Deck the Halls But Do It Properly: Holiday Tips for the Painfully Pragmatic

Deck the Halls But Do It Properly: Holiday Tips for the Painfully Pragmatic

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash


The fact that this blog has not turned into a non-stop parade of lifehacks, mainly focused on my extremely specific and improbable life, is due only to the extremities of human willpower and resistance. I feel I am due a respite from this fight.

Here are some tips and tricks for applying some common sense to the irrational problems of annual winter mirth-making.


Never not be buying wrapping paper

You will never have enough. Every time you see some in a store, buy it. Ribbon and scotch tape too. Pretend like you're camping and the rolls are firewood. They are your lifeline, and you don't want to have to try to find some under any kind of time pressure. Try to keep a good mix of overtly holiday-y paper alongside more neutral (but still bright and cheerful) patterns, so that you can reuse it throughout the year for other things.

Have secret wrapping paper for intra-household gifts

If you're married to an adult, they probably don't think that supernatural forces are causing wrapped presents to appear. But all the same, something is lost if their gifts from you are delivered wrapped in the same wrapping paper they have been staring at for hours of wrapping this month, or even worse, that they remember buying themselves during some horrible holiday errand. Part of the pleasantly childish thrill of getting a present is in its pervasive sense of surprise and notability, which is ruined if you fail to disguise the true banality of two life partners buying things for each other that they (probably) could have bought for themselves.

Shop all year

I guess it's too late for this one. The random flowing nature of the Internet and modern commerce in general often sends gift ideas across your desk when you might not be explicitly shopping "for" anyone. You should have some mechanism in place to at least make a quick record of these moments with the minimum of tools or clicks. I use the Evernote Web Clipper to fill notebooks full of ideas like these. In maddeningly transient contexts like Meh.com or Woot.com, you have my permission to just buy the thing and store it in your locker at work until Christmas.

Obviously what we're talking about here are the GTD principles of ubiquitous capture and the two-minute rule, and yes they can be applied piecemeal and only when it suits you. The important thing is that you don't feel stupid come December 25th.

There is a risk, of course, of falling into the trap that Grace's husband fell into in season one of Grace and Frankie. Robert was discovered to have pre-bought dozens of expensive gifts for his then-wife for situations where he had forgotten an occasion, or needed an apology-bribe. A complex moral conflagration ensued, wherein the legitimacy of such presents, detached as they were from specific intent, was questioned, despite the basic altruism of the gifting structure have been technically respected.

To avoid this fate, you must hold in your heart the honest intention of giving the gift to a specific person at a specific time. No hoarding. That defeats the purpose of this whole holiday.

Shop for impact, not product

In most gift-giving situations, you and the recipient will be forced into close proximity during the unwrapping. As you consider each potential gift, mentally audition them for that moment. Is it immediately clear what the thing is, or are you going to need to have an explanation ready? Do you have a quip to break the tension? Is it a private joke that the other people at the party aren't going to get? All of that is more important than whether or not it is "useful" or "what they want" or "perfect". Think of giving a gift as a performance where one of the participants will be forced to improvise under incredible social pressure. Help your scene partner. I mean, how are they supposed to perform while holding a fucking gift card?


On the Day:

Present in order

If you are giving multiple different presents at one time (to any number of people), have a specific order in mind. Architect the arc of reveals so that each leads naturally to the next, with just the right number of surprises. Anticlimaxes suck, so use your brain to avoid them. It's not hard. In addition to providing a pleasant structure to the experience, you will be priming the recipients to see you as someone who has put some serious thought into the gifts (which you will be) and this will subtley increase their appreciation.

Unwrap down to the bone

When unwrapping a present, unwrap it as much as is possible and safe. Tear off all the wrapping. Take everything out of all the boxes. Separate everything from the styrofoam. Clip off those thick white zip-tie things they always put around consumer electronics, as if they were tiny little violent protestors being detained at a lawful assembly. You're going to have to deal with all this crap eventually; you might as well do it now while you have easy access to scissors and garbage can. Plus, this facilitates the next thing...

Play with the thing immediately

Nothing makes the giver of a gift happier than seeing you enjoy it. But typically the best they can hope for is whatever expression you manage to stretch across your face in the moment of opening, followed no doubt by some mild expressions of thanks and promises to make use of it. This is left-brained transactional bullshit, precisely the kind of thing that makes adults intolerable.

In addition to being less than satisfying to your gifter, you are also probably being disingenuous. You mean you don't want one of those chocolates right now? You don't want to turn this thing on and see if the display is as great as everyone claims? You don't want to immediately get naked and put this on to see if it looks as great as you think it will? 

Of course you do, but for some reason your reflex has been trained to be otherwise. If you are young, you have miscast the present-opening exercise as a series of unwrappings, not as a series of receivings; take a moment to actually receive the thing and make it yours. If you are old, you probably think you are too restrained or tired or both to take any sort of active enjoyment in a new physical object. Tear into that bitch and make it yours.

The pleasure of you owning it starts right now, not at some later time when the gifter won't see. Besides, if you eat/play with/try on each thing as you open it, it will help with the next thing...

Make it take forever

Giving and opening presents is the opposite of a race. You have waited all year for this, but it will be in these last few minutes and inches that the anticipation-sauce really comes to its state-changing froth. Regardless of whatever pitch your anti-capitalist moral rectitude has decided to take on this year, it is now officially too late to have spent the holiday season in that writer's retreat in Maine; you must confront your responsibilities in upholding our western traditions of the exchange of goods.

So do it right. Suck all the marrow out of it, every cubic inch. This is the one part of the holidays that gets easier as you get older, because this enjoyment grows in proportion to patience, and nobody understands patience more than the old. We have ground our way through dozens of these scenes, and we know that the only thing worse than the stupidity of temporarily hiding consumer goods under tacky-patterned paper is when all of that paper has been torn off and you're just left with a bunch of new...things, each carrying their own little psychic tax in place of the whimsical yuletide magic they held just fifteen seconds ago.

I guess what I'm saying is that the holidays are "for kids" only if you've maintained the same simple-minded approach to them as when you were a kid; if you have, then the holidays can easily become annoying and exhausting. By applying a more mature mindset to these traditions, it is possible to teach yourself new behaviors and perspectives that will allow you to draw energy from them, instead of simply spending it.

Or at least not make it a net negative, like it was last year. And every year. Until now.

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