Wish Lists Are Very Good

Giving gifts is stressful enough.

Giving presents is a wonderful activity for those who consider themselves good at giving gifts. For the rest of us who hate surprises and find ourselves seized with panic during the obligatory gift giving season, this time of year is fraught.

Even for someone you know very well like a sibling or your best friend, presents are tricky. Maybe you think your sister will like this very nice shirt you got her from Madewell, but chances are she won’t and will instead ask you for the gift receipt shortly after opening it. The drudgery of obligation around gift giving hinders the giver’s ability to select appropriately. Panic sets in, money is wasted, a gift is purchased, opened and returned. Everyone feels bad in this exchange and the buoyant joy is sucked out of the room.

Yes, you gave someone a present because you were supposed to give them a present. Yes, you got a present and said thank you because you’re not ungrateful, but while the giver gets up to rummage for another cookie, you’re rifling through the tissue paper looking for the gift receipt.

Children scrawl their hopes and their dreams onto wide-ruled sheets of paper and leave them out for Santa because it’s what’s expected of them as children and it’s probably easier for the parents. They’re never disappointed if they don’t get the pony; part of the implicit understanding of a wish list is that half the items on said list are long shots. As an adult, making a list for presents that you could readily purchase for yourself feels wrong, somehow, like you’re being greedy and nothing more. But the social contract of the holidays implies that for the most part, you give and receive gifts and so this is the easiest way to operate.

Half the fun of getting a gifts is the element of surprise. Giving a macrame plant holder to your friend that you bought at a flea market on a random Tuesday in March feels good because they probably weren’t expecting it. They love macrame, you love them and the thought that goes into that purchase feels genuine. That is a wonderful gift — unexpected, sweet, well-received. It lacks the artifice of a sweater, a clutch of socks, a book and something picked at random from a gift guide you found on the internet, purchased at the eleventh hour and wrapped in paper emblazoned with reindeer. It comes from the heart.

It’s fine to feel a way about giving and receiving presents. Everyone feels very specific and different things about the holidays; they’re a nice time but also quite depressing, exacerbated by financial worry and a general sense of deflated dread that ratchets up in intensity in that superfluous week between Christmas and New Year’s. Offset those bad feelings from the start by properly managing the gift purchasing experience, however you see fit. If you quietly email a wish list around before its gift-giving time, though, your experience will be much improved.

Detractors of the wish list will say that it’s impersonal and that it saps the fun out of gift giving. This is only half true; the element of surprise is still intact with a wish list, but it eliminates the dumb anxiety for both parties involved. Armed with a list of ideas and gentle suggestions, shopping for gifts for the holidays is no longer torture. You know what the person wants and you’re happy to buy it for them. They will be happy to receive it.

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