December is here again, and I can’t help but be reminded of the fact that my husband absolutely sucks at gift giving for the holidays. I don’t know what it is. Perhaps he gets frozen from perfectionism, unable to decide, worried that I won’t like what he’s chosen. Shopping is an overwhelming hassle. Perhaps the crowded malls are so unpleasant to him that he procrastinates until the last minute, because in years past he’d often scramble as the stores were closing on Christmas Eve to find something, ANYTHING to toss in a bag and give me.
“Here, Honey, I got you a…bag of Doritos and an avocado slicer!”
Gee, just what I always wanted.
It used to infuriate me. I’d compare my relationship to other people’s relationships. Why couldn’t I have one of those romantic, prepared husbands who ordered the perfect necklace months in advance and had it wrapped impeccably? Maybe my husband didn’t love me. Maybe he didn’t care enough about me to spend time selecting a meaningful present. My husband’s poor gift-giving skills made me feel badly about myself, until I changed my perspective.
My husband’s love language is acts of service. He’s practical and dependable. That’s actually what attracted me to him in the first place, because I felt so safe and assured around him. He’s great at fixing things, he builds furniture, and he’s even an incredible vegetarian cook. He just doesn’t get the whole present thing, and he doesn’t do well with the structure of the holiday season. When we have to be at the Cohen’s latke party at five sharp and after that make it to church by eight or else we’ll miss the candlelight service, he tends to balk, and I get it. December is probably the least laid back time of year. My husband works his butt off for twelve months straight at his job, so for him ‘tis the season for a much needed break, not more chores.
Obligatory present exchanges aren’t his thing either, but he’s fantastic at unexpected surprises. He does all sorts of neat things for me throughout the year. He never comes home from running errands without some fun little surprise for me, whether it’s a new plant for the yard or a new kind of granola he found at Trader Joes. These things add up, but somehow I hadn’t seen them. I’d been so focused on wanting a box with a big, red bow under the tree that I missed the probably hundreds of small, wonderful treats and favors that my husband does for me throughout the year.
Besides that, my husband is big on experiences. We do a lot of fun things together as a family, it’s quality time that I truly value anyway. Last June we took a family trip to Mount Vernon, and I have to admit that was way more fun for me than a tulle enshrouded basket of glitter bath bombs.
Different families have different traditions and ways of celebrating the holidays. What’s normal for one family might seem absurd to another. Growing up, my family was big on exchanging gifts. We still are. My siblings and cousins and I always draw names. Everyone chips in for the grandmas, and since many of us are artists, we spend a lot of time crafting and baking for one another. It might be a lot of work, and some may see it as over the top, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
My in-laws are the opposite. They prefer a more chill Christmas where gifts are an afterthought, but the family gathers for a big meal, even bigger laughs, and instead of things, they share memories. I love their version of the holidays too.
But that still didn’t get my man off the hook. For a long time, I thought that if presents were important to me on the holidays that he should still make an effort. Many people would probably agree with me, but I didn’t realize that he actually was making an effort. Sort of like me back in pre-calculus class, he was trying, but he just wasn’t naturally very good at it. He needed assistance.
Help arrived in the form of our daughter, who loves giving gifts for the people she loves. She is thoughtful and creative, and although she’s only eight, the kid has great taste. I have no idea where that came from. Now that she is old enough, she makes sure Dad takes her holiday shopping. She picks out the presents for me and our family members and he pays for them. It’s a win-win for everyone, and they see strolling through the festive mall as a nice bonding experience.
“Mommy, if you have something you want, you need to just tell us. No one can read your mind. Ask for what you like,” my daughter said. Looking back, this should have been obvious.
You can learn a lot from your kids, so I took her advice. We often expect significant others to know what we want and meet our needs without us having stated them clearly. Like being able to read our minds is proof of how much our partners love us, but this is ridiculous. No one’s married to a clairvoyant, so if we want something, we shouldn’t get angry and resentful because we have to speak up and state our needs. This goes for more than just gifts, by the way.
I gave up my expectations for holiday gifts and I stopped taking my husband’s poor gift skills personally. I appreciate what he does for me year round, instead of just on one day in December, and learned to focus on all the incredible things I have, instead of what I imagine I don’t have. I also learned how to assert myself and say exactly what I want and with my daughter’s help, my husband has actually learned to be a better shopper. In the end, it’s worked out for everyone. Last year I got the nerve up to ask for a certain pair of earrings I loved. My husband seemed relieved that I gave him concrete instructions, and I happen to be wearing the earrings right now.
This year, though, I found myself embracing my husband’s outlook on the holidays. I want to relax, no pressure. Since I stopped seeing material gifts as proof of my husband’s love for me, and opened myself up to gratitude, I lost my desire for stuff. Instead I requested another family adventure – presence instead of presents.