Gift Cards: The Lump of Coal in the Christmas Stocking

Without diminishing the achievements of the Grinch, I would like to suggest he’s not the one who stole Christmas.

Gift cards stole Christmas.

Image for post
Image for post

And unlike the Grinch, they can’t be reformed, redirected or sweet-talked back into the fold. Once gift cards get hold of Christmas, Christmas is gone.

Okay, I may be overreacting here just a bit. Let me explain.

We have today an entire generation of young folks — teens and preteens, but also kids up into their 20s — for whom it is increasingly impossible to buy a Christmas gift.

They don’t want it.

They want a gift card so they can buy their own.

Once upon a time, in a world long ago and far away, kids would say what they wanted for Christmas. A denim jacket, a record player, a bike, a pair of patent leather shoes, whatever.

Parents or grandparents, or whoever, would go out and find it. They would wrap it and put it under the tree. The recipient would then open it and be pleased. It wasn’t a total surprise, but there were fresh elements: the satisfaction of getting the gift at all, and further delight with what it looked like, how it actually felt in your hands.

Okay, I know that’s kind of a 1950s suburban family sitcom image. But there’s some broader truth in it, and there’s also a broader truth in this: Many more kids today don’t want even that much surprise in their Christmas gifts (or gifts in general).

They know exactly what they want, and they don’t need or trust any parent or grandparent to buy it for them. It’s a “gift” only in the sense that someone else finances it.

I’m not sure exactly why this has happened. I think I know one factor, which would be the Internet. Big shock there, huh?

Since kids are born today speaking Computer, or Phone, or Device, and they are furnished with these utensils as soon as they can work their opposable thumbs, they can pinpoint exactly what they want. The size, the shape, the color, the brand.

Now kids have always wanted 1) what their friends have, or 2) better yet, what their friends wish they had.

It’s just a more sophisticated identification and acquisition process today.

Which means kids can either provide detailed specifications on the gift they want or ask for a gift card so they can buy it themselves. As they see it, it’s the same result either way. The gift card just streamlines the process by eliminating the middleman.

So the problem isn’t for the kids. For them, gift cards just make Christmas more efficient.

Businesses love gift cards, too, since they guarantee income up front. It’s not an accident that when you walk into almost any supermarket these days, the gift card racks can be half the size of the produce section.

The only grumpy party here is some stubbornly nostalgic portion of the grownup population.

Sure, we all complain about holiday pressure and long lines and spending too much time to find the gift we want to give. But we do it because there’s something satisfying about the result.

We enjoy finding something that a kid, or a young adult, will like. We enjoy looking at a wrapped package with the gift inside, and seeing the recipient’s anticipation. There’s pleasure in watching someone unwrap a package and break into a happy, animated smile because the unexpected or semi-unexpected item inside is something they’re glad to suddenly be holding.

Watching someone open an envelope and pull out a gift card, however much that card may be appreciated, is not the same thing.

No, a gift card doesn’t actually steal Christmas. It doesn’t ruin the spirit. It just makes the whole exchange feel more like a transaction.

It takes away a little of the merry.

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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