Somewhere, in the American imagination, there exists a mirage known as the Perfect Christmas Gift. Made possible only through a preternatural feat of insight, this present surpasses the Christmas wish list by being the thing recipients didn't even know they wanted. No, it's the thing they didn't know existed. The Perfect Christmas Gift is not necessity (socks, blender) but a surprise, something they would never buy for themselves; it is indulgence, pure and simple.

It is not, in short, a gift card.

Gift cards -- those high-tech gift certificates that are everywhere now -- are, by the standards of the Perfect Christmas Gift, a cop-out. The gift card says, I have no idea what to get you, except you seem like a Gap kind of guy. Or it says, I just don't want to be wrong. The gift card ventures into the perilous terrain of cold, heartless cash. It is a sign of the growing materialism of a holiday that once meant much more.

Or so the argument goes, but perhaps the argument contains a fallacy. We'll get to that in a moment.

There's more than one way of looking at gift cards, which seems important to consider given that they're not going away. Increasingly popular with marketers and customers, gift card sales this year -- estimated by consultants Bain & Co. to hit in the neighborhood of $38 billion -- are up 20 percent from last year. Unlike gift certificates, gift cards are credit-card-looking things that fit easily in wallets.

You can get them in fancy shops and coffee shops, in Macy's, Sears, Olive Garden, Starbucks, Target, and so on. Safeway is even selling gift cards for various stores (Foot Locker, Sunglass Hut, Bed, Bath & Beyond) so that lazy, last-minute shoppers everywhere can dispense with all their Christmas shopping during a supermarket run for aerosol cheese.

Although many gift cards come in predetermined amounts ($50, $100), it's possible to choose your own amount. At Best Buy, you can load a card with up to $5,000. At Nordstrom, you can load a card with . . . as much as you want.

Which raises the question, as one astute shopper put it: If you're spending so much on someone, shouldn't you know what they want? And does the gift card degrade the holiday experience by reducing relationships to a dollar amount? What happened to the Christmas gift as a reflection of time and thought, and who's worth that time if not our loved ones?

What happens when two brothers exchange envelopes and discover they've merely traded gift cards, one $40 piece of plastic for another? Is this a present exchange or a meaningless barter? Would they have been better off just keeping their own money?

But here's the twist. If Christmas purists say gift cards are proof that the holiday has become crass and impersonal, it turns out they've been leveling that charge for at least, um, 150 years. This is disappointing or comforting, depending on how you look at it.

"From the moment that the holiday became reinvented as an American holiday, it was also inextricably bound up with commercialism and consumerism," says Stephen Nissenbaum, author of "The Battle for Christmas," a Pulitzer Prize finalist in history.

Nissenbaum and several others trace the origins of the modern Christmas -- a family-centered holiday in which gift-giving is the central tradition -- to the 1820s. They argue that the very things that made it possible, the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the middle class, are also what made it an orgy of materialism.

Proof of the long-running cozy relationship between Christmas and commercialism: During the depression of 1840, Nissenbaum says, newspaper editorials were already encouraging people to spend their way out of hard times. By the 1880s, says historian William B. Waits, ready-made gifts were more popular than handmade gifts. By the early 20th century, gift certificates were already in use (and Nissenbaum says the first ones may date back to the 1860s). Also in the early 1900s, says Princeton sociology professor Viviana Zelizer, people started giving cold, hard cash -- skillfully decorated, but cash nonetheless.

When Nissenbaum began research for his book, he kept going back in time, searching for a "pure domestic handmade Christmas," when the holiday was all about family and generosity, and people crafted each other special, personalized gifts that came straight from the heart.

"I just kept thinking, 'When am I going to find a time when it was real?' " Nissenbaum says.

He didn't.

Even if you accept that, though, gift cards can seem a little creepy. Penne Restad is one of those arched-eyebrow cultural critics who look for the meaning behind everything, and then the meaning behind that, and when she peeks behind the gift card phenomenon, she shivers. Gift-giving, as she sees it, should be "a conversation between the receiver and the giver." A conversation, not a monologue. The gift means less, Restad says, when the recipient alone decides what she'll get.

When givers buy a real gift, it means they've gone to stores, "they've touched a number of items, they've pondered it, they've weighed it," says Restad, who lectures in American history at the University of Texas at Austin and wrote "Christmas in America: A History."

She says: "The giver is actually mulling over what it is they think about the person who's going to receive this and is trying to find that little connection that will join them together in some little symbolic way, even if it's just the color pink or the texture of mohair or in a line in a novel."

And then they give it, and the giving in itself is a risk, because unlike a gift card, a specific present says, This is what I think of you, or of us, or what I want you to be. The wrong gift can be insulting. To give leather to a girlfriend who's a vegetarian is to reveal the chinks in your relationship. You don't really know her! On the other hand, the Perfect Christmas Gift implies intimacy; it reveals that the giver has been paying attention. To paraphrase the poet William Carlos Williams, so much depends upon a red suede skirt.

"Heart in mouth -- that's some of the thrill of it," Restad says. "You watch their face, you don't watch the gift. And sort of that sharp intake of breath when you find out, 'Did you connect or not?' And if it's a gift card, sure you connected. You connect on the receiver's terms. Isn't this cynical and sad? Not that I'm not contemplating this for one of my children."

That would be Restad's younger one, the 15-year-old girl, who's near-impossible to shop for. Restad says her daughter is in a phase of life where the consumer world seems boundless and wonderful. Consequently, few things satisfy, because there is always something better out there.

Briefly, flippantly, Restad considered giving her daughter some money for Christmas. "Desperate moms, desperate times," she says. But ultimately, she bought an item of clothing. It sits now, boxed and wrapped, its ribbon curled, waiting for Restad's teenage daughter to open it . . . and return it.

"It's totally futile," says Restad.

So why buy a gift at all? Why not give cash or cash cleverly disguised as a gift card?

"You open up a gift card -- first off, it's not much in a box," Restad says. "You open it up and it's just flat, you can't even try it on. So you've got to spend the whole day with this flat skinny card to show for all that excitement." Even if the gift is that pink mohair monstrosity, at least "you can pet it," Restad says. "It's substance."

There's another way of looking at gift cards, though, and that's from the receiver's end: You get what you want. This can't be underestimated. Receiving a gift card can be a delightful relief. It does away with awkward, dishonest thank-yous (Just what I wanted! Tie-dye!), with wonderings (Is this what he thinks of me? Tie-dye?), with yet more picture frames and, God forbid, Christmas pins. The gift card confers freedom from others' assumptions and from their half-hearted, eleventh-hour, anything'll-do mall frenzies.

With gift cards, we abandon the dream of the Perfect Christmas Gift. But even if Christmas is for children, we all have to grow up sometime.