Bad Gifts from Terrible People

Why we should stop trying to give the perfect gift.

The love of my college years surprised me with a Christmas present. Or maybe I should say he got his other girlfriend something, and gave it to me by accident. They say it’s the thought that counts.

But sometimes it counts backwards.

Stickers. He got me stickers. Or got her stickers, I guess. They were My Little Pony themed. Or Rainbow Bright. I can’t remember. What I do recall is that smug, expectant look on his face as I peeled off the wrapping.

Yes, he’d wrapped stickers.

The worst part? It took him five minutes to realize the screw up.

He watched me squint my way toward some kind of understanding while we waited on our lattes. Finally, I just said, “That’s so... I’m really sorry I didn’t get you anything.” After all, we were casual. On again, off again.

His choice.

Meanwhile, I’d spent the last year trying to make myself good enough for him. I’d even started going to his church. For an atheist, that’s a big deal. I was prepared for a lifetime of fake Christianity.

He wouldn’t let the ponies go, even when I tried to change the subject. “Don’t you like them?” he kept saying.

“They’re great,” I said. “Really.” In my head, I was thinking how I’d prove to him how much I liked them. Like maybe I’d have to slap one on my laptop, just so he’d kiss me later.

He smiled, teasing me about how I talked about them all the time. Either My Little Ponies or Rainbow Bright. That’s when I flatly explained that I’d never mentioned either one in my entire life.

“But you do,” he insisted.

“No, I don’t. I’m not really into cartoons.” Back then, I didn’t even watch TV. I was a reader. He could’ve gotten me a book.

His whole body froze. “Oh, wait a minute…”

Turns out, it was the other girl he was seeing. She was the one he’d been thinking about. She made a big deal out of watching kids’ shows. Not that I’m judging. Fine, a little. You’re not allowed to start enjoying kids’ stuff again until your 30s.

That was our last date. You couldn’t blame him too much, though. We looked a lot alike, me and his other girlfriend, and we had the same first name. He left his stickers intended for the other Jessica, and I stared down a night of feeling sorry for myself.

My story proves that no gift really does beat a shitty one. And that gifts can reveal a lot about how much you matter to someone. And about how much someone else should matter to you.

At certain times of year, we all feel extra pressure to somehow prove our love by buying shit for people. Or making it.

Some of us think a good gift erases our sins, or buys a month of mistakes. Others think a bad one cancels out all the good we’ve done for someone else.

There’s only a few ways to really screw up a gift. For example, my aunt once sent me a birthday card that said something clever like, “They say you can’t measure love with money. But I think you can!”

The card was empty.

Of course, I’m pretty sure she hated me. Well-played, Auntie Wildfire.

You can always send someone a white elephant. Not only are you giving them something they didn’t want, but you’re dumping responsibility on them they didn’t ask for. If you really hate someone, give them an exotic fish in a plastic sack. But not an aquarium.

I’ve never experienced a white elephant firsthand, but my friend has. Her mom gave her an heirloom wedding dress. In front of her boyfriend. A few weeks later, they broke up.

Her mom said, “You might as well keep it.”

Gifts can also remind you how much you hate someone. Another friend of mine bought her dad a fancy espresso machine for Christmas. He wasn’t impressed. “My doctor ordered me to give up coffee last month.”

My friend asked him why he didn’t tell her.

He said, “You never call. So I didn’t get a chance.”

Gifts bring out our competitive nature. Some of us try to win best daughter or best spouse. We go overboard.

We’ve seen to many commercials where the husband drives up in a car with a bow on the roof, and the wife screams with joy.

You can enjoy hunting down the right gift for people you care about. For years, I stockpiled presents in my office for my spouse. Nailing a Christmas present does show someone you’ve been thinking about them.

But it’s not the only way.

Sometimes, not even the best way.

All too often, we confuse a gift with the reaction we expect. And in those cases, who are we really thinking about?

My in-laws confuse quality and quantity all the time. Since they don’t see me that often, and don’t understand what I’m about, they fill giant stockings with all kinds of crap I don’t need— candy, soaps, lotions, little kitchen gadgets. One year, we had to spend fifty bucks out of pocket to ship home all the junk we’d acquired because it wouldn’t fit in our car.

Gifts can put a strain on relationships. I’ve tried to please my dad with the perfect Christmas present. I’ve spent thousands of dollars on computers, car accessories, expensive photographs.

I’ve finally realized the thing he wants most is the hardest thing for me to give: my time. So I’m working on that.

This year, I’ve finally reached the post-gift phase of life. It’s beautiful. No more passive-aggressive, can-you-guess-what-I’m-thinking nonsense. My spouse and I buy furniture for each other, or stuff we’ve noticed the other person needs. My friends and I exchange only books, alcohol, and gift cards. I’ve waited for this era my entire life.

The best gift I ever got was a cheap ass coffee table.

My spouse gave it to me because I didn’t have one. It was my first year after earning my PhD, when furniture was a luxury. He’d simply seen me spill one too many drinks in my apartment. See, you don’t have to be clever or rich to find a good gift. Just observant.