It’s that time of the year. The winter holidays are officially over, giving us nothing but actual winter to think about until mid-March. Epiphany has passed, so Christmas is officially done. I’m talking to you, retail establishments I visited this weekend that still have fully trimmed Christmas trees on display. All the other holidays took their decorations down! It’s time to put all that stuff away. By “all that stuff,” I mean, of course, all the gift bags that are sitting around with their contents back inside, all the goodies that are still set temporarily on tables and counters and the fronts of bookshelves, and definitely all the packaging. How do we make room for all the new material objects that have come to stay?
When I do home visits, it never fails to amuse me that we find so many intact gift bags with the tags still on. Usually you can tell what year or what occasion they arrived, because there’s a card. It’s like an archaeological dig. We find stacks of unspent gift cards. We find ornaments and decorations. We find white elephants and gag gifts. We even find candy and other food! Sometimes the unused gifts are quite nice, and my client will exclaim over them. When you forget that you got something, and then rediscover it, is it twice as fun?
There are a lot of different reasons for why my people don’t open and use their gifts. It depends on the person and on the situation.
Got distracted and forgot all about it
Planning to use it “soon”
Felt guilty about receiving something nice
Felt ashamed for not having reciprocated the gift, or some other reason
Conflict with the gift-giver
Dislike of the gift
Disappointment at not receiving that year’s heart’s desire
“Saving it for later” because it feels so special and valuable, too nice to actually be used
Creating a time capsule to preserve the memories of the special occasion
No idea of where to put the new gift or how to use it
Want to get rid of the gift, but don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings
Lost it somewhere in a pile
Allergic to money and can never just cash a check, use a gift card, or put cash in a wallet
Got sick and lost a few weeks
Regardless, having unopened gifts years after the occasion in question is almost never anyone’s intention. The gift-giver wants to make you happy, or, at least, remember you and make you feel included. Even if it’s an obligation, at least you were on the checklist. When you receive a gift, if you like it, you should use it and enjoy it, because that honors the giver and it was the purpose of the gift. If you don’t like it, then why are you keeping it?
Unwanted gifts are a potent symbol of failed communications.
In my family, we make wish lists. If someone wants to upgrade an appliance or something, we spread the word, and then others in the family can pool resources and buy it. We’ve given each other everything from stoves to doors to fruit trees. There isn’t much room for silly gifts, because we’ve always focused on the practical stuff. Unwanted gifts often come from the giver’s total lack of ideas of what you might want.
Sometimes unwanted gifts come from the giver’s desire to push something on you. This is very mysterious, but common. I want you to decorate for this holiday - why won’t you do it my way? I want you to eat these foods - why won’t you? I want you to dress this way - why can’t you look like my image of you? I want you to have hobbies I understand and live out my values. Use these gifts so you can be the way I want you to be.
Sometimes, the gift was the most the giver could afford. Their desire to please you and delight you involved things that were outside their price range, so they did as well as they could.
I sometimes imagine what it would look like if various forest animals brought me gifts. This can be blamed on a children’s book I made my mom read to me over and over again when I was four. (The Party That Grew). A parakeet had a party, and the other birds brought stuff for a potluck. Mayhem ensued when the owl showed up! I imagine that a squirrel might bring me a pinecone, a Stellar’s jay might bring me a blue feather, and a raccoon might tear up my tent and steal my breakfast. Maybe it can help to look at the gift-giving process as a way that various people just demonstrate their innate characteristics, something they do that reflects almost entirely on them and not on you, or even their relationship with you.
What do we do with it all, though? Where do we put it? What do we keep and what do we... thoughtfully regift?
I used to take any random silly gift that I might have gotten, say from an office “Secret Santa,” and bring it to my in-laws’ white elephant exchange.
Sometimes I would have a “free box” that I would put out if a group of friends were coming over. It might include random gifts, a book I had finished, nail polish that turned out not to be my color, a seed packet, or who knows. This is similar to a “Naked Lady” party where a group of friends-of-friends meet to trade clothes and accessories.
I might also unload stuff I wasn’t going to use at a charity rummage sale, or give it to a friend’s child.
Giving gifts is THE END of our power and control over the gift. We don’t get to say that other people have to keep stuff in their house. We can’t force people to like things, or to be grateful, or to feel more affectionate toward us. Not with gifts, or love, or money, or sweet words, or magic spells, or hot fresh pancakes, or anything. All we can do is give. Hey, and, that works both ways. We accept the gesture graciously, we work on our inner feelings of regard toward the giver, and our work is done. The object that remains is just that, an object.
This time of year, it can be fun to go through the house and make space for new things. A new book takes the place of a book we got bored and quit reading. A new pair of socks take the place of an old, threadbare pair, like the rainbow-striped pair I just discarded with the hole in the heel. The cycle of seasons and ritual gift-giving reminds us that sometimes, it’s good to evaluate what we already have. Out with the old and in with the new.
PS Those expired gift cards? They aren’t really expired. You can call up the retailer and have the amount reinstated with a new expiration date. It doesn’t even cost anything. Go out for the day and use them up on things you’d like, or donate them to a cause you care about.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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