DEAR MISS MANNERS: I am a mature married woman. We live within our means. We want things, but don’t need things. For gifts, well, we go get what we want. Generally, if we can’t afford it, we don’t want it. We are happily satisfied with life as it is.
So, we don’t want money for a gift. What we want and need is to hear from our loved ones: A “Happy birthday,” “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Mothers/Fathers Day” is awesome to us. That connection with family and friends is worth more than anything.
Our grown kids are the same way: hard to buy for because they have everything they need!
GENTLE READER: Much as Miss Manners dislikes entering Grumpyville, she worries whether the world hasn’t gotten too crass for the ancient and beautiful custom of exchanging presents to be meaningful.
It is not just you who has, or can buy, anything you want. Those who need and want material things are often disappointed by presents. And even when they are satisfied, they might fail to get what you also miss: thoughtfulness.
The idea of exchanging presents is not to barter goods, much less to pay people for milestones and holidays. It is to symbolize that not only do you have some feelings for another person, but you appreciate that person’s interests and taste.
This is not easy, which is why it often falls short of delighting the recipient. You can be fond of people whose preferences you don’t understand or are not in a position to observe. Furthermore, these may change over time, and do so especially rapidly with growing children.
So we augment our observations with indirect questions to parents or partners, and drop hints to those likely to be givers. At least, that was the system until people decided it was not efficient enough, and it became common to hand out lists of what one wanted. And if that is too much trouble, the symbol itself is eliminated in favor of giving money.
Not only does this get others to pay for what one had wanted to buy for oneself, but it relieves those people of having to think up pleasant surprises. What was thereby removed from the custom was thoughtfulness -- the very thing that you do want.
Miss Manners has to ask herself what is left. As these exchanges are supposed to be reciprocal, nobody should come out ahead in the long run. And nobody will have the thrill of receiving something that shows how well the giver understood oneself -- or the amusement of receiving a misfit, which is nevertheless treasured because of the person who gave it.