By Lilly Stewart
The holidays are a whirlwind of wondering what to buy for family members, friends, and loved ones. It feels good to give our loved ones gifts, perhaps so we feel more deserving of the gifts they get for us. But it also feels good to see our loved ones and family members happy, simply through their reception of the material gift. But why is material gift-giving our mode of making our loved ones happy in the first place? Gift-giving is a concrete aspect of our society that actually has nothing to do with Christmas. The tradition of gift-giving on Christmas day originated from the recognition of St. Nicholas, who allegedly gave gold to young women who couldn’t pay their dowries. St. Nicholas day is December 6, and over time it got combined with Christmas, which is only a few weeks later. However, gift-giving during the winter holidays is practiced across the world. Most people open gifts on Christmas day with their families, regardless of religious affiliation.
Gift-giving obligations arose largely from the introduction of huge department stores at the turn of the 20th century. The drive for profit, and capitalism in general, fed the obligatory practice of gift-giving. Consumerism and the mass production of goods as a result of materialism has been vastly critiqued and there has been a push towards buying from small businesses rather than Amazon and fast fashion brands. Unethical and exploitative manufacturing practices are being challenged, but arguing that buying gifts exacerbates these practices runs the risk of seeming ungrateful or selfish.
Gift giving has become an obligation in our society, where it is perceived that you need to give gifts to loved ones in order to maintain a relationship with them. This can be stressful and feels a bit arbitrary considering that everyone gets gifts for each other at the same time of year—we are each buying gifts because we know we have to. We’ll be receiving gifts, so it would be rude not to reciprocate. Buying gifts is part of a winter to-do list, rather than a heartfelt gesture. Our relationships seem to be hanging in the balance every year—what if they don’t like the gift? What if they think it’s cheap? The COVID-19 pandemic has caused millions to lose their jobs and encounter financial strain, and yet, the obligation for gift-giving and avoiding ‘cheapness’ hasn’t budged. Stores might be closed, but we can shop online, so there’s no excuse. Even with some people separated from their families, the pressures of the holidays have remained intact. Gift-giving is a social pressure that doesn’t flinch in the face of a global pandemic or social upheaval.
Since gift-giving is never going away, it’s important to recognize that not everyone has the financial means to procure a big gift, especially during a global pandemic where those who were already in the low income demographic suffered the most over the past nine months. Millions of people were laid off in April, causing financial stress. According to the Pew Research Center, “Young adults (ages 18 to 29) and lower-income adults are among the most likely to say [that they or someone they knew had been laid off].” Younger people who may not have college degrees (or undergraduate students such as ourselves) and those who were already suffering before the pandemic do not have the same luxuries as someone with a salary job who only had to adjust to zoom meetings and a home office.
And yet, we still expect everyone to give each other thoughtful material gifts this season? Although it has already passed, the Thanksgiving sentiment of saying what one is grateful for seems more appropriate during a COVID Christmas than attempting to scramble online looking for the perfect gift. Buying from small businesses, when possible, is another good way to be conscious about gift-giving this season, especially because small businesses have suffered during the pandemic. Handmade or sentimental gifts are also a good alternative.
Gift-giving seems to be the mode of expression we use to say “I love you.” In other words, material things represent love. But what about a handwritten letter or sentimental gift? What about the actual words themselves?
Expressions of love and handwritten cards are seen as an add-on to the main gift, and getting a loved one a nice note with nothing else would be viewed as lazy and cheap. While COVID can be an excuse to get out of social obligations, it’s not going to work for the obligation of gift-giving. However, the main point of the holidays is to spend time with family, and for many that won’t be possible this year–at least not in person. Beyond material gifts, Facetime or Zoom sessions with loved ones are still possible AND can be real gifts—material gifts without heart or without thought is just fluff.