The Guilt of the Magi

A Minnesotan unease with gifts

An illustration of a man sweating with unease as he opens a gift and people stand around him.

illustration by Lars Leetaru

Tis better to give than to receive—but any Minnesotan can tell you that.

I am never more uncomfortable than when I am given a gift. First comes that nauseous tilting sensation as the whole room’s focus tips your way. Through no fault of your own, you’ve become the center of attention. Expectation clots around you, visible in all the suspenseful little half-smiles of the people watching. Waiting for your reaction.

Heaven forbid your response isn’t suitably bombastic, and you commit the cardinal sin of the Midwest: ingratitude. This is something you could dwell on for months to come, and will incite the hot rush of shame years later when you glimpse tinsel in a holiday window display.

So you do your best to lock your face into a mask of benign semi-delight. Ideally, you want a mild expression that can be easily maintained if the gift is appalling (“I didn’t even know Sean Hannity had a new book!”), but which can also transition into a look of genuine delight if you actually like whatever’s in the box.

If it is a terrific gift, even worse. Now you’re obligated to reciprocate, regardless of your own gift-giving abilities. I so appreciate the hand-sewn Japanese kimono emblazoned with my family crest, and by the way that gift card there in your hands can be redeemed at literally any Starbucks.

Though I was born in Kentucky, my unease over receiving gifts makes me a true Minnesotan. You’d have an easier time convincing a spy to divulge government secrets than you would getting a Minnesotan to admit they didn’t like the dish you brought to a potluck. The holidays are a harrowing time for those of us compelled to assure others we are in fact having a good time. (I call this MNsplaining.)

Actually, I dig it. The great magnet of noble shame is what drew me here. Minnesota is positioned on the U.S. map exactly where I like to stand during any given party: over on the far edge, right by the exit.

The arctic stoicism is as refreshing to me as the December air. I might make an open display of emotion if, say, my cat sang the national anthem at the Super Bowl. Or if you turn on any given episode of This Is Us. Otherwise, I’ll keep it to myself, thanks.

Yet even in our great state, there are some bubbly, effusive types who approach holiday gift-giving season with clueless fervor. They don’t realize their careless generosity is making a lot of us very uncomfortable.

We could all take a cue from my mother-in-law, whose holiday shindigs are wonderfully low-stress. She’s an advocate of an open exchange policy. Every package comes with a quick history and a disclaimer. Gift receipts fill the air like tickertape at a parade for a returning astronaut.

“I got it at Bibelot!” she’ll say. “They also had a green one. Take it back! Or give it to somebody else.”

This laissez faire approach, part game show and part Yuletide stock exchange, is a tremendous relief for the gift-averse among us. It lets us focus on the truly important parts of the holidays, like watching professional sports with the sound off and making sure your red wine glass is topped off. Maybe the best thing you can give someone this holiday season is a break.