A few years ago, a boyfriend of mine was working as a co-ordinator for a hundred or so twenty-one-year-old Japanese girls who were in Canada as part of a language-exchange program. Because some of them had camp-counsellor crushes on my boyfriend, I became an object of intense interest. When I first met the girls, there was a chorus of happy screams and a circle closed in around me. I had no idea what to do with this attention, but the girls had very specific questions they wanted to ask. “Is he kind to you?” Yes. Very. But more importantly, “What does he buy you?” I looked over at the boyfriend in question. “Um, sometimes lunch, I guess.” The girls didn’t look too impressed. I think they wanted to hear Swatch watches and Seven jeans. I didn’t come from the same gift-giving culture, though, so I didn’t expect presents for no reason. My boyfriend pulled through on the days that counted and that’s all that mattered.
ILLUSTRATION BY TARA HARDY
I was lucky. Over the past few years, I have watched three friends’ birthdays come and go with nary a gift from their “special” friends. True, not everyone thinks a birthday is a big deal. A lot of people spend their special day skulking in the corner of the office (or the pub), hoping nobody has noticed that they are one year older. That’s fine—but many of these blues brothers believe that other people feel the same way. We don’t.
I was privy to the post-birthday reactions of those three friends, and let me tell you that anger (“Why are you so lazy/selfish/forgetful?”) is but one of the consequences of giftlessness. There are also traces of sadness (“Don’t you love me anymore?”), bemusement (“So typical”) and bitterness (“You are not getting any tonight”). It’s a no-win situation for everyone. The problem with the no-present birthday is that there is no way to make it better. If someone doesn’t buy you something of his or her own volition, then the moment has been ruined. In other words, if you have to ask for it, it isn’t worth it anyway.
To be fair, I know these non-gifters. The guys aren’t jerks and the girls aren’t miserly cheapskates. They have their own reasons for not showering loved ones with gifts, be it a birthday, Christmas or Valentine’s Day. “It’s just become such a Hallmark tradition, and I don’t want to buy into it,” says one. “I like to celebrate you every day, not on a predetermined holiday,” says another. One could applaud the anticapitalist sentiments—if they weren’t bullshit, that is.
This is especially true of a birthday. It’s the one day each year when you celebrate just that person, simply for being alive. You don’t have to spend a lot of money, but you do have to give something. (I wouldn’t turn down a Tiffany bracelet, but I would be just as happy with a handmade something or other.) What’s important is the exchange—because even love and friendship are economies.
Think of the traditional nuclear family. The expressions of love in that model can be reduced to blatant give-and-take transactions: “I will go out and bring in the bread, and you will do the formidable task of bringing up the children … and, uh, baking the bread.” That’s a basic example, but for many couples, relationships are not about money, but about small everyday transactions of love, support and time. These daily exchanges aren’t always clear-cut (“If I give you a hand in the kitchen, you can give me one in the bedroom”), and no one, I hope, is actually tallying up figures to see what is owed, but it is still clear when someone feels they are getting ripped off in the love department. When these small transactions fall apart, the only things that get exchanged are guilt and reluctant obligation. And it’s ugly. This is not to say that flowers or some material gift will make up for other shortcomings, but it is the giving of the flowers that sends the message: you want to keep this going and you’ll pull your weight.
I know two couples who got engaged this year and both decided to just ditch the ring. When the question was popped, the ring wasn’t. And while we all made jokes about postmodern brides and rejecting the evil empire of DeBeers, I think something was maybe lacking—and it wasn’t a chunky diamond or a man on bended knee.
So if relationships are cemented by these small give and takes, what happens when there is a recession? It seems to me that recently there has been a movement away from the ceremony of gift-giving. I know two couples who got engaged this year and both decided to just ditch the ring. When the question was popped, the ring wasn’t. And while we all made jokes about postmodern brides and rejecting the evil empire of DeBeers, I think something was maybe lacking—and it wasn’t a chunky diamond or a man on bended knee. The ring doesn’t have to be made of platinum or white gold, but it is a symbol that you have committed yourself to another person in a real way and, damn it, you are proud enough to show it. In fact, I’ve always thought that guys should wear one too (in Italy, it is customary to buy the groom-to-be an engagement present as well).
If you feel funny about the unethical diamond, then you can go to a vintage store and pick up something unique or maybe even look into the blood-free Canadian diamond. Some couples just don’t want traditional rings, so they do something completely different. A friend of mine attended a beach wedding last summer where the couple (athletic Vancouver types) exchanged a crash mat and a paddle. My friend ended up helping during the exchange by pulling the cumbersome hidden presents from behind a bush as her high heels sunk into the sand. Maybe that isn’t everyone’s idea of true romance, but the bride and groom knew each other well enough to make good choices for one another: items that would bring days of happiness (and outdoor activity).
What is most beautiful about the gift is that it was chosen for a particular person by a particular person. It is a tangible token of the intangible bond between two individuals. Recently, a friend of mine showed me the birthday card she had made for her boyfriend. She had bought a disposable camera and spent the day cycling around the city, taking photos of all his favorite Montreal locales. It was beautiful, and it wasn’t even wrapped.