First things first: As a thoughtful and spendy American, I understand the visceral opposition to gift cards. I acknowledge that they represent 30-40% of what stores, elves and my wife call “an actual present,” that they’re damned as sad, limp, pocket-sized indignities that virtually broadcast the phrase, “Happy holidays, and thanks for living by a CVS.” And while I believe that Christmas is a time to live out the Word of God or whoever by showering your lovable with thoughtfully conceived tchotchkes, I also appreciate how none of us do any of that shit, and that the three-plus weeks leading up to Christmas represent an Adderall-powered brown slush-covered quagmire of to-do lists and credit card overages, all of which we participate in because if we don’t, we will probably get broken up with.
To that end, here is my own little war on Christmas: Give me gift cards. All the gift cards. Give me nothing but gift cards. They’re not thoughtful and they’re not sexy, but I’ve seen how normal presents go, and at some point in the next two or three months I will very likely need some shit from Lowe’s.
Yet even besides slightly reducing the amount of money I will one day pay for Swiffer pads, gift cards serve a crucial function: They take the gift-giving process out of the hands of people who give me gifts, and return it to the hands of me, where it is safest. To prove it, I have invented some Christmas sabermetrics. For the sake of argument, let’s say that the welcome-to-lousy gift ratio has run at an even 50% for the past, say, five years. During that time I’ve gotten some sharp new shirts, a Springsteen vinyl box set, and a small Hall of Fame’s exhibit’s worth of Cubs World Series memorabilia. Fantastic. Loved it. God bless you, every one.
That leaves the throwaway pile, though, the island of misfit gifts we all absent-mindedly populate while the gift exchange swirls on around us — this side is the keepers, that side is full of castoffs for the office secret Santa. And when you’re dealing with that many gifts over that much time, half-good is a shitty percentage. That means, if you open four boxes, two of them are garbage about which you will fake enthusiasm before loading suitcases on top of them. That means, if you open four boxes, you’re sitting in a room full of family members already making plans to Marie Kondo half of their stuff. That means, of four gifts I’ve given, two of them will be immediately in the unreachable corner behind the tree and there has been zero upside to me planning, shopping and absorbing more debt into my increasingly lavish floral arrangement of credit cards. (I'm fairly well convinced that half the population of Chase Fortress the "Beat It" dance every late November.) All of that for the thrilling 12-second experience of someone opening a box.
It doesn’t have to be this way. If you’re like me, which you’re not, because you’re not burning all your family bridges in story form, you’re not that hard to buy for. Every year, every single God-given blessed sun-turning Trip Around the Sun, I receive texts from at least three close family relations asking 1. What I want for Christmas and 2. What my wife wants for Christmas. My wife has been in a meaningful part of the family for nearly 20 years, and I’ve been one for significantly longer, yet every festive year some of my closest family proves anew that they have zero idea what my interests are. For God’s sake, people, Springsteen / detective books / vinyl / “Cursed Child” tickets, how hard is this.
Given the choice between the gifts I have received from my extended family in the past, which have included a giant chocolate bar, an ergonomic desk chair and bath towels, I would just as soon handle this event myself. The single best present I’ve received in the past 12 years was a bracelet that I already owned to which my son had affixed a tiny note that read “World’s Best Dad,” which was more of a sprig of holiday cheer than anything I’ve gotten in the last decade. THE END. PRESENTS ARE EASY, and yet every year it freshly astonishes me how many people don’t just get, like, a book.
It’s true that gift cards limit you to one place, and that can be inconvenient, but at some point in the next year it’s safe to assume you’re gonna go to a movie. When I was little, the single best feeling I had after leaving Christmas at Grandma’s was having that hot fresh pile of money in my pocket, sometimes up to $20, which I was free to throw at whatever G.I. Joe assault vehicle I pleased. (My parents encouraged us to play with violent war toys.) I want that feeling again, and gift cards allow it. Besides, I can’t think of one other scenario in which grown-ups are handed an envelope of cash and think, “Well this is exceedingly disappointing.” If you must be trapped in a situation wherein someone gives you a gift card, buckle down, dig deep and somehow force yourself to be happy about free money.