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Archive for the ‘gifts’ Category

Over the years, I’ve received all sorts of Christmas gifts from employers and the magazines that buy my articles. Like any gifts, these corporate offerings say more about the givers than I suspect I know.

By far the most sensible corporate gifts are food – usually boxes of chocolate or nuts. In my case, the assumption that everyone eats chocolate is wrong, but I can take them to a seasonal gathering so others can enjoy them. Later in the evening, I might even raise an only semi-ironic glass to the founders of the feast.

Other than food, the most magnificent gift I’ve ever received was a six inch silver plated penguin holding up a serving bowl, like some Linux nerd’s version of a Maxwell Parish painting. The thing tarnishes if I so much as breathe on it, and I’ve only used it once or twice, since I don’t do a lot of entertaining, but I’ve never had the heart to bin it. It is magnificently tacky, and, knowing the editor responsible, I have no doubt that I am appreciating it in the spirit in which it was given.

It is a shared joke as much as a gift, although I suspect it was relatively expensive as such gifts go, since it was given at the height of the Dot Com Era by a company that was spending freely to attract and retain writers and boost circulation. Privately, I refer to it as the Penguin Nymph.

The majority of corporate gifts, though, are not so fortunate. One company sent in late January a travel alarm clock that looked like it was made of tin foil. Naturally, it arrived broken, and fit only for tossing away.

The company must have received a lot of complaints, because next January, it resolved on sending something that might survive the mail. I say “something,” because I’m not sure exactly what it was supposed to be. However, It was made of semi-transparent yellow nylon with the corporate initials repeated endless in green. It was too large and too filmy to be a handkerchief, but too small and the wrong shape for a scarf. I tried using it as a duster, but it quickly disintegrated after a couple of light uses.

I find both the broken clock and the filmy something humorous, because they have the opposite effect that a corporate gift is supposed to have. Instead of making me feel that our interactions through the year were appreciated, I had the impression that no one beyond my editor and perhaps someone in the finance department had any idea who I was. I felt, too, that such cheap gifts reflected how little the company appreciated me as much as the recession in which they were sent.

Rather than receive such inept gifts, I would just as soon receive none at all. The same goes for the corporate Christmas cards containing photos of a crowd of strangers, most of whose names I’ve never heard of, and whom I am unlikely ever to meet.

I suppose the tradition of corporate gifts continues largely because someone in human resources was taught that such gestures were good for morale. But to be effective, such gifts require a certain grace and knowledge of the recipient – or, failing that, at least the kind of neutral good taste represented by a gift basket. I sometimes wonder if those who send out gifts half-heartedly realize that their efforts are having the exact opposite effect than the one they are supposed to have.

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To the strains of Sileas’ “File Under Christmas,” I’ve just finished my wrapping for tomorrow. It was a feeble echo of the years when Trish was alive, and brings out the loneliness in my life more than ever.

Trish and I always made Christmas a large event. Although we would sometimes buy one moderately priced present for each other, mostly we focused on small gifts like movies, music, graphic novels, and books – always books, so many that each year we would only run out of new reading material about mid-March. Usually, we would buy each thirty or more gifts a year, opening a few in the morning, and the rest when we returned from visiting and needed to unwind. If we had a Boxing Day visit that we weren’t looking forward to, sometimes we saved a few gifts for opening when we dragged home, full of stories about relatives.

So many gifts took some planning. We had plenty of pre-wrapped boxes that I’m now slowly giving away because I no longer need them. Since I was the more organized of the two of us, and usually finished shopping earlier, I would scrupulously divide the pre-wrapped boxes, taking only half of them. Almost always, I had to wrap half a dozen gifts separately that didn’t fit into any boxes.

Then I would sit down and compose the tags. The tags were never as simple as statements about whom the gifts were too and from. They contained this information, of course, but early in our relationship, we started the tradition of adding a cryptic clue about the present. For example, a book by John Mortimer might have a tag declaring that it was “dead in the water” (mort = death, mer = “sea”). An album by The Pogues might be listed as “Before Pictures from the British Dentistry Association” in reference to Shane McGowan’s irregular teeth, while a season of Doctor Who videos might be described as “first of five, medicinally-speaking,” (referring the basic questions Who? What? Where? When? How?). The idea was to be as obscure as possible, so that the recipient would groan in recognition when the gift was opened.

Last year, I was still in deep mourning, and gift wrapping was so much a duty that I hardly noticed it. This year, however, when I am in slightly better shape, it seems colorless and drab. It involves no clues, because the relatives and friends I buy for wouldn’t appreciate the tradition. And it’s over so quickly, too, finished before an album is, where once I’d need five or six albums and an afternoon.

Compared to other years, it was joyless – but, then, to a large extent so was the shopping. I no longer shop with an eye out for something to delight someone. Instead, I settle for what is suitable, and I’m relieved, not saddened, when the process was over.

Christmas, clearly, is no time to be widowed. There are too many memories in gift-wrapping, and no sense of or belief in a future in which the gifts might be enjoyed.

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In my circles, at least, an increasing number of people seem determined to escape the consumerism associated with Christmas. Instead of buying gifts, they’re making donations in the name of people. One man goes even further, telling those around him that he doesn’t want gifts. Intellectually, I am all for these ideas, and feel that I should emulate them more than I do. However, on another level, I wonder whether, in struggling against the tawdriness of the season, they go too far in the opposite direction.

Your feelings on this subject, I suppose, will partly depend on the level of consumerism you associate with the season. If you’re accustomed to buying one large gift and going deeply into debt, then cleansing yourself of these expectations will likely be a relief. Too many people see gift-giving as a kind of competitive potlatching, in which their extravagance assert their own status or worthiness.

If, however, you’re like me, and prefer to give small, carefully chosen gifts that don’t exceed your budget, then a completely anti-consumer Christmas risks being joyless.

From the point of view of giving, finding a gift for someone is an act of empathy and imagination. Except, perhaps, in the earliest stages of a relationship, industrial culture doesn’t have many customs that encourage these things, so we shouldn’t eliminate the few that do. For me, selecting a gift for someone I care about is a pleasure, and I consider a day well-spent as I try to imagine this person reading that book, or how that set of earrings might match that person’s skin or hair. And despite the chances of making a wrong choice, I admit, too, to a little pool of gratification inside when I see that my choice pleases the recipient – or, at least, that they’re pleased that I made an effort.

From the point of view of receiving – well, the inner child (as we’re calling Freud’s Id these days) always enjoys being pampered. For myself, I have to admit that an unread book can reduce me to a state of intellectual gluttony. Give me a stack of unread books, and I am in the same state of happy frustration as a parrot trying to choose between a playtoy and a millet stock. No matter how much I try to be an adult and socially concerned, I have to be honest and say that a card that says a donation has been made in my name just doesn’t compare.

Besides, a donation card seems reminiscent of of a gift card, that most impersonal of presents. Unless very carefully chosen, it can seem the gift of someone who doesn’t know you very well, or, perhaps, of someone who doesn’t want to know you. Either way, it seems contrary to the whole point of gift-giving, which is to claim or reaffirm a relationship. Gifts between strangers are sometimes useful or necessary, but, even then, they are more successful when they are chosen to given pleasure to the recipient.

And if that sounds childish, I agree. But we place such a premium on responsibility and maturity these days that maybe letting the inner child out for a brief romp isn’t so bad an idea. At least that’s better than repressing it until it escapes in the form of an entrepreneur’s greed for money or power.

I do make donations at this time of year, if only for the selfish reason that it’s the last chance to reduce the years’ taxes. At times, too, my gifts do include donations. But I much prefer to keep my charities separate from the art of gift-selecting. Insisting that everyone must constantly be an adult and act out of enlightened motives is simply too high an expectation to place on anyone.

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