I Hate Presents

Nothing wrecks a gift faster than making a law of out of it.

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is associate pastor at Tokyo Lutheran Church, host of the Queen of the Sciences podcast, and author of Pearly Gates: Parables from the Final Threshold as well as the e-newsletter “Theology & a Recipe.”

I hate presents.

I swear, though, that I have not always been such a Grinch. It hasn’t always been this way. I can distinctly remember a time when I was still Cindy-Lou Who. There was that glorious Christmas when all my presents had to do with the Nutcracker, marking my brain so indelibly that ambulance alarms in France sound to me like the opening notes of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. When I was a kid, I counted down the days each May till my birthday, and when the big day finally arrived, I was astoundingly grateful for everything. (Well, that’s how I remember it, anyway.)

This childhood (childish?) love of presents persisted, for a time, into young adulthood. One time my mom brought us a whole smoked salmon to enliven our graduate school poverty, and I could still weep at the relief I felt at a little extra protein in our diet. And so I felt about my first e-reader, and hardcover cookbooks, and sometimes a plane ticket.

Lest you think the problem was my fundamental greed, let me assure you that I used to love the giving of presents just as much as the receiving. Parents of little children probably love Christmas even more than the children do, for the sheer gift of being able to give, and for beholding afresh the pleasure of receiving without jaded eyes.

But somehow, over the years, the joy in both giving and receiving has all drained away. There isn’t much love for presents left in me. Which is a pretty bad lookout for a Lutheran pastor whose entire message is premised on the relentless self-giving of a gracious God.

I think I was the one who spoiled it first. One year I found the perfect Christmas gift for a friend—this was when I was already well into my twenties. I was so incredibly pleased at finding something so perfect that, frankly, I lorded it over her. I spent all of December telling her how much she was gonna love it. She probably would have, if I hadn’t persecuted her with such pressure to be amazed. Or if, in understandable panic, she hadn’t picked out for me such a wildly inappropriate gift that it left both of us speechless in our embarrassment.

That was my introduction to how the demand for gratitude becomes its own tool of abuse. (Once again, a problem for a pastor who always counted “Now Thank We All Our God” among her favorite hymns growing up.) I have counted hours and days and weeks for an acknowledgement of a gift that I thought was a showstopper. I have barely concealed disgust at lackluster utterances of appreciation. I have self-righteously sided with Jesus in indignation at the nine lepers who never got around to thanking him, without noticing that Jesus didn’t revoke the cure, or chase the lepers down, or even remind them to say thank you — he just let them go.

And of course, at the exact same time, I’ve failed to say thank-you’s of my own and resented the burden of gratitude placed on me by others. Because if you’re going to be self-righteous, you may as well be a hypocrite, too.

How did it all go so horribly wrong?

Well, without denying the all-too-obvious answer of “sin,” I’ve come to the conclusion that the problem with presents is that they’re no longer free and no longer gifts. Presents have become a law. And nothing wrecks a gift faster than making a law of out of it.

The slow creep of present-hating tracked perfectly, I now see, with my exit from childhood dependence into gradual adult self-sustenance — from a time when everything was rightly a gift to a time when I rightly took on most of the responsibility for my own life. The presents kept going and coming out of habit, or tradition, or social nicety, yet all the substance of their gift-nature had drained right out of them.

I’ve long since that I’ve had enough money to know my own taste and buy myself what I want. That’s nice, so far as it goes, except that it creates an untenable dilemma for anyone who wants to get something for me: either they ascertain what I want through the medium of the “wish list” (surely one of the most wicked inventions of modernity), buy it, and thereby launder what is just a vicarious payment under the guise of gift-giving… or they take a shot in the dark and risk saddling me with yet another piece of junk I feel obligated to keep because getting rid of the present is like getting rid of the person. (Cue Marie Kondo.)

For the exact same reasons, I hate presents and the fake solution of wish lists on the giving end as much as the receiving end, because the result is not anyone’s openness to receiving from me personally (even without the obnoxious lording-it-over), but trying to eliminate any surprise by turning the present into a legal contract. That’s the whole point of laws, after all: no surprises.

So altogether, by now, most gifts exchanged are not really gifts. And coming on cue, at Christmas or birthdays, they have this cringing sense of obligation about them on the side of both the giver and the recipient. But trying to break out of the legal obligation of gift-giving is just about as acceptable as breaking any other law. Trust me — I’ve tried. It didn’t go over well.

It’s an awful place to be stuck. I’d like the wonder and delight of presents back again. I’d like to be able to ditch both feeling and imposing obligation around gift-giving.

I ran a little experiment recently to see if it was even possible anymore to recapture the magic: I sent a gift — for no particular reason or occasion — to someone who was not expecting it. I won’t presume to say whether it succeeded from the recipient’s point of view. For all I know, it just evoked a sense of duty to obey the law of spontaneous, thoughtful, non-occasioned gift-giving in the other person. Of the making of laws, there is no end.

But at least on my end, sending that present gave me joy for the first time in ages. I gave the gift because I wanted to, not because I had to.

It turns out that freedom is essential to a gift being a gift. From the King James Version all the way to an abundance of modern translations of Romans 5, it’s been deemed essential to add on “free” out front of the unadjectived charisma or dorema of the Greek words for “gift”… which may hint that Jacobean Christmases were just as stressful as ours. God’s gift of Christ really is a free gift, unasked for and unlooked for. Which means that if we aren’t continually preaching the gospel as a surprise, a truly new thing every time it’s extended to a sinner, and not a trap or a contract or new law, then we haven’t preached the thing rightly at all.

Truth be told, I don’t really hate presents, not when they’re actual presents. But to exchange presents with other fallible human actors, I’d have be released from all the laws surrounding them, from the law of getting exactly what I want to the law of demanding gratitude from others.

Just be free of those laws would be the nicest Christmas present I can imagine.