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Christmas gift anxiety can bring folks together

It’s the gift giving season. The wonderful, awful, anxiety-invoking season of feeling inadequate at appropriately expressing love or camaraderie through a tradition we cannot culturally escape whether we’re at work, church or home.

For some people, shopping, making, wrapping and giving gifts is pure pleasure. It’s their love language. They delight in hunting down the perfect present based on some snippet of conversation you had six months ago. Or they bake, knit, crochet, paint or craft a one-of-kind, labor-of-love that’s not only a gift, but a work of art.

I admire those people the way I admire a giraffe in a zoo. They’re exotic and foreign, and I can’t relate.

For me, the Christmastime gift exchange tradition can be pure torture. I try year after year but only occasionally succeed at feeling a sense of satisfaction when the wrapping has been torn and tossed and the recipient eyes the object in their hands. More often it’s a moment of agony.

When the recipient eyes their gift, then covers a cough and giggles nervously before saying, “How nice?” You feel like a loser. Any statement that ends with a lilt on the end that turns it into a question is a dead giveaway that your gift wasn’t quite as appreciated as you’d hoped to make it.

But I like parties and people, so I swallow my pride and continue to play Secret Santa like a bad actor in a B-movie.

Thankfully, I know I’m not alone in my gift-giving angst. A few years ago a friend and I bonded over our mutual anxiety at these holiday exchanges, especially popular at office parties, civic organization celebrations and church socials.

In a moment of mirth, we dubbed our gift-giving inadequacies CRAPD. That stands for Christmas Represents Awful Presents Disorder.

If you have CRAPD, you know it. What’s worse, everyone at the party knows it. Because the Secret Santa never stays secret. There’s always an unveiling. If you’re the one who brought the gift that doesn’t get stolen, you feel like a loser.

Or, if you’re the one who brought the misunderstood attempt at crafty, cute or clever, you feel like a loser.

This, I’m sorry to report, is evidence that you have CRAPD.

When you have CRAPD, you want to give good gifts. You try to give good gifts. You just don’t have the knack of giving good gifts that are appreciated as much as you appreciate the people who open them.

As I stifle my anxiety over having CRAPD and prepare to attend yet another holiday gift exchange, I remember the holiday party where our friendship began.

We’d been instructed to arrive with a wrapped item of Christmas decor, an easy item to purchase for an acquaintance, since many of us didn’t know each other well.

My creative friend had turned an old pair of ice skates into an ornamentation that would work wonderfully propped against the front door, the fireplace or anywhere else around the house. They sparkled and glittered, with festive filling spilling artistically over the boot-tops.

But the woman who unwrapped them didn’t understand.

Her head cocked to one side as her eyebrows went up. Her head cocked to the other side as she glanced at the hostess. Then she took a breath, pulled out the decorative stuffing and peered inside.

“They’re lovely?” she said, her voice lilting at the end before it trailed into a barely audible whisper. “They’re not my size.”

But the gift giver was close enough to hear and in the awkward silence that ensued, her face flushed. Her shoulders dropped. Her eyes caught mine.

I didn’t know her well then but I knew exactly what she was feeling. So I blurted the obvious.

“They’re a decoration!”

As the party went on we laughed together over her misunderstood ice skates.

All three of us became good friends and eventually that evening became a memory of mirth. Fittingly, the ice skates became an inside joke through many more holiday parties.

Though I don’t see those friends as often anymore, whenever I see an ice skate trimming a tree or hanging by a door, I think of that holiday party with nostalgia.

Over the years we bonded over a lot of other things, but in the beginning we bonded over ice skates, imperfections and insecurities.

It’s fitting because people grow closest when they’re open and vulnerable and willing to risk being misunderstood. But this is only possible when we drop the impossible expectation of the “just right” gift, the picture-perfect holiday or the life befitting a glowing family newsletter.

People don’t relate to an ideal. We relate to real.

My friend could have hidden her embarrassment behind a shiny veneer of pride. She could have stayed silent about how gift exchanges sometimes made her feel inadequate. But because she shared her insecurity and heard an echo in mine, we connected.

That human connection, I believe, is the point behind holiday parties. It’s why I still go to the parties, because it certainly isn’t for the gifts.

Jill Barville writes twice a month about families, life and everything else. She can be reached at

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