Giving in

So now that I'm sort of grown up, do I have to start buying Christmas presents?

Last Tuesday was my brother-in-law's birthday, as I found out around 7 p.m. that night, when my dad Bcc'd me on his birthday e-mail to Rich. That's how bad I am — my dad just assumed I had no idea. And he was right. (Sorry Rich, I meant every word of that e-mail I sent at 7:04.)

I've never been good with birthdays, Father's Days or anniversaries. But come the end of December, I'm at my absolute worst. I forget people, I forget gifts; I forget everything until presents come for me. It's not malicious, and it's not about some deep-seeded hatred for the holidays. Gift-giving in December just isn't my strong suit. As my older brother Sam (who's so guilt-ridden he buys Christmas presents for his plants) told me, "You don't really care, but not in a way that implies you don't care about people. You just sorta don't give a shit."

All those years of not giving a shit have built up a reservoir of bad will among the folks of in my life. Not ill will, mind you — people stopped expecting anything a while ago. For the last few years I've been in college or just out, and while my family assumed I was too schlubby to get them something, my friends were all as schlubby as I was.

But things have changed.

I've been working at the Planet for a year now, earning a steady paycheck. Slowly, I've accumulated enough decent clothing that I can almost make it through a workweek without looking like I dressed myself out of the laundry bag. This is happening to a lot of my friends. Not all of them, of course — a few are still living at home playing Madden all day. But most of us are working, breathing, earning adults.

And that got me thinking. Was the grace period over? Had my window of acceptable schlubbery closed?

I started asking people whom they give presents to during the holidays. I interviewed friends my age (24), a few 50+ coworkers and some people like Sam in their mid-30s. It wasn't scientific, but I found that there are four archetypes of the holiday gift-giver:

The (Maliciously) Guilty

You give something to everyone — your family, your friends, your friends' significant others', you friends' significant others' family. This accomplishes two goals: 1. No one can ever use the holidays against you. 2. You make everyone else look bad.

The Reliable

You cover your bases — immediate family and significant other. But that's where it stops.

The Serendipitous

You'll buy something if it seems perfect — that first edition copy of On The Road for your Kerouac-obsessed friend. But unless it's gonna bring the house down, you won't get anything.

The Asshole

Me.

The categories spread across age groups, and people fall between categories, but in my extensive research the only ones who would cop to Asshole status were folks my age. And most of them said they weren't planning on changing, at least not until things around them started changing too.

My friend Charley, who falls somewhere between Reliable and Serendipitous, said he wasn't going to start buying gifts for friends out of obligation until they got married. When it comes to that stage — not just because of weddings and showers, but because your circle of friends starts to shrink — gift giving takes on a whole new importance. Nearly everyone I talked to echoed Charley's take; when people start getting hitched, it's time to pony up.

But I wasn't so sure. So I asked my older brother, who has given me countless unreciprocated gifts over the years. Is it time for me to step up? Will people suddenly be pissed off when nothing arrives in the mail this year? Can I still get away with being The Asshole, or has the reservoir gone dry?

"It'd be pretty amazing if you started, people would be surprised," Sam said, arguing that I should join The Reliables.

He's right, I thought. I should bite the bullet, plan out my shopping and deal with all the sarcastic "So you finally grew up?" comments I'd get.

"Buuut," Sam said a second later. "I don't think there are a lot of people sitting around thinking 'I hope this is the year that Max busts it out!' You've set the bar so low, no one expects a thing."

'Twas the sound of holiday salvation.

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