* Editor’s note: Marion is taking the day off. This entry, from the column’s earliest days, first ran in December 1996.
I buy holiday gifts for two kinds of people: the ones who make requests and the ones who want surprises.
The gift-requesters, like my husband, my son, and most of my nieces and nephews, give me lists. This year my 11-year-old son’s list contains computer games in priority order, as well as the name of the manufacturer of each game and the store that sells it. Last year he included the price, and next year I’ll probably ask him to figure the tax — for math practice.
My husband usually hands me catalogues with items circled. I distribute the ideas to various family members and purchase some myself, although I reserve the right to give surprises.
This November I caught my husband, catalogue in hand, calling to order one gadget for himself. Dismayed at losing a gift idea, I asked him why he didn’t put it on his list.
He explained that last year one of his wishes went unfulfilled, and by the time he realized how much he wanted it, it was out of stock. I accepted his explanation, but I walked away feeling confirmed in my long-standing belief that surprise-wanters have an edge on the Christmas spirit.
My daughter, 14, is a good example. She’s focused on gift-making right now, but when asked what she wants, she smiles mysteriously and says, “Anything is fine. Just surprise me!”
She means it. She’s not picky and if something doesn’t fit, she’s perfectly willing to return to an overcrowded mall to make an exchange. Like other surprise-wanters, she trusts friends and family to know what she likes.
It can be fun to shop for people like this, especially when I run into the perfect gift in September. But when I haven’t found it by December 15, I feel as if the train is approaching and I’m tied to the tracks.
To add to the pressure, I have learned that an occasional surprise-wanter will be pretty darn disappointed if I don’t pick something he or she likes. It’s hard to shop for someone like this. I suspect that such a person was taught it is impolite to be specific, but underneath a cloak of vagueness hides a closet gift-requester.
Which type am I?
At Thanksgiving, my brother (an easy-going gift-requester who gives general suggestions) was the first person to ask me what I wanted for Christmas. I told him I would like a fleece top, the kind Patagonia makes, but not necessarily from such an expensive company.
Then I described the neckline, the weight of the fabric and my preferred colors. I explained that the size would depend on whether he chose one designed to be worn alone or over other clothing. Finally, I went up to my closet and pulled out my old fleece top to show him. When I got into a discussion of sleeve shape, I realized that somewhere between age 30 and now, I have turned from a surprise-wanter to a gift-requester.
This was like finding out I’m a road hog and didn’t know it.
And I don’t know why I changed.
Maybe part of it was growing up and learning that color does matter, and that a mustard yellow blouse can hang in the closet forever. Maybe I learned the value of money and hate to see it wasted. Maybe I have denied myself too often and come to view Christmas as an opportunity to express my needs.
But I liked myself better when I was a surprise-wanter. It seemed more in the spirit of Christmas to appreciate a gift no matter what.
However, a dark side hovered. When I was a surprise-wanter, I was judgmental about gift-requesters. Sometimes they seemed a little crass, and I’m sure I communicated to my husband the idea that he would be a much finer human being if he didn’t have such a long list of items he wanted to own.
Nowadays, I’m so busy with work and children that I’m relieved to be able to give him something he wants. Last year I observed that he was just as happy with the green Rubbermaid tool carrier from Longs he had requested as he was with the expensive multicolor shirt I bought as a surprise. Probably more so.
So I’m trying to loosen up and to raise children who won’t feel judged for their opposite styles of wanting gifts.
If I can help them feel that who they are and how they think is OK, that would be the greatest gift of all.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org