Why “The Perfect Gift” is an awful tale

Around the holidays, a million variations of this story under various names always crawl out of the woodwork. A man and a woman love each other very much, but rather than babies happening, both of them sell their most prized possession to get each other an accessory for the other’s prized possession. Yes, the whole story can be summarized on one sentence and I just did it. You’re welcome. The entire rest of the story is padded out with emotional manipulation about whatever reason money might be tight and the gravity of the decision and their reaction to it and it’s always used as a sort of parable, but I’m going to ruin it for you right here: it’s a parable that fails to identify capitalism as the villain.

Right, if you’re still here after that, let me break down why this should be taken as a cautionary tale and not some bittersweet, but heartwarming lesson.

First and foremost, as a Catholic, I am of the mind there are two Christmases: the Christian one and the capitalist one. The Christian one has many of its own actually positive rituals, like the blessing of the door where you commit to opening it to the stranger and others in need. That right there is some heartwarming stuff that doesn’t cost anyone a dime. And there are a lot of winter traditions leading up to Christmas itself like St. Nicholas Day where you get a stocking stuffed with nuts and candy and an orange (or chocolate orange) in the toe depending on whether you have any pretense about there being something healthy in there or not. It’s a relatively small tradition that I don’t think is even widely celebrated in the USA, but it’s one my family always did and frankly cracking nuts and smacking a chocolate orange on a table are always fun as a kid. There is value in many smaller Christian traditions, even if it’s just holding hands and singing around some candles once a week leading up to it.

The capitalist side of Christmas also has value, in my opinion. Okay, there are some REALLY tacky inflatable lawn decorations out there, but the snow globe ones are legitimately genius and all the lights are pretty and add some desperately needed color for everyone who lives anywhere that gets snow around the season. As a kid, your mileage may vary depending on whether you get a sweet new expensive item or clothes, and that’s kind of where the problems start here because while the whole "giving and receiving" thing is nice up to a certain point, no kid ever wants to hear they’re "too poor for Santa Claus," and that does happen. And if you’re too poor for Santa Claus, chances are your family isn’t in a financial position to pick up the slack. And this is where the idea that everyone MUST give or get a gift turns toxic.

Back to the story, the ending generally is wrapped up by a lesson that the important thing is they loved each other that much, but the problem comes in that nothing in the story ever admits that as two adults, they should have had adult discussions about their financial situation and not felt the need to participate in gift-giving just because society expects it. Some stories talk about the woman selling her hair and that it will grow back, but the man is never in the same position. Yes, a comb for her hair will eventually be useful, but in those older versions, he generally sold a family heirloom of some sort, like a grandfather’s pocketwatch, which it’s unlikely he’s ever going to get back and breaks a chain of tradition. These two are never in "just a rough patch" where at some point they had a better financial situation that either of them gave up something they’d bought earlier and can eventually buy back. And when you really look at it, both of them generally have lost more than they’ve gained, because both of them have given up something they were emotionally attached to, often forever, for some new random piece of junk that’s always going to have some bitterness attached. You ever pawn something? Yeah, they don’t just put a hold on it for you. It goes right on the shelf and you’re immediately in direct competition with everyone else who might want it and you never get paid for it what it goes on sale for, so doing this sort of thing is always going to leave you financially worse off than you started in the first place if you have any intention of trying to get it back.

So not only are these folks not communicating, they’re making immediately poor financial decisions by any metric. This is why financial literacy is so important. Or even just growing up playing RPGs. Nothing ever is sellable for the buy price. That’s just as true in life as in video games. But the real problem comes in when you consider that nothing about the tale addresses the end result of these gifts. Seriously, it never results in these gifts being in any way unwanted. The whole idea is they’re, in their own way, a "perfect" gift, as in, they’re appreciated, even if it’s useless junk. But, uh, that’s also kinda not how the world works, because eventually you’ll realize you’re hanging onto useless junk where the thing it was intended to enhance was actually something useful and important. The fact you sold a $20 bill for a $10 bill never stops being true and ultimately both of them are collectively $20 poorer when they didn’t have $20 to lose, if we go with that comparison. At no point does the story admit to that, because the important thing is still the gifts at its core, not that they spent money that they didn’t have.

And finally, just the general idea that you have to engage in the season is the worst part about it. Okay, maybe the fact that it’s already in your face before Halloween is the ABSOLUTE worst thing about it, but that’s a byproduct of the commercialism of it all where Big Christmas expects you to all be good little consumers and buy all their chintzy stuff at a 99.999% markup becuase if you don’t, everyone is trained to point and shout "SCROOOOOGE!" As someone who is very much "bah, humbug" about the season because of a lifetime of dealing with the absolute worst parts of it in spades with very little of the good stuff, many of which are results of friction with or inability to fulfill the mandatory participation, I am not, in fact, a "Scrooge." I’m basically Santa all year round. Which makes it a real pain in the hindquarters when people act like I scare serial killers with the fury of my utter contempt for all the parts of the season you simply cannot escape in public and/or are required to pay for. I mean my contempt isn’t THAT scary. It burns with fury something shy of 1000 suns. At least until you add getting called "The Grinch" to it. Actually, I should probably consider that a compliment, because ultimately The Grinch returned Christmas for the Whos to a pre-capitalist state, which ended up being okay for them, but you kinda see how all of these stories ultimately put the presents in focus in their own way? I’m really not sure that an inability to talk about Christmas at all without talking about the presents is healthy. And all of them ultimately seem to come to the same conclusion that ultimately love is the greatest thing about the season, but you should express your love… with presents. Yeah, stash away those pennies, people, because that’s the only way people will ever know you love them.

Bah, humbug!