My colleague comes from a small, New England family. She and her parents and cousins give each other books and inexpensive homemade presents. Their feeling is that money is cold and impersonal. Disguising it as a gift card? It's still money. Her husband, on the other hand, comes from a big Irish family. The O'Delightfuls give one another checks—especially to the kids—because money is for college funds and bicycles and big dreams that you can help somebody achieve. Plus, checks require no shopping. Each year, the couple works this difference out on the eight-hour drive up to Maine, pulling over a few times to get out and scream in the fresh, cold air before getting back in the car to give each other the silent treatment.
This fight, says David Treadway, is really about how we express our connection. "For some, the act of getting a gift is how love is shown." For others, a gift is simply a social rite. There are all kinds of ways to compromise: Switch off who purchases the gifts each year, let each person purchase for their own extended family, or let an outside authority (like Grandma) decide what the rules are.
But wait, what about the fight at the tree stand? Surely, I am correct about this one. Surely, even a relationships expert must concur that the bigger the tree, the better the holiday.
To that, Treadway responds with a long, elaborate pause. "The danger in any of these situations," he finally says, "is when people think they have discovered the right way to celebrate." There is no one right way. What's creating your rigid attitude, your absolute insistence, he says, usually comes from the past: what you didn't get as kid and longed for, or what you did get and happily want to redo and redo. The truth is, we are all now grown-ups, and our arguments have grown-up, upsetting repercussions. We have to find some kind of solution...such as buying my 12-foot tree, dragging it home and then letting my husband sit silently on the sofa with a huge whisky-spiked eggnog, not saying, "I told you so," while I cut three feet off the bottom of the trunk so it fits in the living room.