I'm a professional in my early 30s, earning a decent salary. At Christmas and birthdays, all the other men in my family, my dad included, literally and figuratively sit on their duffs because their wives (my mom, sisters, aunts, grandmother) shop for presents while I, the single guy, have to schlep out and buy gifts. To be honest, it feels terribly unmanly going out and carefully selecting presents and wrapping them when I know the other men in the family, if they didn't have wives, wouldn't lift a finger. Also, what to do when you continually put thought into gifts for family but you don't see the same level of thought put back in? Should I just return in kind and get them cheap soap sets and $8 bottles of table wine?
I'm glad it's important to you to be a man and manly. In my early 30s, I was still pretty much a boy.
But you should know before I continue that I've been on a lifelong crusade to change the definition of the adjective "manly." (Also the verb "to father:" I hope for a day when the sentence "Dave fathered a kid with his nanny and now he's got to get out of town fast!" will be as meaningless as it would be if you were to substitute the verb "to mother.")
I've tried to make the case that the Hollywood notion of a real man as a muscular, monosyllabic ubermensch who can land a flaming jet but probably doesn't know how to boil an egg has to go. That maybe for it, we could substitute a man who can communicate his thoughts, help around the house, be involved in the care and feeding of his offspring, and so forth.
For instance, I've made the case that wearing an apron is manly, because it means a) you cook, b) you're smart and thrifty enough to know a grease splatter can ruin a perfectly good shirt, c) in manly fashion, you like to use the right tool for the job, which is what an apron is for a chef.
So that's the context in which I say to you: I don't see anything unmanly about going out and getting the right presents for your family and wrapping them nicely.
The only thing that strikes me as a little less than macho is your long-simmering resentment over the crappy gifts you're getting – that I guess the women of your family are getting you? (I do, however, acknowledge that if your family's not in any financial distress, gifts like a soap set and $8 bottles of wine can seem like a message is being sent – the message being something along the lines of: "We don't give a crap about you, so we give this crap to you.")
As to what to do – well, you could try something that worked in my family for a while, that I organized after it seemed like everyone was just backing trucks laden with straight-to-landfill knick-knacks up to each other's houses: Institute a "consumables only" policy for gift-giving. Jars of red-pepper jelly, "drunken olives" and the like.
(Worked for a while, until some recidivist decided to throw in a festive sweater for wearing while eating the consumables, and an electric cheese-slicing knick-knack along with their cheese platter, and the floodgates opened again.)
If your family is not the type to adhere to a policy, well, you could get them small but thoughtful gifts. Considering that your male family members have delegated the gift-giving to their spouses, who appear to be quickly grabbing items from the shelves of the local liquor store or drugstore, I don't think anyone would be within their rights to squawk about that.
You could just give them a card. Or (my personal favourite) make a donation in their name to a charity. Helping you help someone in genuine need – how could they squawk about that?
Mainly, though, I think you should stop worrying about what gifts you get. Caring too much about what's under the tree is the sign of a boy, not a man.
I learned a lot about stoicism from watching my father. All his life he received crappy, poorly-thought-out gifts. If he cared, he didn't show it. One year, my brother gave him a wooden tie (with a hinge in the middle, another one under the "knot"). He just put it on, smiled, and said he could really picture wearing it to certain occasions.
Be more like that. Soap set? Hey, I'm going to lather up a storm with this. Bottle of wine? Delighted: Let's crack it now! And be grateful for family around you: not everyone has one. Enjoy all the non-present aspects of the season: That's the way to have a truly merry and manly Christmas.
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