As a rule, it’s a bad idea to disclose the origin of Christmas presents. Nobody wants to know how severe the Cyber Monday price slash was when they’re handed a new phone case, nor should anyone admit how deep they explored the clearance section at Kohl’s when giving a new pair of jeans to a nephew. These are the rules that have been drilled into us since childhood; a vast constellation of faux-pas and taboos that muddle up the supposed joyousness of the holiday season with innumerable anxieties and subtle, outrageously petty perceived slights.
But still, there is one yuletide blunder that towers above all others: Thou shalt not regift an item you don’t want to someone else. Historically, regifting is perceived as the ultimate insult. Someone who adores you but doesn’t really know you — distant uncles, your mother’s friend from college, the grandparents from the submissive side of the family tree — fills a parcel with something you categorically have no use for, dashing your hopes with a wet thud as soon as you tear off the wrapping paper. And now, your only hope is to get rid of it by gifting it to some other unsuspecting schmuck.
We’ve all been there: It’s 2003, you open up a new DVD player, because meemaw doesn’t understand that your PlayStation 2 already has a copy of The Boondock Saints in its drive. It’s 2007, and for some reason, you’re now the proud owner of a portable Casio keyboard, despite never expressing any acute musical inclinations in your life. The correct thing to do in these circumstances, is to hold onto those presents and never, never hand them off to someone else at your next celebration. The rules say that we must accumulate all the December detritus because, fundamentally, it’d be rude to pass on the cheer.
If instead, you come up with a better purpose for that DVD player — a purpose that might be found in a friend’s house on their birthday — then you are the most thoughtless human being in the universe. In fact, it was a 1995 episode of Seinfeld that first popularized the term “regift” in the lexicon. Americans around the country watched as Elaine, George and Jerry passed around an unwanted label maker, and the practice immediately became a grave cultural no-no.
That’s not all that surprising; the characters on Seinfeld are some of the worst people in the world, and the public tended to use their personal failures as rules for living. At this point, it’s honestly surprising that the Pope hasn’t added regifting to the Seven Deadly Sins.
But this doesn’t make any sense. It’s never made any sense. Regifting is totally fine, and the only reason we’ve turned it into a cultural blight is because we’re all fraught with extremely human insecurities, and have been browbeat by decades of uber-capitalist vindictiveness. Zoom all the way out, see the Christmas season from a cosmic scale, and you’ll witness the truth. What’s the inherent crime of regifting? Handing off a newly acquired possession that you don’t need to a loved one, because you believe that loved one might get more pleasure out of it than you do. That’s it! That’s the whole thing.
The anti-regifting task force asks us to believe that a present cannot be authentically bestowed upon one another with affection if the gifter didn’t spend money on it themselves, and that’s insane, psychotic bullshit. Honestly, that sort of thinking is right in line with the centuries-long war the celebration industry has waged on the American psyche. The De Beers cartel has hacked our brains into believing that any bachelor worth his salt must spend two months wages on an engagement ring, and in my opinion, the angst on regifting comes from the exact same hollow, deeply reductive corporate mindset.
“If someone gives me a guitar, and I don’t know how to play the guitar, so then I give that guitar to someone else, who’s a guitarist, then why would you be upset?” asks Dave Pemberton, a habitual regifter and a staunch defender of the practice. “I had a thing I knew they’d love, and I chose to give them that thing as a gift. That’s called being thoughtful! In my opinion regifting belongs on the same shelf as the beloved handmade gift.”
He’s right. The emotional value of a present should be completely untethered from its source. It’s absolutely possible to be a shitty regifter, just as it’s possible to be a shitty orthodox gifter. The effort — and your ability to empathize with the person you’re buying for — is the only thing that matters. When I was a kid, I had an aunt who consistently gave me some of the worst Christmas gifts I’ve ever received. One year I unwrapped a DVD copy of Max Keeble’s Big Move with a fucking $3.99 sticker stuck on the front. In that scenario, I’d much prefer any feasible “regift” she had lying around the house. Similarly, if you’re the sort of asshole who passes off a regift carelessly — giving power drills to your cousin’s 7-year-old or whatever — then you also deserve to burn in hell. There is no such thing as a unilaterally bad gift-giving mechanism. It’s the thought that counts, goddamnit.
And look man, giving gifts is hard. It’s extremely difficult to determine a novelty that strikes an ideal balance between festive and utilitarian, even among people you know very well. It’s also generally accepted that gift-giving has an inconsistent hit/miss ratio, and that if your present bombs on Christmas, you shouldn’t take it too hard. You win some, you lose some, right? But despite that objective truth, it’s still a point of contention if someone tells you that they really love the easel you bought them, but they already have one, and are going to send it along to another friend in need. If anything, that should be a huge relief. I’m glad if my gifts are making anyone happy, even if they miss the mark with their original target.
So let me leave you with that. If you’re struggling to come up with something, anything to get your brother, maybe deliverance will come in the form of another present you receive this year. Perfect for him, and not quite right for you. No longer will you be stressed about delivery times, Amazon supply chain terrors, glib industrial waste and parcel redundancy.
That, my friends, is the greatest gift of all.