It’s not that I’ve ever been one of those people who finished their Christmas shopping months early, but this year I’ll be lucky if I’m done by New Year’s — 2002. First, it was the election mess that kept me a prisoner in my home, unable to tear myself away from the television set long enough to shop for groceries, much less presents. Then I had to contend with a series of other holidays, celebrations and scheduling conflicts in the week leading up to Christmas: my granddaughter’s first birthday, my youngest son’s college graduation, my middle son’s birthday, several nights of Hanukkah — which happens to overlap with Christmas this year for my mixed-faith family. And if this weren’t enough, my mother is making her annual visit, arriving from Albuquerque, N.M., at precisely the same moment I land on a return flight from a business trip to San Francisco.
Now when, exactly, am I supposed to pick out charming gifts for the dozens of people in my life who expect individual attention?
I’ve done the best I could with catalogues and TV infomercials, ordering delectable treats and gadgets that are overpriced and always look better in two dimensions than three. I hope my friend Andy, who lives alone and rarely entertains, will find some use for 32 ounces of duck and goose liver pate. And I can’t imagine when Aunt Elsie will ever eat 24 individual slices of multi-flavored cheesecake. As for my husband, Chris, he’s always complaining that his feet are cold, so now we’ll find out if battery-operated, heated socks really work.
The kids are much harder. When they were little, they always had specific requests, which they made months in advance. One year it was He-Man action figures, another year it was a Hot Wheels car set or a Nintendo video game. I remember spending hours driving from one toy mega-store to another, racing up and down the aisles in search of exactly the right model, knowing, if I failed in my quest, substitutes would bring crestfallen faces on Christmas morning.
But it’s even more difficult to buy for my grown children. Do I buy a family gift for my married sons, which usually means something for the house? Or do I buy both sons and wives separate gifts, tools for the boys, jewelry for the wives? And do I buy identical gifts for each couple, or do I try to guess their individual tastes? My youngest son is the most difficult to buy for, so he usually ends up with cash or gift certificates. But somehow, it never feels quite right, so this year, he’ll get a gift — like it or not.
And then there are the grandchildren. Kids have so many toys these days, it takes some of the fun out of giving. I remember as a child that I would get one or two gifts on holidays, a game, a doll, a special outfit. My own mother recalls that she would usually get something useful, an apron, some new socks, a pair of gloves. But kids today get tons of toys, so many they can barely remember who gave them what. I’ve rebelled, insisting on buying modest presents for most occasions and making contributions to a college fund instead. Anyway, at their age, they don’t notice the difference between a $10-dollar toy and one that costs many times more.
Like many people, I wish there were a way to stop this ever-escalating gift-giving. Most of us have everything we really need in life. Yet, Madison Avenue will spend millions of dollars trying to convince us that we need more stuff — diamonds for our fingers, ears and wrists; home entertainment centers to amuse us; mini-computers to organize our lives; communications devices to connect us with our friends, family and stockbrokers. And because we have to work harder every year to buy all these things, we have less time to enjoy what we already own.
I, for one, would welcome a respite. Maybe by Valentine’s Day, I’ll have figured out what to buy everyone. But by that time my choices will probably already be obsolete.