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Gift card epidemic wreaks havoc on Christmas spirit

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Instead of the usual tiny mountains of red and green bundles stacked under the Christmas tree this year, I found myself being handed a neat pile of what appeared to be small, gift-wrapped envelopes. These holiday “surprises” bore the unmistakable shape of the gift giver’s fail-safe: gift cards.

I can admit that gift cards are kind of fun. I enjoy the thrill of walking into a three-story H&M, gift card securely tucked into my wallet, and feeling like the armful of colorful Swedish clothing I am about to purchase is essentially free. It puts me in a good enough mood to do awkward hip gyrations and head bobbing to Madonna’s electronic excrement passing for music that H&M insists on blaring. I skip out of the store with a new sweater dress that is guaranteed to make me 10 times cuter without having done any damage to the balance of my already skimpy bank account. Bitchin’!

Yeah, I like gift cards just as much as the next college student, budding preteen, coked-out step-cousin, middle-aged uncle, or wispy grandmother. Which is precisely the problem. Gift cards are incredibly generic. You can give them to any and everybody and rest peacefully knowing that the recipients will be happy shopping for themselves. But what makes Christmas, or Hanukkah, or your birthday special if you end up shopping for yourself? Sure, you’re grateful and you get what you want instead of a boring day planner or a pair of alarmingly unattractive khakis, but it’s missing the sentiment of a more well-thought-out present.

The gift card epidemic has ravaged holidays and birthdays alike for several years now, but it has recently become easier than ever to put nearly non-existent effort into gift giving. Near the checkout at several of the larger chain grocery stores and convenience stores, you can actually purchase gift cards to other stores, like popular coffee shops, book stores, and electronics stores. You can swing by the supermarket to pick up milk, Kraft singles, spaghetti sauce, and, oh yeah, all of your holiday gifts.

The advent of the Visa gift card marked an all-time low in the amount of thought required for gift-giving. Accepted anywhere Visa is accepted, the Visa gift card has virtually limitless possibilities when it comes to spending. And now your friends and relatives don’t even have to do any bothersome guesswork as to what stores you prefer! How delightfully convenient.

Gift cards deceive us into thinking that we are giving and receiving gifts, when what we are essentially doing is exchanging cash. Target had a telling new marketing scheme for some of their gift cards this holiday season: They came up with a gift card that doubles as a small MP3 player. Who wants a goofy MP3 player that looks like an Altoid tin and has Target logos all over it? No one. It’s just another attempt to soothe any guilt we might feel about giving gift cards as presents. Why is it easier to give someone a $20 gift card to Target instead of just handing over a $20 bill? Because giving cash always seems slightly embarrassing and appears thoughtless whereas gift cards appear less so, we feel much more comfortable giving someone a gift card in place of the cash. Cut out the middleman, eliminate the chance of Target making an easy 20 bucks when the gift card expires after a year or gets lost, and press a crisp Jackson into your nephew’s sweaty palm. If our gifts are doomed to be thoughtless, then we should at least be honest about it.

Gift cards are simply no replacement for a traditional present. Their tell-tale wrapped shapes always betray their contents and take the fun out of both giving and receiving. Yes, Christmas has been secularized and commercialized beyond all recognition, but that doesn’t mean that we have to abandon the spirit of Christmas altogether. It’s fun to shop for or make thoughtful gifts for others. And it’s so much more enjoyable and rewarding to watch your loved ones’ bright-eyed excitement when they open a gift that you’ve put real thought or time or effort into than to see the weak smile in reaction to yet another gift card. I know I’m a hopeless romantic when it comes to Christmas, but it seems like, if you take the time to celebrate it at all, then you should celebrate it right.