you a gift, and for you to not give one in return. Perhaps the other person loves to make her special pumpkin bread and give it to everyone she knows. That's great; she's doing what makes the holiday season special for her. Thank her, and enjoy the treat! You don't need to have the same inclinations; your favorite holiday traditions may be totally different.

I don't want this post to make me sound like a grumpy Scrooge; I happen to love giving gifts. But for me the joy is in finding something that seems ideal for someone I care about. My best friend and I have a tradition I like; if we happen to find a "perfect gift" we buy it; if not, we don't buy anything. Because we both have plenty of stuff.

Photo from a white elephant gift exchange:


jenniferwent said...

I'm with you, Jeri, on most of the above gifts--don't need or want them. I received a random scarf and scented soaps from a close friend and it was so insulting because they were clearly regifts or the "emergency stash" kind.

I cannot regift because I think it is so obvious. They will be going to Goodwill--or would make great white elephant gifts as you suggested. Loved this article!!

Bridget said...

I love sending packages to my friends, but I recently decided that I want to make sure I get them something that will be I sent them a survey asking about their favorite foods, whether they bake or not, favorite colors, if they collect anything, if they wear scarves, etc...I've gotten some great responses so far that will ensure happiness on both ends!

kbfenner said...

Thank you for making a point I wish more people understood---you don't have to give back if I give you something.

Our (now-former) neighborhood president (I am the vice president) is also a political science professor, and taught me many many useful things. To thank him for all he'd done for me and the neighborhood, I brought him a huge bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin--his favorite. His wife insisted on reciprocating with a bar of scented soap that was obviously a standby (for one thing, in subsequent years, no gift). I felt like my gesture was brushed aside as a seasonal gift exchange when I meant it to be a special acknowledgment.

That was the last year I set out to get gifts for those whom I felt especially thankful to have encountered. Despite my clear explanation that that was my intent, I think it made more people uncomfortable than pleasantly surprised....what a pity.

Jeri Dansky said...

Jenniferwent, Bridget, and Kbfenner: Thank you all for your insightful comments.

Jenniferwent, thanks for making a point I neglected to make; a gift from the "emergency gift stash" can feel insulting.

Bridget, how nice that you're making sure the gifts you give will be appreciated.

Kbfenner, maybe you'd have more success with special thank-you gifts if you gave them outside of the holiday season. Or maybe the best gift to give - if people have trouble accepting a normal gift - is a thank-you note explaining your gratitude.

What a shame that the professor and his wife couldn't just have said "thank you very much" - and been pleased with the gift and the thought behind it - and left it at that.