Oh Christmastime, what can I say about you that hasn't already been said?
Literally nothing, so let's just skip the whole "waxing poetic about Christmas" business.
My personal relationship with Christmas is, well, slightly complicated and always changing. I was raised Jewish (as I've mentioned before), but I fell off the Judaism-bandwagon pretty much immediately after my Bar Mitzvah. Not to say that my family were particularly good Jews to begin with — we faithfully celebrated Christmas every year, and occasionally lit our Menorah candles and said our blessings.* But with the advent of my truckliness, my thoughts on Christmas, and specifically, on giving and receiving gifts, have changed pretty handily.
As a kid, I loved Christmas. I loved waking up at an ungodly hour each Christmas morning (much to the chagrin of my half-asleep parents) to see what Santa** had dutifully left behind. My Swiss cheese brain hasn't retained many memories from my childhood, but I do vividly remember seeing that new boombox or Playstation 2, then sitting around and drinking hot cocoa while I set it all up.
Nowadays, I live 3,000 miles away from most of the people I celebrate Christmas with, which has changed the Rules of Gift Engagement™ quite a bit.
The Rules of Gift Engagement
Over the past five Christmases, I've learned little tips and tricks for navigating the holidays with my hometown family and friends, and adjusted my gifting policies accordingly.
My gift giving policy is simple: I'll give people whatever they damn well want, with a gentle preference for things that are practical and hopefully not too self-destructive. Obviously the amount I spend on a gift correlates with how much I like the person, or at least how much I'd like them not to be mad at me. I'll usually have all the gifts delivered directly to Boston well ahead of time, where they'll stay under the watchful eye of my sister until the time arrives.
For family, my gift giving strategy is to asking them what they want/need, and then I'll just get that. If they say "don't get me anything", you can bet I'm not getting them anything. For my friends, at least for the past decade or so, I've rounded them all up in a room lousy with alcohol and made them compete in a variety of online mini-games for cash, prizes, fame, and
intoxication glory. As I've mentioned before, past years' festivities have included online twists on Card Against Humanity, Texas Hold 'Em, Bomberman, Tetris, and Bananagrams, which I usually begin working on each August or September.
My gift receiving policy is even simpler. If I had to sum it up in a picture, it'd look something like:
Jim Carrey's Grinch Me at Christmas time.
Image stolen with love from Screen Rant.
I'm a total Grinch when it comes to Christmas, and I can oft be heard repeating my favorite Christmastime mantra, "I don't want any gifts, don't give me anything." You would think this would be an easy request. After all, what's easier than doing nothing? But alas, giving gifts is how some people show their affection, so I've really had to put my foot down in recent years. I've come up with a whole list*** of bulletproof reasons why you shouldn't get me a gift:
- I can't bring it on the plane - This is my go-to excuse. It's short, it's practical, and it doesn't require a discussion about trucks or my own personal beliefs around conspicuous consumption. Are you really going to give me a five-foot-tall stuffed animal knowing full well I'm going to have to shove it into the non-existent space under my Basic Economy seat on my overbooked flight back to San Francisco?
- I don't have room for it - I have roughly 128 ft2 of living space. Shockingly, most of it is open and unused, but that's because I'm a curmudgeon-y stickler about things like this. As an added bonus, mentioning the square footage of my abode doesn't necessitate mentioning the truck; people can be left to speculate about whatever squalid and cramped Bay Area housing conditions I must live in to have turned down their well intentioned Game of Thrones chess board.
- I literally don't have electricity - This is my go-to excuse for smaller gifts, where I can't hide behind my travel or living space constraints. If it has batteries or requires an outlet, it's a logistically difficult gift for me to work with. Sure, I could charge it or use it at work, but I'm not going to plug an Instant Pot in at my work desk, Aunt Karen.
All the above excuses work well because they also don't shift the blame to the gift-giver, who, after all, is just trying to do a nice thing and spread some holiday cheer. These excuses are simply explanations for my own personal failings. But if someone still insists on getting me a gift after the above explanations ("oh it'll just be something small", "trust me, you'll love it", etc, etc), I bring out the big guns:
I don't need anything.
I usually accompany this claim with some variant of the following rant.
I've got a pretty neatly-defined process for introducing new things into my life. It works well for me: I've figured out the bare minimum I need to get by (with appropriately comfort-zone-expanding levels of discomfort), plus the set of creature comforts I want (usually in pursuit of my few varied hobbies). It is having that exact combination of things that makes me very, very happy.
Short of funds to build a house and start my early retirement now, I have everything I want or need. If I truly need something, I buy it, plain and simple. I don't write a list or wait for a holiday, I just go and get it. And if I don't need it, I very likely don't want it. Following this to its (il)logical conclusion: come Christmas, I've internalized a steadfast belief that any physical gift will only make my life worse, by taking up space or going to waste or getting in the way or something grumble grumble. Like I said, very Grinch-like.
It's a pretty dramatic departure from childhood Brandon and his foaming at the mouth over the mere suggestion of a new iPod, but my ideas around happiness have changed in the intervening decade or two. Plus, I'm rich now, at least by every possible definition except the most American of them. This excerpt from Doing Good Better sums it up nicely:
If you earn more than $52,000 per year, then, speaking globally, you are the 1 percent. If you earn at least $28,000—that's the typical income for working individuals in the United States—you're in the richest 5 percent of the world's population. Even someone living below the US poverty line, earning just $11,000 per year, is still richer than 85 percent of the people in the world.
If you're reading this blog, a blog chiefly about living cheaply in Silicon Valley, you likely fall into that richest 15% category, if not the 1%. But anyway, that relative richness means that, if I pare down my wants and needs a bit, I can easily have everything I desire to desire, with plenty to spare.
But I'm getting a bit sidetracked, so let's turn the discussion back to gifts and the transfer thereof: what if someone still insists on getting you a gift even after your anti-consumption tirade ruins a perfectly decent Thanksgiving dinner? Or maybe you're on the opposite end: what do you get for the Brandons in your own life without offending their radical sensibilities? I'm glad you asked, here are some ideas, plucked primarily from suggestions I've given my own well-meaning mother:
- Donation to a charity - This one works well because everyone gets to feel warm and fuzzy. Personally, I'll also offer up a list of suggestions, usually plucked straight from GiveWell.
- Tickets to an event - Events are great because you don't have to own them for the rest of your life. It's one and done. The recipient might even enjoy it. Personally, I don't even care what the event is—I'm always looking to expand my horizons. You got me tickets to Hungarian throat singing in San Francisco? Hell yeah! I'm about to experience something novel and exciting, and I might even get to drag one of my beleaguered friends along for a unique night out.
- Passes to some other sort of experience - Give someone a Groupon to cooking or dancing or knife-juggling lessons near them. Or maybe a massage/spa day pass. Or maybe an escape room. Sky's the limit (except in the case of skydiving, which is also an option). Personally, I'll try
anythingmost things at least once (but sometimes exactly once, looking at you Gilroy Garlic Festival).
- Cash & Gift Cards - The more generic, the better. Let the recipient decide what, if anything, they want or need. Personally, If you hand me some cash, I'm more than happy to donate it myself, or treat myself to a few shares of VTSAX. Worried I'll spend it on drugs? Give me an Amazon gift card and I'll pick up a few eBooks.
I'm happy to report that this Christmas, for the first time ever, nobody got me any things. It's been a long road to get here, full of ill-fitting clothes and awkward gift rejections, but we made it. This year, I got a donation in my name, some cash, a few scratch tickets, a handful of protein bars (which I ate well before I left), and I was treated to a play. I know it took a Herculean feat of restraint for certain members of my family (looking at you Mom), so I took pains to express just how much it meant to me. With gifts not taking center-stage, it was that much easier to enjoy some quality time with those I hold most dear.
Happy (belated) Holidays!
*Let the record show that my mother gave up on trying to find the Menorah this year after approximately 30 seconds of searching for it.
**There was no Hanukkah Harry in our household, and I had my suspicions about who Santa actually was, but I can't recall when he stopped being the mastermind behind my yearly One Big Christmas Gift™.
***Just to be clear, any and all gifts and relatives mentioned in this list are purely hypothetical. I've never been gifted a giant teddy bear, Game of Thrones chess set (though I'm sure it exists), or Instant Pot. I also don't have an Aunt Karen.