I sent another email to everyone with whom I normally exchange
gifts for birthdays and holidays. It was similar to the one I sent prior to the holidays a few years ago, but, because it regarded my birthday, it didn't impact anyone but me and the results were very (very) different from my attempt to bow out of holiday gift giving.
I kept it brief and breezy:
“As much as I appreciate and enjoy your generous and
thoughtful gifts, I'm hoping we can start new traditions. Instead of gifts, I
would much prefer the gifts of time and connection. I would love to go to lunch
or a museum with you, or just a long phone conversation with you is what I need
and want more than gift. Or, spend the money you would have spent on a gift on
planting a tree or a charity. Or buy something for yourself! It makes me happy
to think of you splurging on something you would enjoy.”
Some of my friends responded immediately. They were clearly relieved
to put an end to the gift giving. The first responders, obviously all of a like
mindset, said something along the lines of, “Thank you for having the
courage to do this, I’ve been trying to do the same thing with my family/other
friends for years and I can’t get up the nerve to suggest it. I’m going to
borrow your words to send to my family/friends.”
Some of them elaborated, and shared perhaps a bit too much.
It turned into a confessional for a few of them. “Oh thank God. You are my hero. I’ve been
trying to get out of a gift exchange with my sister-in-law for 15 years and
have not been able to cut the cord. I’ve danced around the topic, but she doesn’t
take the hint. She takes personal pride in gift giving. She thinks she gives
really good, personal gifts, but she doesn’t. I send most of what she gives me
to Goodwill. She gives nice - and usually expensive - gifts, but they’re not my taste whatsoever. So
then I feel obligated to reciprocate with a gift of equal value, and I really
don’t have a good handle on her taste, so it feels like wasted money. I know a
couple restaurants she likes and I’ve given her gift cards for those places,
but then she goes on and on about how she takes so much time and pride in
finding just the right and personal gifts for friends and family and I feel
like heel for resorting to a gift card. The whole thing is a stress-inducing
nightmare saga for me. I’m copying your email and sending it to her. Right after
I have a couple drinks.”
From another friend:
“And that is how it’s done. Remember Kelly, my roommate in
grad school? We’ve drifted apart over the past 10 years. But we always made a
big deal about our birthdays so we keep sending each other birthday gifts, even
though we haven’t actually seen each other in 11 years. We barely even talk to
each other. Christmas gifts and birthday gifts are pretty much the only time we
communicate with each other. It’s silly. And yet I feel guilty if I don’t send
her something. Trill, I don’t know the slightest thing about her anymore. In
her holiday card she mentioned a new job and longer commute, but I don’t even
know where she was working before the ‘new’ job. In fact, I didn’t even know
she was working! She quit after her second baby, I didn’t realize she’d gone
back to work and then she’s telling me she started a new job with a longer
commute. And yet every August I go shopping for a birthday present for her. I
just find something I like and send it to her. I’m sure she probably re-gifts
the presents I send her. This has to stop. I’m doing what you did with this
And then…there were the others. The people, mostly family,
who protested. “But Trill, we love giving you gifts.”
Really? At the risk of sounding ungrateful, I have to ask
why, if you love giving me gifts, I have received such memorable gifts as: a sweater
shaver that was obviously regifted because the Christmas tag from the
person who originally gave it to my sister-in-law is still on it; Bath and
Body Works pre-packaged holiday gift sets in a weird fragrances from the same
person for the past five years; a handbag that had obviously been used; an
Omaha steak delivery from a cousin who knows darned well I’m a vegetarian
(perhaps this is a “gag” gift, and it did make me gag); novelty socks in a
child’s size…shall I continue?
I know, I know, it’s not the gift, it’s the thought that
counts. But. Erm. Exactly what are the thoughts in the above mentioned gifts?
Certainly not, “I care about you,” or “you’re special to me,” or even, “I saw
this and thought of you.” Those gifts say, “It’s Christmas/your birthday and I
am obligated to send you a gift, I found the fastest and first thing I could
find and gave it to you.”
I’m about to show a side of me I don’t often show. It’s the
evil Trillian, or, Trevil, as I call her.
Perhaps they object to discontinuing the gift-giving because
they want to continue receiving the gifts I send them. Apart from a couple
years when I was unemployed, I typically spend a decent amount of money on
gifts for family and friends. I’m not saying I’m the best gift-giver ever, but
I do spend a fair amount of time finding a gift that’s at least somewhat
relevant to the recipients. And, I don’t take the cheapo way out by giving one
gift for a husband/wife/kids unit. My brother, his wife and his daughter all
receive individual gifts for holidays and birthdays. Yep. That’s three gifts I’m
giving, while they’re giving only one to me. Not that I’m keeping score. But.
Monetarily-wise most of my friends and family are coming out way, way ahead in
the gift exchange with me. (I told you, Trevil is not nice, she can be petty and acrimonious.)
After many emails along the lines of, "No, no, really, there's nothing I need or want, spend the money on yourself or make a donation to a charity that's important to you," the subject subsided.
And then my birthday rolled around. Please note, I spent the Sunday prior to my birthday with my mother and we had a Mother's Day/birthday dinner and gift exchange. My mother outdid herself this year.
On my actual birthday I received: a phone call from my mother, two happy birthdays in emails from friends.
I got exactly what I asked for: Nothing.
Which is fine. I did not want gifts.
And my birthday really is not a big deal to me. I really don't care about greetings. Truly. In spite of how this is probably sounding, I'd rather have silence than a perfunctory, "Happy birthday" from a friend or relative for whom the greeting is nothing more than something to cross off their daily to-do list.
However, this turned into an interesting social experiment. I requested no gifts, suggesting instead social outings or a phone call or that my friends and family spend the money on something for themselves or a charitable donation.
Most of my friends and family took this as a "Get Out of Trill's Birthday" pass. People who normally sent me gifts did absolutely nothing, no call, no card, not even texts.
One friend and my sister did send texts after my birthday, apologizing for the tardy greeting.
It now poses somewhat of a conundrum for me. There are people, friends, family members, for whom I enjoy sending a birthday greeting. I like making birthday phone calls. But now I've painted myself into a socially awkward corner. If I don't send birthday cards/calls/texts to friends and family on their birthdays, will it look spiteful? The message being: "You didn't even send me a text on my birthday, so, even though I always call and send a card for your birthday, I'm giving you what you gave me: Nothing."
Or, if I do send card/make calls will it look like I'm trying to play some guilt or superiority game?