Let's be honest: We're all judging one another by how much we give and what we receive
'Tis the season to be judged on your giving. Colour drains from wallet and brain in the face of yet another annual round of Secret Santa parties and gift exchanges with loved ones.
Walk into a mall and be further pierced by the eyes of fund-raisers in reindeer antlers. Their gazes narrow on my shopping bags, their teeth set in fixed grins. My steps falter.
Ho, ho - how much?
Two dollars in your tin for a sticker marking my support of kidney patients, needy children or marine conservation efforts. Oh, $10 for a quirky luggage tag - I already have three times as many tags as suitcases - or a keychain from the hopeful hands of a former prisoner seeking a fresh start. Ah, a one-time donation of $50 to support very special artists or athletes or students.
I'm sorry. Please don't judge me. You caught me at a really bad time. I just spent $25 on an impersonal yet thoughtful set of gender-neutral, all-organic bath products for my gym's Secret Santa lucky dip. Another $40 went to a cheeky set of bedclothes with furry feline ears for a colleague who keeps cats. She is practically a friend and her Christmas party is this weekend - note to self, do not wear black or material that picks up cat hair.
Then there was the $150 on spa vouchers for one of my oldest pals. I hope she will find the time to use them, in between caring for her child and a parent with early onset dementia.
Explanations dry in my throat. Your flinty fund-raiser stare sears my back. I duck into a nearby cafe to refuel and re-check the maths of this month's social obligations.
Two more parties and a birthday, all involving people I either care deeply about or have known for so long it is nearly the same thing. These gifts must be thoughtful, personal and better than the presents the recipients are preparing for me.
Etiquette dictates that my gifts should look more expensive than theirs. Both sets of presents should certainly be more exciting than last year's.
Last year, I gave art materials to a friend who later confessed to another that seeing the unused colours only reminds her that she has no time to explore her artistic side. On the other hand, she gave me hand-ground coffee from Ethiopia, forgetting that I do not own a brewing machine.
"Latte, extra shot, and a slice of salted caramel log cake. That will be $16.30," says the barista in a red Santa hat. She holds out a pair of either really large earrings or really small Christmas tree ornaments. "Would you like to spend $5 extra for these? It goes to charity. They make good gifts." The frosted glitter from the poisonously purple orbs stains her fingertips.
I mumble no, pay for drink and dessert and rush to the other side of the counter. The barista's frosty stare follows me, magnified by telepathic relay from the fund-raisers looking into the cafe window.
I moan into my middle-class latte. Don't judge me. I'm a good person, just a little stretched this month. There's the mortgage, the taxes, the medical bills, the $2 packets of tissue offered by the elderly haunting the MRT stations at home and work.
On top of that, the pressure to buy the perfect gift for every social occasion in the next few weeks.
May mine be the Secret Santa parcel that the recipient coos over at home, not just in public. (What was with that set of miniature Manuka honey jars I got last year? Everyone knows I prefer kaya on toast.)
May my offerings to hostesses at parties actually be used instead of set aside for another gift exchange. (What if I gave that set of miniature Manuka honey jars to the hosts of next week's gathering? Does honey spoil? Let me check with my mother.)
Ah, my mother. And father. And other loved ones. With them I crave the kind of gift exchange O. Henry wrote about in The Gift Of The Magi. I mean the beginning of his story, where a woman sells her hair, sacrificing her most prized possession to buy a Christmas gift her husband said he covets. How she anticipates his delight! How her excitement more than makes up for the patchy fuzz on her head!
In real life, I get the ending of the story instead. The gift turns out to be something my loved one no longer has use for or desire.
I bought a gold-laminate edition of the Sandman story illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano for a Neil Gaiman enthusiast. She showed me her own copy, bought online, earlier, cheaper and with delivery included.
I gave a friend who works in a hospital vouchers for movie tickets so she and her husband could have date nights. She kept them until they almost expired, then begged me to use them instead. "We have no time, so sorry!"
I paid attention to all our conversations! I stalked you for months on social media! How can this not be the perfect gift? How can this not be exactly what you need?
Come to think of it, that's what the comics book enthusiast said the year she gave me a white casserole dish for Christmas. "Yours was broken. I thought you wanted another one," she said, when I couldn't hide my horror.
I can buy my own crockery. What I want is ...
"What?" she asked. "What do you want? Earrings? Books? Coffee?"
What makes the perfect gift? My needs are met. My wants are few and immediately gratified by online shopping or a quick trip to the nearest mall.
I don't need gifts but I want to exchange presents that make both giver and recipient feel happy that the other truly knows and values his real, true self. Ho-ho-hooray!
More often than not, it's ho-ho-hum, another set of scented candles. Insert here some other gender-neutral, thoughtful yet impersonal gifts that are circulated among the social circle until they expire, unused.
Every gift-giving season this happens, leaving me with a hole in the wallet and in the heart. Not only have my friends failed to understand me, but they are also probably looking at my gifts and feeling equally unrecognised. I might just as well have buried my money in a giant pit.
"Do that," said one friend, when I asked him what he rated as the perfect gift. "If I'm not going to get a giant bulldozer to shovel earth around, donate to Cards Against Humanity. They're digging a giant hole."
For a few days last month, starting with Black Friday, game company Cards Against Humanity challenged people to pay them money to dig a hole in the ground. The more money raised - over US$100,000 when the project stopped - the deeper the hole.
Their FAQ page on holidayhole.com is worth reading. Where is the hole? "America. And in our hearts." What do you get for contributing money to the hole? "A deeper hole. What else are you going to buy, an iPod?"
Why isn't the company giving this money to charity? "Why aren't YOU giving all this money to charity?
It's your money," goes the answer.
Ho, ho - hmm.
The Christmas story says the Magi were wise men who gave a newborn baby what they thought was of value: scented incense, frankincense and myrrh.
The child's mother probably would have valued cloth for nappies instead. That's what my supermother friends say, they who hold down jobs, nurse children and also bake homemade cakes to give me as Christmas gifts along with baubles that I do not need.
One year, one of these mothers handed me only cake and a candle. It wasn't an aromatherapy candle. It was cheap and small and smelled of wax. She told me she had donated in my name to a children's charity. Her son had survived a tough year in hospital. "The candle is a token of appreciation from the charity," she said.
The candle remains on my table, unlit, gathering dust. It isn't something to regift. Nobody would want it, brown and waxy and clearly worth little.
I also do not want to give it away. It is a priceless reminder that a little boy with a hole in his heart had it patched successfully. In thanks, his mother gave in my name to help other children.
What price do you put on a gift like that, which mirrors the true spirit of the season?
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 04, 2016, with the headline 'How much for the festive spirit?'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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