This essay from December 95 was years in the brewing. As a cautionary observation, it covers all holidays for which gifts are appropriate.
On Giving Gifts
Our discussion today, class, centers on the theory and practice of gift giving.
First, it’s important to recognize why you are giving a gift. Some gifts are given because the giver knows the recipient will allow the giver to use it - sweater, XBox, motorcycle. It’s multi-purpose, and therefore a great bargain. Giving something because you want your recipient to be delightfully surprised is another theory, but sometimes that can backfire on you, as was the case when my friend’s husband bought her a new house she neither needed nor wanted.
Yet another possible reason for gift giving is merely so the giver does not arrive empty-handed. That seems a harsh assessment perhaps, but I speak as a person who once received for my birthday, from a husband who shall remain nameless, two nail clippers, one for fingers, one for toes. It took my breath away. For some reason, Robert Burns’ observation from his poem To A Louse crossed my mind:
O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us…
Later I marveled that it must have taken seconds of careful deliberation to make this decision, considering that one finds nail clippers displayed next to the checkout stand, along with flashlight batteries, tire gauges, breath mints, and Super Glue. With that in mind, I counted myself blessed, but you’ll understand why eight months later he received from me for his birthday a padded toilet seat – symbolic as well as useful. I also began to understand why the first Christmas gift he ever gave me was an apron. It was terry cloth, and domestic, which I was not, at the time, perceived as being. A new theory now emerges: gifts are sometimes hints, however broad or subtle the giver may want to be. It should be noted here, in the name of historical accuracy, that we were married a year later, five days after Christmas. Though I am now quite domestic, I still have the apron, but it’s rarely used.
Still another theory of gift giving, one I tend to embrace in most situations, is that the perfect gift is something the person needs and can or will use, but something they wouldn’t necessarily buy for themselves for whatever rational or irrational reason. I remember going Christmas shopping as a little girl with my grandmother, a skilled homemaker, to find something just right for my mother, a woman who didn’t have expensive possessions but appreciated beautiful things. With my limited spending potential, I looked for something pretty as well as useful. I found a miniature ceramic vase with purple pansies painted on the side. It cost 50 cents, right in my price range. Mother loved it for all the reasons I knew she would, and it fit nicely on the knickknack shelf in the kitchen where I often dusted it. It broke eventually, and we were both sad.
Years later, remembering that little purple pansy vase, I bought another vase for my mother, this time without pansies, but purple, and very tall, which I thought would be perfect for displaying a sample of the irises she grew in her yard. More years later, as she was cleaning the house in some hopeless attempt to sift out her packrat excess, she found the purple vase in the back of a cupboard, and since she hadn’t used it for a while, she gave it back to me. A big purple vase in my bland beige family room was hard to explain, but I didn’t really try. It was just there, and it made me smile. Corollary One of this theory now emerges: What goes around comes around, but the value increases with the miles and the years.
We’ve never had extravagant Christmases, either as children or in our marriage. In my husband’s family disappointment became an issue because expectations were too high, resulting in a knee-jerk bah-humbug attitude when the children became adults, at least the one I married. Maybe that’s because they always gave their gifts in the shopping bag in which they had carried them home from the store, perhaps the easier to return them should the need arise. This super-practical Scandanavian thrift, modest though it is intended to be, can admittedly take the starch out of special occasions.
In my family, Christmas was for surprises, thrills and heart-fluttering delights. Deep down I knew the chances were slim that I’d get anything from the list I made after hours spent poring over the Montgomery Ward Wishbook that arrived in October, full of tantalizing possibilities. I desperately wanted that bride doll, but other traditions usually took precedence, and my attention was diverted. Mother was busy making pfeffernusse and Mexican Orange Candy, and meticulously planning the Christmas dinner menu to include something we would all love, like raspberry punch. For our part, my sister and I usually made and decorated dozens of sugar cookies in endlessly dazzling ways. Our four younger brothers would hang around the kitchen door, saying they wanted to help, but we knew they really just wanted to snitch a cookie when we weren’t looking. We also tried to wrap gifts creatively and attractively, even the candy bars we put in our brothers’ stockings.
Dad would take us out to choose the Christmas tree on the afternoon of the 23rd or 24th, and Mother would decorate it after all the children went to bed so the first time we saw it was on Christmas morning. It was the kind of thrill so many of today’s jaded children have never known.
All that was in stark contrast to what many other families did. I’ll never forget, as a teen in the 1950’s, the day my mother came home from church shaking her head in disbelief at one of her friends bemoaning the fact that her husband’s business hadn’t done very well that year, and he was only giving her $5,000 to spend for Christmas on their four children. We rolled our eyes and wondered if we should notify the Salvation Army of this needy family.
Speaking as a person who does most gift shopping online from catalogs, or with gift cards, I sometimes think those wise men weren’t very wise to bring such expensive gifts; but on the other hand, we aren’t very smart when we don’t recognize the tradition as a symbolic gesture with deeper meaning. Too often we choose instead to race in a panic through a mall and land on whatever can be packaged suitably and will qualify as a gift – something, anything, even toenail clippers.
Happy gift giving this year. Keep it in perspective. Remember the padded toilet seat.