Christmas Gift Expectations and Inadequacy

I have this friend. Let’s call her Trudy. (Trudy, you’re going to know I’m talking about you when you read this. But no one else will know unless you tell them. Don’t be sad. I love you. This is a story about our love.) Trudy and I have known each other since 5th Grade.

No, wait. That’s not how I should start this. Let’s start again.

As longtime readers know, I grew up pretty poor. Actually, I was born rich, in the most beautiful neighborhood in Houston, but then, over the years, Corporate America and Cruel Circumstance shifted in such a way as to watch my family turn poor. Very, very poor. As poor as you can be while still having a house to live in.

So I was 15, 16, 17 years old, and very poor. And yet Christmas still occurred, every year, like it always does.

You know how easy it is for non-poor adults to get caught up in feelings of guilt and inadequacy when it comes to giving gifts. And you know how teenagers’ lives are often just long strings of shame and melodramatic humiliation. So, I’m sure you can imagine how crappy it felt for me, as a teenaged girl, to be poor and unable to buy nice gifts for the people I loved.

So, I got creative. Often, right at the last minute – right before the party or the dinner or the choir rehearsal, I would run around our big, drafty house and grab all the materials I could – anything sparkly or expendable – and make my friends gifts. Often, the gifts would be comprised of completely nonsensical things. Or pilfered things. Or things I’d completely invented from found objects and scraps of paper.

Usually, they included writing. It wasn’t enough, I knew, to give someone a pair of safety goggles that I’d borrowed from our high school’s biology lab. But, if I wrote a story to go along with it – like, say, a story about the goggles having magic that would enable the wearer to view their football-playing crush’s underwear – then it was passable. It was funny – a personalized gag gift.

Like I said, I would create these gifts at the last possible minute, and wrap them in comics or aluminum foil or discarded ribbons, and give them to my friends quickly, and swallow down the lumps of shame while I tried to graciously accept their beautiful gifts in return. And, as soon as Christmas was over, I’d breathe the pure relief, and go back to being normal-poor instead of Christmas-poor.

And then I got older, and I got a scholarship, and I went away, and I got married, and I got credit cards, and I wasn’t poor anymore. And, thank God, and on the Christmasses that came then, I would by my friends completely normal gifts and feel so freaking good about it. And, once in a while, one of my friends would say, “Remember that year you gave me a whole box of stuff with a list of clues, and one of the gifts was safety goggles you stole from Ms. Alexander’s class, and you said they were x-ray goggles and I could use them to see Elias’s underwear?”

No, I’d say. Jesus, no, I don’t remember that. Thank God. How embarrassing.

I have this friend named Trudy. She’s been my friend since fifth grade. Like me, she grew up poor. Like me, thank God, she’s doing well now, and I’m so happy for her.

Even though we’ve lived far away from each other for the last fifteen years, Trudy still always wanted to exchange gifts. Even though we sometimes didn’t get a change to do it until January. Part of our ritual has always been exchanging wish lists, first. Sometimes the wish lists contain funny items. Trudy’s, I noticed, often contained small things that sounded like groceries. “She must be worried that I can’t afford anything better than that,” I’d think. A lot of times, I’d ignore her list and buy her something nice, instead.

Last year, I told her, “Trudy, I love you to death, but it’s getting to be a massive pain in the ass for us to do our gift exchange. Do you mind if we don’t do it this year? Can we just try to get together some time for lunch, instead?”

I hate that we hardly see each other in real life anymore. When we do see each other, one or both of us always has to drag kids/husbands/boyfriends along, because God forbid two women with families should be allowed a single day on their own, right? Y’all mommies out there know what I’m saying. So, I kind of hated getting all involved with the gift/list exchange, then hoping for a chance to see each other in December or January. It was stressing me out. Plus, Trudy kept putting weird stuff on her wish list, and I kept stressing over what to actually buy her. Surely, she didn’t just want socks and candy bars and shampoo. But how was I supposed to know what to buy?

A few weeks ago, Trudy called me and, among other things, said, “Hey, I know we said last year that we weren’t going to do a gift exchange, but is there any way you’d want to do it this year? It’ll only be you and me – we won’t buy stuff for the kids or the men.”

“Um…” I said. She wasn’t the only person I’d skipped last year. A couple of my other friends sent out anti-consumerist emails stating that they didn’t want to exchange gifts – they’d wanted to have dinner or lunch, instead. And it had worked out well. Gift buying really stresses me out. I was glad to cut my list short last year – why would I backslide this year?

“I know this is dumb,” Trudy said, “but I really miss our gift exchange. Remember, back when we were kids, how we used to give each other candy and painted pennies and rocks and stuff? And we’d write each other letters, and draw cartoons? Seriously, Gwen, those were some of the best gifts I ever got. I know it’s corny, but I kind of miss that.”

When she said that… I know this is kind of corny, but it almost made me cry.

I didn’t even remember, until she said it, that we used to give each other pennies that we’d decorated with nail polish. I barely remember any Christmas-specific letters or cartoons, but, thinking back now, I can imagine what they must have contained. Expressions of loyalty. Laughter over our hardships. Uninformed jokes about sex. Fantasies of what we’d be when we got older. All closed with SYBF – Signed Your Best Friend.

So then, all of a sudden, I knew what she’d meant for the last fifteen years. She’d never wanted “normal” gifts, or “nice” things. She wanted what we used to exchange – the tangible expressions of our love.

All that sounds completely cheesy and homosexual, I know. But I’m not playing Charlie Brown theme music in the background here, and I’m not about to launch into a story about us having a pillow fight in lingerie.

I’m just saying. For the first time in a long time, I’m excited about giving gifts this year.

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Posted in Christmas, stories on 12/01/2006 03:07 pm

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