thank-you notes

Friday, December 5, 2008

Christmas is nice, but we've never been comfortable writing all the "Thank-you" notes, which has been a tradition in our family at least as long as Christmas itself.

When we were younger they were especially painful because we were expected to write them if not the moment we unwrapped the gift, impossibly shortly thereafter. This tended to stink for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that instead of enjoying the gift, we had to trudge down to the basement and spend the next few hours before we left for Grandma's thanking whoever gave it to us.

It was dishonest, too. How could we describe our appreciation for something we hadn't even used yet? If we said we enjoyed the gift, we were liars; if we didn’t, we risked offending our benefactor.

And what if the gift were really crappy? Insincere gratitude led your gifter to keep on giving similarly crappy gifts. And what if there were something wrong with the gift? You wouldn’t pay for a car you hadn’t test-driven; if your gift had a gas leak or a fault in the brake line, you’d look like an idiot if you thanked someone for it.

Thank-you notes were also mentally exhausting: When you're between five and 12 years old, your range of prose -- especially at lying about how you absolutely adore something that's spent only a few seconds in your hands -- is excruciatingly limited. And Jesus didn’t do us any favors either, being born the week after our birthday, so by the time Christmas rolled around we’d already used up all our A-material writing birthday thank-yous.

But most of all, they were cruel. They were cruel because it's cruel to tease children with just opening a present and not giving them the chance to play with whatever was inside -– children who had stayed up all night, quivering like Michael J. Fox at the prospect of playing with their Christmas toys; children who, for the past several months, had been anticipating the moment they’d be holding that one great toy in their hands ever since they saw it in the toystore window; children who Christmas presents are for -– what cruel heart would you have to snatch their toys up, thrust a pen and stationary into their trembling hands, and point to the basement?

Now it’s nice to be appreciated, but this trend of a quick turnaround for thank-you notes –- if not the trend of notes themselves -- is deeply flawed. The purpose of gift-giving, at least according to all those strange and terrible Holiday specials and claynimations, is as a gesture of good will. But that friendly pat on the head quickly becomes a vicious backhand to the testicles when every gift comes with a thank-you-note invoice.

And as we said, it’s specious: The kid doesn’t know yet whether he actually likes the gift or not; as a gifter, we’d much rather hear his honest opinion than some slapdash response -– not just because we appreciate honesty, but what kind of person would we be if we habitually went around buying presents for dishonest children? Likewise that feedback could ensure our future purchase of gifts the child would truly appreciate.

Now a critic may say that thank-you notes are written for the thought, rather than the gift. That may be well-intended, but it's still a cretinous argument.

For one, it’s not the thought that counts – we think about how attractive Patricia Heaton is every time we watch Everybody Loves Raymond, but we doubt she appreciates our doing so. Just thinking about someone doesn't impress them, and if you don't believe us, see your loved ones' reactions when you tell them that this year, instead of getting them a gift, you spent 30 minutes "thinking" about them.

People don't like thinking; they like action! Our friend Bob, for example, collects wooden pigs from South America, and he'd appreciate a wooden pig we went all the way to Guatemala to buy rather than the more expensive Columbian one we picked up at the local wooden pig depot. Wedding rings are useless trinkets, but we pay big heaping gobs of cash for them and willingly put our limbs at risk when they fall down the garbage disposal. Obviously what really counts in a gift is how much our loved ones are willing to suffer for us.

Therefore, we owe it to ourselves to at least sample the source of their anguish, which is why we’ve resolved to not send a thank-you note for any gift until we've read some of it, watched some of it, cashed some of it, tasted some of it, or made some other similarly appropriate use of it. And just as they suffered acquiring the gift, we’d like to suffer in composing a creative thank-you note -- specifically, thank-you haikus, or, as we call them, "Thainkyus."

So far, we’ve found this approach successful, and we're happier for doing it -- which presumably was many of our gifters' intent. It’s honest, pleasing, and fun –- and we suggest you try it for yourself.

You can thank us later.