Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Rethinking Birthday Gift Conventions

My birthday is tomorrow. When it comes to birthday gifts, my husband and I were way ahead of the voluntary simplicity crowd. The first few years we were together (we've been married for 33 years), my husband dutifully went out and bought birthday gifts for me, but it was painfully obvious the whole enterprise was a very stressful, annoying chore for him. I don't know that this is gender-determined, but there certainly is a correlation. Gifts are about maintaining relationships and that definitely correlates with girl work. He was infuriatingly indifferent to receiving gifts himself, so the golden rule ("How would you feel if I didn't get YOU a gift?") had very little sway. So after a few years I called a truce. No more required gift giving. Not to say birthdays were not recognized, just not by gifts. I think it was a relief for my husband - he felt judged, and found the whole process a downer; I in turn felt like I was attaching a lot of baggage on this gift thing and that it could all be redefined by my letting go of the Hallmark ideology. Hallmark, Madison Avenue, and jewelers put out lists of what you're supposed to buy - there's a whole crazy list for wedding anniversaries, for example - and some of us absorb this like it's from Sinai.
Instead of shopping for gifts, we encourage each other to choose things we want for ourselves, and designate them a gift. We go out for dinner at the birthday celebrant's pick of restaurant.
And we give donations in honor of the occasion. I realized I just wanted my birthday noted; I didn't necessarily care about the book or trinket. So a festive meal out and a donation are just right. We each pick where we want our donation to go - our personal first choice causes are not usually the same as our shared contributions. The amount equals the birthday. We do this with our children, too - though they get something material as well. (We're not looking to be scrooges here!) It was exciting when they got to their first double digit contributions, the big 10. I wrote about one of my favorite gifts from my son awhile back, "new" used hubcabs.
My late father had a different way of celebrating his birthdays as he aged - he sent each grandchild a block of stock for their college fund! We thought that the birthday guy giving the presents was a mighty nice touch.
And as I wrote about a few days ago, my two friends and I who go out for birthday lunches have adopted this contribution custom, too. For me, though, the best gift is a spontaneous one, unrelated to an occasion that calls for presents. We are getting older and I am happy to note that more and more of the birthday parties we go to (mostly 60th birthdays!) call for presence, not presents.
Gift giving is great fun for some people - I enjoy it. But if the gift giver does not enjoy it, it seems like a bizarre ritual. More of a tax than a pleasure. And what about receiving? The vast majority of gifts are not what the recipient likes, wants or uses. This works for us - but I am interested to hear how other families handle this aspect of their lives. It's very loaded. You don't want to be a husband who forgets his wife's birthday! Or a child who forgets his/her mom's. (Facebook birthday reminders is definitely going to save a lot of folks from the dog house!)


Anonymous said...

Giving and receiving gifts is really important to me. Having said that, I'm pretty much just grateful if someone remembers my birthday. I guess I sit on both sides of the fence.

Beth said...

I read your post with interest. I can see your point. I think today if people would say (for example) at gift for $25.00, a $5.00 donation of food or personal item to the food or personal pantry.

Anonymous said...

My wife is quite careful with money. She doesn't pamper herself much. However, she's made it clear she wants flowers on: birthday, mother's day and our anniversary. She's also made it clear that the flowers must be of quality.

Once she got clear on this, the whole adventure is quite easy. There is an upscale flower store in a neighborhood nearby where I have fun spending in a way we usually don't. She has been thrilled with every single bouquet I've purchased from there.

The flowers last for at least a week and I enjoy seeing my wife enjoy a little extravagance.

Ultimately I think the trick is being able to ask for what you want and not expecting your partner to guess -- unless of course having your partner guess is exactly what you want -- as long you don't mind the person guessing wrong now and then.

The only stress is remembering, which is helped by various online reminder devices.

Great topic.

Oh yes, and happy birthday Betsy!

Anonymous said...

I let the love of my life know that he is off the hook for buying me birthday presents, and I do not expect him to remember my birthday, either. What a sense of relief he felt, it was like drawing the "get out of jail free" card when playing Monopoly!

Of course, we still buy things for one another. But mainly they are things we need, like clothes or cookwear or a mug.

My friends and I have meals together to mark occasions, and we only buy gifts for no reason other than that we know the recipient will really love it. And we intentionally do not make it too costly, so the recipient will not feel overly obligated to return the favor quickly.