There I was, browsing in an upscale shop famous for its wine accessories (a fact which already indicates that I have WAY too much time on my hands), and I found myself tempted to buy a diminutive Santa outfit. This tiny garment was designed to be slipped over a wine bottle on a festive occasion. I thought it would make a nifty holiday present.

“Honey,” I called to my husband, who was across the sales floor seemingly enthralled by a chess set composed of shot glasses (another truly necessary seasonal item). “Come and look at this cute little costume for a bottle of Chablis!”

Let’s say he was less enthusiastic. My husband’s response can best be summed up as “You’ve lost it. You really think any of our friends have on their wish list ‘Clothes for Liquor’?”

Why DO we give what we give on the holidays? Why has the apparently generous, even jolly, opportunity to present objects of our affection with tokens of our tenderness turned into an unpardonably frantic set of tasks? When did both the chance to give and to receive morph into an anxiety-provoking situation along the line of a tax audit or the SATs?

Have you seen the wild and primitive glare in the eyes those unpunctual shoppers, the ones reduced to picking up and putting down the same object at a store? Sometimes it’s so close to Christmas that sales-associates are actually putting up Valentine’s Day decorations but you can still almost HEAR late shoppers debating whether or not a random brother-in-law could learn to like a necktie that plays “We Three Kings of Orient Are.””Just wrap it up,” they mutter, eyes twitching, hands trembling.

Did the ritual of wrapping paper and tying bows begin as a way to disguise our astonishingly poor gift choices? Did putting stuff in boxes and then hiding the boxes spring from the deep embarrassment with which we regard our purchases once we’re irrevocably committed to giving them? "Well, goodness knows Dad really NEEDS this turbo-charged, Teflon-coated, battery-operated nose hair clipper,” you reassure yourself,  “But I'll just put it in thirteen layers of tissue paper so that he won't be able to see it right away. I’ll wrap the batteries in a separate box. He’ll enjoy the surprise."

Like fun he will. Giving somebody a grooming device is just about as tactful as offering a stick of deodorant or a load of dental floss. And don’t kid yourself: that the dental floss is gaily colored doesn’t suddenly turn it into an appropriate present.

To the paranoid among us, of course, every cheerful gift box or glittering envelope can contain an insult. Let’s say you decide to give your sweetheart a year’s pass to the local gym. You know he’s into lifting, or you know she enjoys swimming, and so you decide that a membership to the facility with the best weights or the best pool will be your best bet.

This will guarantee that you are faced, not with a buff and healthy partner, but with a tense or teary one. “Ha, ha, don’t you like the way I look?” the gift’s recipient will chortle. This is a good time to move a little closer to the exit. “You think I need to work out more? Why didn’t you get YOURSELF one so we could go together? You think you’re PERFECT? YOU THINK YOU’RE LOOKING JUST DANDY?”

 Better to have bought Belgian chocolates. Or a Pinot Noir dressed as Kris Kringle.

I’m not sure whether it’s better to give a rotten present or to get one. I’ve done both, so you’d think I could come up with an authoritative answer to this question. But it’s a tough call. Here are the choices: was it more miserable to have been given at age twenty-one, by a boyfriend I adored, a copy of the book Fowler’s English Usage wherein he marked every example, definition, and term he thought I needed to understand more fully?  (This was not a gift; at best, it was a lesson plan. At worst, it was penance.) 

But was an even worse experience giving, to an old friend from college, a beautifully framed and enlarged photograph of herself? Sounds fine, right? Thoughtful, even?   I’d had the privilege of snapping the picture a year earlier. I didn’t realize that, in the space of time since I’d last seen her, my friend had undergone intensive “work” on her face as well as on her extended person. The new woman who unwrapped the gift resembled the mature woman in the photograph just about as much as the Vivian Lee in Gone With The Wind resembled the Vivian Lee in Streetcar Named Desire. 

 How could I, with my kindly meant gift from Kodak, hope to compete with a lady who’d given herself the gift of Botox? It wasn’t like I was insulting her--I was simply unaware that she had one of those makeovers that cross over the boundary between plastic surgery and special effects. Trying to smile in thanks, she produced only a look so bitter and resentful it was the kind of expression ordinarily reserved for the loyal girlfriends of serial killers.

Now we just send each other holiday cards.

Not the family-photograph kind.

I’ve heard even scarier stories. My friend John’s family was not exactly known for their sensitivity to the needs of their nearest and dearest: turning the cool age of thirteen, for example, John’s heart was absolutely set on a snare drum, only to receive, instead, a goose-neck lamp wrapped in a snare-sized box. Thirty years later, there is still bitterness. He also reports having used gift-inappropriateness as a barometer of family feeling. “I knew my parents were headed for divorce when all Dad got Mom one year was a turkey baster,” John explains. “You wanted one of these, right?” John’s father apparently said in response to his wife’s incredulity. “Even if my mother needed a turkey baster in the kitchen, she realized at that moment what she REALLY needed was a good lawyer on the phone.”

Some of the best presents are not wrapped up or on any conscious wish list. When I was in graduate school, an elderly uncle showed up at my quark-sized New York apartment proclaiming that he carried, in a crumpled paper bag “what every woman wants.”  It seemed unlikely. This uncle was at the phase of his life when he was prone to showing up with last week’s paper under his arm because “It’s always the same thing. What does it matter if the news is a little old?” Despite my initial skepticism, my uncle in fact made good on his promise: he handed me a full page of first-class stamps, five bags of subway tokens, and a bottle of Chanel Number 5. He saved me time, expense, trouble, provided necessities, and gave me something I never could have afforded to give myself.

There’s another explanation for the rituals surrounding holiday gifts, one that has less to do with the presents and more to do with the future. Like a gift under the tree, the future is in sight but nevertheless cloaked by the unknown. It’s hidden from us by the quotidian wrapping of the calendar, only to be unveiled at the precisely orchestrated moment of the new day. What’s next could be everything we’ve always hoped for. Or it could heartbreaking. Who knows? 

The night before any big day, there is something young in us, something extravagantly curious about what is ahead.   Around holidays, we breathe a collective deep sigh of both wistfulness and anticipation. Like a child about to ride a bike for the first time, we turn our heads to smile at what we leave behind even as we begin to contemplate what’s ahead. If we’re smart, we call upon all the courage we can manage and we take what’s given to us with gratitude, with perspective, and with a spirit of understanding.

If we’re very smart, we also keep the receipt.

--adapted from IT'S NOT THAT I'M BITTER...

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