While I am busy with my Christmas shopping, here’s a post about gift-giving I wrote for someone else’s blog last year.
The gifts I remember giving tend to be the ones that didn’t go so well. Sending a selection of gourmet coffee to my grandparents only to discover that they had stopped drinking coffee for health reasons earlier that year. Getting my mother a blue bed jacket when she prefers pink and never sits around in bed. Giving my friend a painting I had done because I was excited about the idea behind it, only to realize that not only was the idea unoriginal, but the painting wasn’t any good. All of these happened because I didn’t follow the rules that I have since learned about good gift giving.
Just because I like it doesn’t mean she will. When I gave her that bed jacket, I never thought for a second about what colors my mother normally wore or if this was the sort of clothing she would use. I was in college at the time, living in a cold apartment, sitting around studying for hours on end, so a quilted jacket for sitting in bed would have actually been useful for me. I saw the jacket and liked it, but I needed a present for Mom, so I bought it for her. I should have bought it for myself and kept looking instead of assuming that because I liked it, she would.
The best gift is a useful gift. I’ve noticed over the years that single people tend to buy impractical wedding presents. The pattern held true at my own wedding and while I enjoyed the whimsical gifts at the time, I soon found that the ones I appreciated the most were the practical ones. I still remember the family friend who gave me sheets, even though they wore out long ago, because I thought of her every time I made the bed. And I still think of my college roommate because I use the knives she gave me every day. Practical may be boring, but a gift that gets used regularly is one that is appreciated, and that ensures the giver is remembered.
It’s OK to ask what someone wants. As a child, Christmas Day meant a phone call to our grandparents who lived far away. Mom would remind us to thank them for the gifts they’d given us with a special emphasis on mentioning what the gift actually was. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized my grandparents hadn’t actually bought the present. My parents had. Grandma was savvy enough to realize that Mom would be better at guessing what we would like than she would from 1000 miles away. So she sent money and Mom and Dad shopped. I often forget that it’s OK to ask what someone would like and then give it to them. People have registries for weddings and baby showers for a reason. There is no contest to see who is the best mind-reader. A gift that is wanted is the best kind to give.
Sometimes you have to lie. When I was 11 and my sister was 7, I bought her a set of colored markers for Christmas. She liked to draw and I knew it would be the perfect gift for her. I found out long before Christmas that I was right. We were in the store together and she saw the same set of markers and was determined to buy them. I began the longest and hardest argument of my life: trying to convince her that she really didn’t want to spend her money on something I knew she would love. I managed to talk her out of buying them without giving away my secret, but she wasn’t happy about it. If it hadn’t been for the persuasive power of being the older sister, I don’t think I would have succeeded. When Christmas came she was astonished and then laughed when she saw the markers. And she paid me back a few years later, telling me a blatant lie about a present she had made me, ensuring that I was completely surprised when I opened it.
It’s just a token. I have to remind myself that any gift I give is going to be a symbol of my regard or gratitude for that person. It is not going to be the magic object that meets their greatest secret inner need and fills them with joy for the rest of their days. But I sometimes expect that what I give should make someone rapturously happy, and that’s a trap. A gift is meant to say: I’m thinking of you, you are special to me, and here is a little something (with the emphasis on little) to show you how I feel. Expecting it to be anything more is setting myself up for disappointment.
The main lesson underlying all these rules has been a hard one for me to learn. While I should have fun giving gifts, I have to think about the other person even more than I think about myself. It may seem like cheating to ask ahead of time or boring to buy something practical. I have to remember the gift is for someone else, and how he or she feels about it is more important than how I feel about giving it.