DEAR MISS MANNERS: My relatives are angry with me for not distributing a list of what I want them to give me for Christmas!
I understand that picking the perfect gift is not a challenge relished by everyone, and that "wish lists" and gift registries have become de rigueur, but somehow the whole thing feels to me like it's just gone too far!
If I'm going to tell you what to buy for me, you might as well give me money so I can buy it myself.
In fact, let's just exchange money. Come to think of it, how about we all go out and buy things we like for ourselves, and then show off our new purchases on Christmas morning? It seems that's what gift-giving has devolved into.
Any attempt to discuss this issue always results in hurt feelings and an insistence that I'm "hard to buy for." What can I do?
GENTLE READER: It appears that the exchange of presents has become too hard for everyone:
Too hard to use the imagination to think of what might please a relative or friend. Too hard to enjoy surprises when one was intent on receiving what one had ordered. And too hard to accept the occasional mistaken notion as being well intentioned.
What was once an exciting and charming custom has therefore deteriorated into the joyless, rote experience you describe -- and that Miss Manners has been protesting against for years. We have become a nation of beggars and their shoppers.
Far from spreading pleasure, this brings out the worst in most people -- increasingly blatant greed and the resentment that you encountered.
And from the good-hearted it brings on the inevitable solution of donating to charity instead.
This sounds like a noble solution -- who can object to giving to charity? -- but it should be recognized for what it is: the demise of the ancient custom of good will expressed through symbolism.
Substituting giving to charity is an adaptation of the "in lieu of flowers" directive associated with death. The idea was that rather than suffocate from an overload of flowers, the bereaved would be more comforted with support of research on the disease that caused the death, or with donations to the dead person's favorite charity.
But adopting this for Christmas and other present-exchanging occasions comes with its own problems. Not everyone agrees on what causes are worthy. Miss Manners often hears from targeted givers who angrily oppose supporting the charity named, as well as from expectant recipients who angrily oppose the charity that the donor substituted.
Miss Manners suspects that charities benefit less than is supposed when people declare they are honoring others but do not increase their donations above what they would have given their favorite charities anyway. They also receive the immediate benefit, the tax credit.
But at best this destroys the need to think about the needs and desires of people one loves. Which seems to be fine with your relatives.
You can go around this while apparently placating them by saying, "A book (or a CD or a DVD) you think I might enjoy."
DEAR MISS MANNERS: Is it proper to substitute one party for another if the one named on the invitation is not able to attend?
GENTLE READER: No, no, no, no. And no again. Miss Manners reminds you that this is an invitation, directed personally to those to whom it is sent because their presence is wanted; it is not a ticket that says "Admit two."