There's an art to gifting (both giving and receiving). Both are skills like dancing, that I just don't have a natural proficiency for (and haven't practiced enough to be good at it)... my wife does. Growing up my family wasn't good at it either. Don't get me wrong, I give things that are occasionally considerate -- but I'm about as comfortable at it as miss manners watching The Office. For Christmas, my wife got a couple windows fixed, and a screen door. Ooops, there goes the romantic surprise. Maybe next year.
Not to go all whiney about it -- but in order to be good at gifting, you have to have practiced it, and to enjoy it. Learned from others that are good at it. And the better you are (and more practiced), the more you enjoy it. I have none of that. Especially around organized holidays or birthdays.
Growing up my family was the worst at presents. My Mom was a narcissistic shop-a-holic, with an addiction to a bargains and labels, and the fashion sense of a teenage hooker. Fortunately, the former sometimes overrode the latter -- and we'd get something that wasn't horrible and actually fit. That is when she remembered my Birthday (and they did forget a few times). But more often it was the wrong style, wrong size, and Mom got everything from the outlet discount bin and cut the tags off so you couldn't exchange it.
Usually it was kept in the closet until donation... occasionally it was re-gifted.
I remember going through my gloom-rock phase and wore a lot of black from like 17-22 years old... then I got over it. Well into my 40's, my Mom would buy me something that would excite a teenage goth, and say, "I know you like black"... and everyone in the room would say in unison, "20 years ago".
On clothes, I basically had two rules: cotton with short sleeves and no sweaters. In the last few years, I've learned that some synthetics aren't all bad -- like for speedos or gym clothes. And a decade ago, I was willing to make an exception for Tommy Bahama's silk golf shirts. Very slowly, I've come around to allowing thermal style long sleeves (or sweatshirts), though they are close to sweaters. Still, yearly, I'd get something in small polyester (when I weighed 220) because it was on-sale... and about every other year I'd get a sweater -- that I'd NEVER wear.
Clothes were a control battle with my Mom, ever since she made me wear Lederhosen to kindergarten when I was 4. I'm not kidding. Did I mention this was in Compton? Well, technically Hawthorn, but close enough. Even at 4, I was trying to just blend in and not draw attention to myself, and green lederhosen with knee high stockings in South Central L.A. is NOT blending in. We're not even German... well, Grandpa was, but Italian dominated the family. I was a little Arab looking kid in Arian-Bavarian garb, because I looked "Cute". This was not the camouflage I was going for. If I'd known enough history, I'd have goose stepped around until Mom stopped making me wear them. Instead I just wet myself in them until they rotted through.
Shopping with my Mom is another article on the never-ending marathon of horrors (hours long) that involves trying everything on in the store and berating sales folks to tears, on more than one occasion. You seriously have to plead things like, "Mom, no 60+ year old 170 lbs. woman should be camel-toeing size 3 hotpants with 'Juicy' written across her ass". Shopping and Dentists bring up similar anxiety attacks... and when I was a kid, they used to strap me in and drill without Novocain.
We had multiple conversations about buying a guy a wallet is like buying a woman a purse: you'll never get the right one. Avoid it at all costs. So my big gift from my Mom last year was a knock off Louis Vuitton wallet, in mega-size. My wallet is 3 credit cards and my drivers license in my iPhone case. When we tried to eBay it... and found out the Made in China label is a big hint that it's a knock-off (who knew?)... despite the family lore about how helpful a friend who worked for Nordstrom's was to get it for the family discount rate.
My Mom learned the art of bad gifting from somewhere, and that was Grandma -- who loved to shop, and over-buy. But with Italians, they were always going to be a future ask for a "favor" that you couldn't refuse. Turn someone into a corpse, move a body... it would be something. And if you showed any hesitancy, a tally of every gift was likely to come out.
Look, you got a ton of gifts. Seriously, probably 20 gifts per Christmas. So we weren't denied gifts. But of those, if you could find one or two that you liked or would use, it was a good year. And my family was not "givers" in the off season. You got stuff for Christmas and your Birthday -- and you made due the rest of the year. This puts a lot of pressure on kids for getting the right stuff during the big haul.
We'd play this game, where I said at age 7, "I want a G.I. Joe with Kung Fu grip", and Grandma would buy me a Ken Doll along with the Malibu dream house and expect elation.
If your faux elation didn't match expectations, the Italian guilt would go into over-drive about not being grateful for getting something that would get you mocked and beaten up if any of your friends got wind that you had it. Yeah, yeah, I got that we had means, and many other kids got nothing. But a Ken Doll?
I tried one year to get very specific with my Christmas lists, model, brand, and places to get it. That didn't work. (That was the year I got the Ken doll instead of the G.I. Joe that I wanted). So the next year I wrote a nice letter to Grandma, that really worked it, "Grandma, I feel bad that you spend all this time shopping and wrapping for us, in order to save you all that time and effort, a nice card and the gift-equivalents in cash would save you all that time shopping".
I was 8, and didn't know of gift cards.
They kept that letter, and would mention it, or sometimes bring it out whenever the topic of ungrateful kids would come up... It was their second favorite story behind the time I made a spear by roping a kitchen knife to the end of some bamboo we had for frogging. I think they blissfully forgot about it when I hit age 45. Or mostly, when I could remind them worse things my cousins had done and could throw them under the bus.
One year one of my cousin's melted down because he'd asked for a very specific model of something, and got some knock-off because it was a better bargain -- and the 12 year old, acted like a 6 year old. (Wailing and throwing things). The family made a big stink about it... and while I'd never done that kind of public display, I certainly understood it. And felt bad for him. But I also used it to distract from the great, "just give me cash" or "frog spear" fiascos.... "remember that time Frankie lost it over not getting the right boombox?". Sorry kid, you don't have to be faster than the bear, just the slowest family member in the hunting party.
The damage was done.
- I learned that I hate shopping. For me it's best done like the TLDR; sex manual: in, out, repeat-if-necessary. I get what I need, and get the heck out.
- I learned that I was bad at gifting. Which made shopping horrible for me, "What do they want? I have no idea. How do I get out of this hell?"
- I learned that receiving gifts was about being utterly emotionless and hiding what's going on inside
- Then when I got surprised with something that is really nice and I like, I don't know how to react. So I usually show the emotions of a poker player holding four of a kind. "Thank you" in the same robotic voice I'd use for lab tech telling me that the STD I caught is not terminal.
Growing up I was told the worst advice in the world on giving, "just buy something you'd like, and they'll probably like it too".
Gads "no"... I learned through that gifting strategy, and the strangled look on people's faces, that was NOT good advice. Wives are not enthusiastic about getting the same butterfly knife you used as a kid. You should buy them something that THEY want, even if it makes no sense to you. So I just ask. If you tell me, you'll get it. If you don't, you probably won't like what I pick. But I ask.
After 4 months of interrogating my wife on anything she wants (that she won't buy for herself) and getting nothing, and after 30 years of buying her gifts with a hit ratio of less the .50, she just gets whatever I can dig up that she mentioned she wanted. She buys herself running shoes and puts my name on them. (Yeah, like I could pick the right ones without her trying them on). So this year I got her replacement windows and a couple screen doors. A couple windows in her bedroom had lost vacuum and have schmutz between the panes. There's no way I'd pay to replace them for myself for $800, but she wants it fixed, she gets it. I don't use screen doors: they're a way to let the allergies inside the house. But she asked for them, so I ordered them.
Heck, for a few years I even treaded into the dangerous waters of buying her a gym membership and a vacuum cleaner for Christmas. (But only after she asked repeatedly, and signed a waiver that this was not a trap, and that it would not be held against me at any future holidays). Buying your wife a scale and a gym membership still feels like something that would be brought up at the capital sentencing stage of divorce proceedings.