Gifts come to us like a surprise attack in the night: often completely secret until it’s too late and you’re staring at untold horrors hidden inside gift wrap. We know they’re coming, but we don’t know what they are, so there’s very little we can do to stop them.
The farthest reaches of my closet are testament to the pile-on of unavoidable Christmas gifts. It’s where castoffs go to spend their final years in dark, undisturbed peace until they’re finally discarded. The island of rejects includes a delicate porcelain teapot (the well-intentioned but misguided gift), airport perfume (the flavorless, obligatory gift), and a planter that once held a long-dead bonsai tree (the gift that wildly overestimated my competence in this world).
Every year, there’s more: a crochet vest, fancy leather gloves, a stack of concept-heavy alt-politics mags. If I had to guess, 34 percent of gifts are deeply unappealing to the recipients. And though the gift was foisted upon us unwillingly, we’re the people in charge of figuring out how to off-load a trinket dish with a kicky slogan on it. My friend is famous in her family for hiding sweaters from her sister behind her cousin’s boogie board, rather than stuff them into her carry-on. So as we approach the biggest gift-giving season of the year, I find myself wondering: Is there any way to get the people you love to stop giving you things you despise, without being completely rude and insufferable about it?
First, I must mention the most obvious, and most dangerous, approach: loud and dramatic protest. While risky, bad behavior is an effective way to halt unwanted gifts. On my 20th birthday, I opened a hardcover book with a photo of a stern-looking careerist on the cover and a title that indicated the reader might be low on self-worth. Like someone surging with self-worth, I burst into tears. Every year since, I’ve received only fiction hardcovers about cerebral and conflicted women (my favorite) — and I appreciated that being an absolute pill, just once, can have resonating power. So if you don’t mind crying on a major holiday, or causing a panicky hesitancy among your nearest and dearest, a certain level of drama can ensure that you never receive unsolicited neoliberal material ever again.
But if your 20th birthday has come and gone, I understand this is a sort of cursed option. In that case, there’s a slightly more constructive strategy available to us: nudging people toward what you want — and away from what you don’t. “I ban whole categories from people,” my former roommate Rosa tells me, “but then I give them new categories.” Rosa uses envy to guide her: Her dad has incredible kitchen implements, so she asks him for cookware — and has banned him from giving her nonfiction. Her mother is banned from giving her clothes. “And my sister can’t give me concert tickets anymore, but I love her to give me jewelry, because I love her jewelry.” What do you request from your mom? “Expensive things,” Rosa said. (Rosa, of course, is one of the most incredibly direct people I’ve ever known. Not all of us can be so commanding.)
There’s also, always, the emotionally appropriate approach of direct and honest communication. So says Taylor Morrison, the founder of mental-health program Inner Workout, who thinks a lot about how to arrange considerate social dynamics. “You can save a lot of disappointment and resentment by simply having a conversation,” Morrison says. This starts with asking, “Will we or won’t we gift?” and “What’s the budget like here?”
But even in its very neutrality, these questions seem loaded! Clarity is crucial, yes, but extremely direct questions sap all the magic out of gifts. And because gifts are a mode of affection, calling their very existence into question seems potentially wounding. I’ve only been able to do it by balancing it with an enthusiastic alternative that affirms I still cherish the whole relationship, like, “Hey, are we doing gifts this year, or are we opting out and splitting a delivery feast instead?”
Even if you do work up the nerve to steer people in the right direction, my problem is that people, myself included, don’t listen! You can tell an eager new friend you’re just not that into gifts and they’ll ring the doorbell with a mischievous smile and a paper bag filled with tissue paper and “just a little something.” The “little something” is a protective crystal (milky selenite) because they know you’re driving 13 hours straight to visit your brother’s new baby. It’s this behavior that makes me adore people and also makes me never want to share any facet of my life out of concern that it might prompt a thoughtful gift that I don’t want at all, but is so heartwarming that I have to keep it for four years. I am the conflicted owner of at least three crystals; I can’t see any benefit of holding onto them, but I’m also ambiently worried that if I dispose of them, I’ll get cursed. I feel this way writ large about all gifts that I don’t really want: damned if I keep them, damned if I give them away.
It’s true that in sharing information about yourself, you risk inadvertently courting gifts. Take, for example, my mother, who for years was the very unhappy recipient of cow-adjacent paraphernalia. Just because you love cows (the living, snorting, stomping creatures) does not mean you want a dozy Holstein’s face imprinted on a set of cheese plates. But this did not stop dinner-party guests from bringing her paper napkins with cows or a hand soap in the shape of a cow. “Never tell anyone you like an animal,” my mother warned me, holding cow-print oven mitts.
Here’s another thing about gifts, though: In retrospect, the oven mitts actually seem really fun. It’s very cute that people saw bovine merchandise and thought, Jean must have this! The gift, of course, is about what the giver wants. Arguably, this should mean they have to store it in their house, but what they wanted was for you to have it. That’s your gift to them. Gifts are the physicalization that someone’s thinking of you. They may be as heinous as they are well-intentioned, and many people might have the same thought about you, so that you now own about six socks with bicycles on them. But the medium is the message, and the message of every gift is they wanted this for you, and all you need to do is keep it.