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KAI RYSSDAL: For the first time in a couple of years, it seems there's retail holiday cheer to be had out there, a spirit of generosity and goodwill.
But Marketplace's Sarah Gardner has a growing sense of, well, something else.
SARAH GARDNER: I read an article recently that said people who give gift certificates for Christmas have no soul. Apparently, I'm soulless. Deciding what to give at Christmas and how many people to give to can be torture. Gift cards and cash just lessen the pain. But the accusation that I have no soul really stings. I go looking for some inspiration.
I ask Kim, a fellow Kindergarten mom I find at our local coffee house. She's got two sisters, five brother- and sisters-in-law, and 15 nieces and nephews. Now, she's not above a gift certificate or two when it comes to some of those kids. But cash and its sly cousin -- the gift card -- won't fly with their parents.
KIM: That's where we put into play the pull the name out of a hat and fill someone's stocking idea, which is really fun. My brother-in-law got my name, and he had remembered me during the year saying that I really wanted a T-bone steak and I got a T-bone steak in my stocking.
Hmm, animal flesh in a sock. I take it under consideration -- until I talk to my friend Miriam.
MIRIAM: Every year someone says, 'Oh, let's draw names out of a hat,' and I just think that's such a rip off.
Miriam's a firm believer in everybody in the family giving everyone else a gift, no matter how small. This is the season of generosity after all, she says.
MIRIAM: And a lot of times it's not about the money. It's about the fussing and the shopping, and I'm just going to say look, I am going to give you something whether you like it or not. So you're going to get a pair of glove and you're going to like it. And don't feel like you have to send me a pair back, but it would be nice.
GARDNER: So you're guilting them out, come on. I mean, you know.
MIRIAM: I think I am sort of guilting them out.
"It's the most wonderful time of the year."
That's the unspoken facet of Christmas gift giving. When we give, we can bask in the warm glow of our generosity, but we also impose -- and don't deny it -- a sense of obligation on the recipient. One friend of mine, whose family is large enough for its own zip code, found herself giving every member of her tribe a pair of socks one year just to make sure she'd covered her bases. She now just gives her numerous nieces and nephews a little cash. Problem is, once you start, when do you stop?
Kim is still shelling out $20 to her grown relatives.
KIM: One of my nephews is 30 and has his own child. Do I still cut him in?
GARDNER: Do you?
KIM: I may have to say, you know what, I'm cutting you loose. I may have to just sit him down and have that conversation.
"I'll have a blue Christmas without you."
My friend Kathy has trouble cutting people loose, too. That's why she was so relieved when her best friend had the guts to make the change.
KATHY: About five years ago, when her son was small, she called me up one day and she said, 'You know what, let's talk about this whole Christmas thing.'
Kathy's friend suggested they stop giving each other gifts and stick to the kids.
KATHY: I probably wouldn't have been able to do it myself, but I had wanted it. I just would have not been able to do that.
That's the hardest part of gift giving, just saying no. In other words: I love you, but I can't afford you any more.
But back to my problem. Does giving gift cards and cash make me a soulless Scrooge? I decide to ask a real expert, Miss Manners.
MISS MANNERS: It has totally undermined the entire purpose of exchanging presents.
Ooh, am in trouble.
MISS MANNERS: Which is symbolic. To show, at least I'm trying to think about you and I notice things about you and so I'm guessing what might please you. I might guess wrong, and you should not let me know that I have guessed wrong. But I'm trying, and that's what the system is all about.
Well, that's it. Goodbye gift cards and cash. Hello woolen scarves and aftershave. And I won't feel bad if my relatives don't like their presents. Miss Manners told me they can exchange them or even pass them on. I have her on tape saying it.
MISS MANNERS: The wonderful advantage that manners has over morals is in manners, if nobody knows about it, you can get away with it.
OK. I gotta go shopping. Maybe I'll start at the butchers and see if there are any nice T-bone steaks on sale.
In Los Angeles, looking for gifts with soul, I'm Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.