Day 5: Gift
Tally ho! The quest for off-the-beaten-path Christmas stories in anime and light novels brings me to Obsessions of an Otome Gamer, volume 1. If you’re not familiar with series, it’s a heartwarming tale of family, friendship, and…classical music. (I can only assume the author is a fan?) Protagonist Mashiro discovers that she seems to have died and reincarnated in the world of a music-themed otome game she used to play. Well, technically she’s the protagonist of the remake of the game she used to play, while the protagonist of the original game is her best friend Kon. Mashiro’s friendships with Kou and Sou (the two love interests of the game) also have a major role within the story.
In the course of time, Mashiro attends a Christmas party along with her three friends and various other characters. There are some social interactions, a musical performance, and finally a gift exchange. It’s this last event that I aim to discuss.
Prior to the party, Mashiro reports that she “freaked out” when she heard about the planned gift exchange. “I can’t buy expensive presents!” she told Kon. Her friend assured Mashiro that kids weren’t expected to provide high-cost gifts. “I thought exchanging gifts with the rich and powerful meant buying things with a lot of digits in the price tag. I’m relieved it doesn’t.” While Mashiro comes from an ordinary lower middle-class family, her three friends come from extremely wealthy families, hence her concern about what what kind of present is expected. She ends up knitting a scarf to give as her gift.
Fast-forward to the gift exchange. Mashiro and Kon sing “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” while the four friends pass the gifts around, and when the song ends, everyone opens the present they’re holding. The gift Kon provided turns out to be a $100 pair of gloves. Sou brought a similarly expensive music box for his present. To Mashiro’s surprise, “It seemed like Kou had the most common sense among the three of them,” with his gift being a snow globe “with a price cheap enough the receiver wouldn’t have to panic.”
It’s a humorous moment, as Mashiro encounters rich people’s idea of “inexpensive,” but it also relates to my own struggles with expectations in connection to Christmas gift-giving. We might ask why this whole cost-of-the-gift business is any concern of Mashiro’s in the first place. The answer lies in the expectation of reciprocity implicit in the idea of exchanging gifts.
When you exchange gifts with friends or family, there’s an assumption that each person will provide a gift or gifts, and that said gifts will be of roughly comparable value. Having a specific occasion on which it is traditional not merely to give gifts, but to exchange them, it can become quite a challenge not to develop expectations, or to feel that others’ expectations are being imposed on oneself. A yearly gift exchange is totally different from giving an unscheduled gift with no expectation of anything in return.
I don’t mean to suggest that we must do away with the practice of exchanging gifts at Christmas. But I do think it’s worth closely scrutinizing what sort of expectations we bring to this tradition. What do I believe is expected of me? What do I expect of others? And are those expectations undermining the spirit of love and generosity that should be central to giving gifts? Are we truly giving gifts, or do we expect to exchange gifts? Let us be on guard lest expectations of reciprocity poison our gift-giving.