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At Least Try To Find Great Gifts

Judith Martin United Features Sy

Hating to shop passes for a virtue most of the year. Miss Manners is not sure why everyone believes that a person who hates to shop necessarily disdains material things and spends the saved time in high-minded ways, but such is the usual assumption.

Not around Christmastime, however.

It’s all right then to declare that you are sick of crowds, can’t stand what the holiday has become, can’t find anything in the shops but junk, get a headache from “Jingle Bells” and will never set foot in a mall again as long as you live. Everybody says that.

But a more general declaration that you hate shopping is suspicious at this time of year. It suggests that you begrudge spending time and money to please other people, and even more ominously, that you plan to stick someone else with the job.

Miss Manners speaks with the weary resignation of someone whom people are always trying to stick with their shopping. There is a widespread notion that it is the duty of etiquette to compile a list of perfect presents for all sorts of people.

Well, there are no generic “perfect presents.” If there were, everyone would have received several by now and be sick of them. So forget that.

It used to be easy for gentlemen to unload their shopping chores. All they had to do was get married. The ones who looked incompetent and appreciative when they heard a note of warning (“They’re not even my relatives, they’re yours”) passed as sensitive.

This no longer works - at least not automatically. Now anybody who wants to unload the burden of Christmas shopping has to strike a fair bargain. Some of the standard schemes would still work fine, if only the nonshoppers troubled to obtain advance consent for them.

But the more usual approach is to use social force to adjust the practice of exchanging presents. The people who tell Miss Manners that they are scolded and bullied about their Christmas shopping are the ones who actually do it.

They are instructed to observe a limit on the amount of money to be spent, to contribute to a joint present instead of making their own choices, or to give a present to only one person of the family or other group, perhaps selected by chance, rather than to each.

They may be told to declare what they want, and even to go out and get it, while still counting it as a present. These deals are generally announced at the 11th hour, after the enthusiastic (or dutiful) shoppers have already planned and perhaps done their own shopping.

Sometimes it is done at the 12th hour - by admonishing those who have taken the trouble to give them thoughtful presents in place of thanking them. “You shouldn’t have done it” is not the happiest of expressions, and it only manages to pass as polite when accompanied by an expression that adds “but I’m so glad you did.”

Yet if they were offered early enough, and offered rather than ordered, these proposals could be acceptable ways of lessening the burden on everyone.

There has to be an opportunity to plead for retaining the charm - allowing one small surprise, for example, or exempting handmade presents from limitations, or encouraging grandparents to initiate an interest instead of feeding the ones the child already has.

Miss Manners does not oppose adjusting the custom of exchanging presents to make it affordable, manageable and agreeable. She would even sympathize with those who hate to shop, pointing out that they can obtain help by cajoling relatives or paying professionals. But she will not allow those who shirk their obligations to justify themselves by taking it out on those who do not.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Judith Martin United Features Syndicate

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