Every year for Christmas, I want one thing: money. Is it because I’m a Grinch? No! It’s because I’m a person and I live in the money world, where you need money.
But you won’t catch me making a list that just says “Money” on it to pass out to my loved ones, because during the holidays even I cling to the last sweet, semi-uncommercialized strains of gift exchanging, which is not about what I need. Certainly what most of us need is not more stuff (universal health care, yes; another succulent, absolutely not). But we want to love and be loved, through the giving and receiving of thoughtful presents. There’s a joy in picking something out based solely on the texture of your relationship to a person, close or not. And Christmas lists are utterly joyless. Don’t make them or ask for them! This is my recommendation.
Lists are the provenance of dictators. Think about who makes them: teachers assigning homework; the DMV when you want to renew your license. And now we make our own prison of online lists when we start shopping for holiday gifts months in advance, our synapses hijacked by advertising that promises more and better deals. Our brains are already shopping carts.
Take Santa Claus, who uses lists to divide children into deserving and undeserving categories. Awful. Then he gives the ones he deems “nice” the Hot Wheels and the shooting Nerf items that they put on their lists. Could this exchange be more transactional and cold? Remember anecdotally that we get this whole practice from the time that three old men trekked across the desert with perfume, gold, and something called myrrh to give to the Baby Jesus. A baby who certainly didn’t request medicinal tree resin (that’s what myrrh is) on his Christmas list but that’s what he got.
None of this is to say that we should be blindly wading into the holiday gift waters with no direction. By all means, pay attention to what the people in your life talk about wanting so you can clock it for later, like a Christmas investigator. That’s smart and nice. They will be surprised that you heard them say how much they were coveting the butter lettuce from Zooey Deschanel and her ex-husband’s lettuce company, and that you cared enough to remember.
And gift receipts, tastefully included in a present, are crucial in order to maintain the air of meaningful, heartfelt present-swapping while acknowledging that it’s okay to occasionally miss the mark. One can still appreciate the sentiment behind a cap-sleeve T-shirt, all the while knowing that you can simply never, ever even try it on. The gift receipt in the bottom of a box or bag allows the recipient to say, “Thank you, but no, but more importantly, thank you.”
I come from a Christmas list-maker. It’s taken me a long time to sort out my own feelings on the issue. Every year my mom sends my family an email blast with her desired items, which typically include one kitchen tool, a perfume, a hand cream, and one classic rock album. It comes from a long-suffering, beleaguered place of usually not getting anything she actually wants from the rest of us. But every year my sister and I supplement the list with novelty surprises, like sparkly socks or a mug that is also a functioning bong. Something to delight, that she would never think to buy herself. Her face when she opens the hand cream is not the one we remember. It’s when she opens the mug bong.