Jillian Madison isn't afraid to call her mother what she is: a "notoriously bad gift giver.
"My sister and I still laugh about the junk we'd find under the tree ... ," recalls Ms. Madison. "When I was 11, I got a miniature decorative wooden harp that you couldn't even pluck or strum. When my sister was 14, she got a tape dispenser with no tape. Every child's dream!"
Today, Ms. Madison and her sister Michelle have given other disgruntled receivers a voice on WhyDidYouBuyMeThat.com, a site that lets people post photos of their most heinous gifts.
A sampling of the Christmas offerings reveals much trauma: frumpy Christmas sweaters from grandma, an inexplicable crab ornament covered in non-functioning bulbs, a "smug-faced" Santa tin littered with crumbs but no actual cookies and a nun that shoots sparks from her mouth – for an aspiring priest named "Joseph" who posted the photo and seethed that "Both gifts were trashed."
WhyDidYouBuyMeThat.com is just one sign that the end of gracious receiving may be nigh.
Last year, North Americans were titillated by news of a "gift conversion" patent from Amazon that would have allowed customers to exchange gifts they didn't want – before the gifts were shipped, and without arousing the suspicions of the gift-giver.
Less boorish a culprit is the gift card, which takes the guess work, and care, out of the custom, arguably turning the holiday exchange into a financial tit-for-tat. "The intent of gifts is to strengthen or affirm a relationship, and in that case, gift cards really don't do that because there's nothing tangible you'd associate with the person other than, 'Sally gave me 50 bucks for Christmas,'" said Tim Jones, an associate professor of marketing at Memorial University of Newfoundland.
One-third of Canadians were planning to buy gift cards in 2011, with women more likely than men to rely on them, according to research from the NPD Group. Another 40 per cent were undecided, since "gift cards are often purchased at the last minute after other ideas are exhausted," said Rick Brown, NPD's director of custom research. While eight in 10 Americans said they'd be opting for gift cards this year, 26 per cent admit they feel "impersonal," according to the U.S.-based National Retail Foundation.
"It's become, for many people, a convenient way not to have to think a lot about what to do. You leave it up to the person," said John-Kurt Pliniussen, associate professor of eMarketing and innovation at Queen's School of Business.
Citing his own North American research, Dr. Pliniussen said 22 per cent of all Christmas gifts are now card-based, up from 15 per cent two years ago. He said that spike has to do with the proliferation of gift-giving occasions, at least 16 possible occasions annually, by his count. "For every Hallmark card occasion, there's now a gift-card occasion," said Dr. Pliniussen. "If we feel awkward about saying specifically what we want – and sometimes we don't know what we want, but someone feels obliged on one of these 16 occasions – it's a nice alternative."
Aside from the mushrooming of these milestones, the list of folks on our gift lists has also ballooned, from kindergarten teachers to mail carriers. This means obligations have swelled just as free time has shrunk. Enter the Starbucks/Chapters gift card.
"It's not a gift for a gift's sake. It's become more of, 'I have to do this. I don't have time to put thought into what this person really wants.' It's a desacralization process. Christmas becomes an obligation to provide,'" said Prof. Jones, adding, "It's not any different than tipping."
Heather Evans, an English professor at Queen's University who also looks at Christmas conventions, said we are moving away from the term "gift giving" to "exchanging gifts.
"[It's]a critical rhetorical shift that implies a change from an act of generosity to a transaction that implicitly – and perhaps agonizingly – quantifies the relationship: Is this someone with whom I have a relationship that warrants a $10 token, a $25 present or a $100 gift?"
Complicating this dynamic is the growing distance between giver and recipient since the Victorian era, when people exchanged gifts with just the members of their household. The commercialization of Christmas, Prof. Evans said, has "brought with it an expansion of the number of people to whom we feel compelled or obligated by etiquette and custom to give gifts."
This is where careful gifting rituals fall apart: "We can't possibly maintain among more than a few of these people the kind of intimacy necessary to select a gift for a particular recipient that will be especially welcomed or appreciated. How often does anyone receive a gift to be treasured in the dreaded office Secret Santa exchange?"
The popularity of gift cards suggests a desire for control – and a lack of trust in the giver to get it right. It also spares recipients the embarrassment of having to lie when the slipper socks come out.
"If you don't know what to get someone, go with a gift card. Really, it's okay," said Ms. Madison, of WhyDidYouBuyMeThat.com infamy.
Otherwise, your gift might end up on her site, which the Connecticut native is unapologetic about. "Anyone saying the submitters on the site are cruel or rude really needs to take a step down off of the horse they're sitting on," Ms. Madison said. "A bad gift is a bad gift. It's not the thought that counts. That's just something people say to make themselves feel better about the junky gift they just received."
Cindy Post Senning, great-granddaughter of Emily Post and co-director of the eponymous institute, is predictably unimpressed with sites like Ms. Madison's, finding their spirit "disappointing.
"Maybe your grandmother isn't right on top of things and those slipper socks are a little outdated but oh my gosh, does she love you! She made you those slipper socks," Ms. Post Senning said.
Her advice on gracious receiving? "Thank people for their thoughts. Find the positive truth, we say."