I don't like lists.
Well, that's not entirely true. Back when Sam and I lived apart, I had a little ritual. When I was going to visit him, I would write out a travel list - what would be packed in the suitcase and what would go in my carry-on. My rule was that I couldn't start the list until 48 hours before the flight. Once I put pen to paper (usually in my med-school notebook, during class), the official countdown started and I would allow myself to think about seeing Sam again.
We also have a shopping list on the fridge, like so many other people. I buy magnetic memo pads at Target and we all add to the list when we use something up. My mother used to keep such a list, also on the fridge. That's the only list I remember from childhood.
My mother-in-law, on the other hand, is the Queen of the Lists. She keeps a shopping list on the fridge, too, along with the menus for the week (lunch and dinner), and another list with the contents of the freezer. When Sam was a child, his mother maintained a Master List for each kind of trip the family took: 3, 5 and 7-day backpacking trips; weekend canoe trips; long car-camping trips. We helped them move once, about 20 years ago, and I commiserated with her about how frustrating it can be to cook meals when you've depleted your supplies and don't want to buy more. Oh, no, she said, it was fine. "I've made a list of everything remaining in the pantry and in the freezer, and I've written out menus for the next two weeks. I organized them so I know what utensils and pots I'll need for each meal, and when I've used each piece for the last time, I'll pack it". O-kay, then.
So, of course, they all had Christmas lists. Kids and parents alike. Now, in my family we didn't do Christmas, and we didn't write out Chanukah lists. I tried giving my parents a birthday wish list once and my father said "presents aren't any fun if they're not surprises". My childhood Chanukahs and birthdays were full of surprises, and more often than not, my mother got it right. By the time I was 12 or 13, I realized how much fun it was to figure out just the right gift, and watch someone open a present they really loved - and it was more fun when it was a surprise.
The first year I went home with Sam for Christmas, there were a few "Santa" presents that were surprises - funny socks or paperback books - but everything else was something from their lists. I hadn't submitted mine, but Sam had clued them in and I liked my gifts, especially the Chinese cookbook I still use. We suspended "big gifts" to the adults when Eve and her cousins came along, but for the intervening 15 years I struggled to come up with a list. I'm an grown-up. I earn a very good salary. When I want something, I mostly go out and buy it - unless it's really expensive, and then it's too expensive to ask my in-laws to buy me for Christmas or Chanukah. When I finally got my ears pierced at age 30, that made it easier - everyone could give me earrings - but the whole thing drove me nuts. I wanted to ask them to just think creatively a little bit. I wanted a surprise.
Now I have an 11-year-old daughter who spends weeks writing out a carefully researched Holiday Wish List, neatly annotated with little stars to point out the favorite items, and including a helpful guide to her current clothing and shoe sizes on the back. Yesterday I received an Email from one of our nieces telling me that she'd love a gift card to a local equestrian supply shop (and never mind that everyone assumes that I'm the one who does all the present-shopping, even for Sam's relatives). My mother-in-law called over the weekend to ask me to send her Eve's list via Email; she plans to divide it up with Sam's sister so there aren't any duplications. That's not a wish list, it's a shopping list - or an order sheet. It's bad enough that we're stuck with this orgy of materialism. If we take the surprise out of it, we can't even have the joy of giving to fall back on.
And yes, I know that if you don't give people a list, you might end up with a present you don't like. You know what? I don't care. How hard is it to smile and appreciate the thought and effort - and then either return it, or give it to someone who will enjoy it (and who is a stranger to the person who gave it to you)? It's not such a bad thing to get some practice at appreciating what you are given, and valuing the relationship over the object.
My mother-in-law offered to call my mother and make sure they don't buy the same items off Eve's list. I politely declined. My mother hasn't seen Eve's list. I've talked with her a few times and she's already wrapped four or five things she picked out especially for her beloved granddaughter - and won't Eve be surprised.