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Why it's hard for people to give 'nothing' on Christmas

Buying a present for someone who has said they don't want one makes gift-giving more about the giver and less about the receiver.
Couple exchanging Christmas gifts
I don’t blame anyone for not understanding my wishes, because the concept of “nothing” is not an easy one to comprehend. George Marks / Getty Images

Every year since I was a teenager, my mom has asked what I wanted for Christmas. It wasn’t until my mid-30s that I got the courage to answer honestly.

“I want nothing,” I’ve replied when she inquires, often before Halloween, because nothing is what I’ve wanted.

She will nod, I will nod, and a few weeks after this conversation, my Garfield cross-stitched stocking will be filled with a grocery store gift certificate, lip balm and chocolate.

Minimalism is only half the reason I want nothing. The other half is because “nothing” doesn’t force me to dig inside a stocking or unwrap a gift that reminds me how little the people in my life know me.

The gift certificate is appreciated because a boy’s gotta eat, but secretly I slip the lip balm to my brother Kevin — it almost always has beeswax, and I’ve been vegan for about 18 years. 

And while the plant-based chocolate is thoughtful for one reason, I have Type 1 diabetes, so it’s also kinda/sorta the worst present someone can give me.

My mom is not alone. For years, I have told family, friends, co-workers and women I’ve dated that what I want is “nothing,” but apparently, many people can’t give “nothing” as a gift, which, to me, makes gift-giving more about the giver and less about the receiver.

This dilemma is why I can’t remember a time when I’ve been given nothing, so I’ve tried flipping the words, hoping the new order will make literal and philosophical sense.

“Nothing is what I want.”

But nothing is never what I get.

I don’t blame anyone for not understanding my wishes, because the concept of “nothing” is not an easy one to comprehend. Brian Gregor, chair of philosophy at California State University, Dominguez Hills, told me that philosophers have long argued over the meaning of “nothing.” Some, such as German philosopher Rudolf Carnap, suggest the question comes from confusion regarding language because we use “nothing” as a noun and then mistakenly imagine it refers to some thing. “But even though nothing is not a thing,” Gregor says, “nothingness will show itself when you look under your tree on Christmas morning and find nothing there.” And that feeling may be too much for the would-be gift-giver to bear. 

Whenever I’ve tried to explain to my mother about wanting nothing, I’ve used simple terms for her to understand my logic. After all, my reasoning doesn’t seem to require us to engage in, say, the Socratic method. I explain how I’m a minimalist who wants only what I need. The things I desire — a working pancreas, a literary agent, Kevin to be cancer-free, a 1960s Cadillac — are things she can’t buy via QVC.

Minimalism is only half the reason I want nothing. The other half is because “nothing” doesn’t force me to dig inside a stocking or unwrap a gift that reminds me how little the people in my life know me.

“Nothing” doesn’t disappoint.

Lest anyone think I’m a better gift giver than a gift receiver, I am not. My dad is a basketball fan whose favorite player is former Los Angeles Lakers guard Jerry West. One year I bought him socks with an action shot of No. 44 on them. I’ve never seen him wear them. My mom? Forget it. Sure, she drinks tea, but she has enough to run a bed and breakfast in Manchester. And then there is the question of what kind of tea does she enjoy? Is she drinking caffeinated this year?

Oh, how little I know these people.

Or maybe not. Maybe the pressure to buy Christmas gifts for anyone is a farce, a scheme created by capitalism to get us to spend, spend, spend on things we don’t want or need. Perhaps I know my parents well and recognize there’s nothing I could give them that could improve their lives in any meaningful way. Negatively? Sure. Often I’ve reminded my dad on his birthday that I got him the best thing a son can get a father — another year when I didn’t go to prison. Currently, I’m on year 43. He seems to appreciate that.

My parents have everything they need and — thanks to Kevin and his wife — they have everything they want in the form of a 3-year-old grandchild. 

There’s no need for them to circle the mall parking lot just to go into crowded stores and buy me something destined to be shoved into an already cramped underwear drawer. There’s no need for me to do the same to buy socks my dad won’t wear and tea my mom might not drink. And it’s not as if they ask for anything. They accept whatever bad (based on how little they use them) gifts I buy for them. 

But I’m tired of participating in a capitalistic sham, and I’m tired of giving Christmas gifts my family and friends don’t want. When I randomly see something that reminds me of a relative or a friend, I’ll purchase that item because the surprise of a gift on, for instance, July 12 shows care, attention and thoughtfulness, which I’m pretty sure is the concept behind giving a gift.

To avoid the disappointment that comes with Christmas presents, I’d rather give and receive an experience, a conversation, something, anything, that can’t be tossed in the recycle bin. For example, in September, my 88-year-old grandma Dolla was at my niece’s birthday party. Dolla struggles to stand and walk, so I helped her as she moved from the outdoor dining table to my aunt’s vehicle. I opened the car door, assisted her as she got into the passenger seat and gave her a kiss on the cheek. Dolla and I don’t have many holidays left, so these are the sorts of moments I want from her — a hug, a kiss, a smile, a “thank you.”

That’s my idea of a present. That’s what I want for Christmas.