It’s upon us in full force, the biggest buying season of the year. A giant transfer is taking place. The life energy we call money (representing hours of work) or credit (hours of future work) is exchanged for stuff. Lots of stuff—toys, clothes, perfume, electronics, fancy foods, plus those novelty items that no one ever uses. (Okay, I actually wear the silly socks given to me and wear them with glee. I may be the only one.)
We transfer more than time and money. That’s because there’s meaning embedded in our gifts. We have certain intentions as we shop, wrap, anticipate giving, and finally offer the gift. Our efforts try to say something.
What? It’s complicated. Our gifts say different things to different people. A well-made carving knife for a friend who has recently taken up woodcarving shows you pay attention to what brings him delight and what you hope will enhance that delight. A box filled with birthday, get-well, sympathy, and thank you cards plus a roll of stamps for a great grandparent shows that you appreciate the way she keeps in touch with the extended family. It also helps her keep up that tradition now that she’s no longer driving.
Of course what we try to say with our gifts differs depending on whether we’re giving them to our children, our lovers, or our bosses. Still, most of us hope for that rare happenstance, when our gift brings our recipient more joy than we could have imagined. It’s almost like magic.
Maybe I take this too seriously. The first time I bought gifts on my own I was five years old. That year our church set up a Santa Shop in the basement where kids with a handful of change could buy gifts. Volunteers dressed as elves led each child to tables where merchandise was arrayed. After making selections and paying, these elves helped the child wrap and tag each gift. The elf outfits didn’t fool me. These were the same nice older ladies whose wrinkled hands pretty much ran the whole church.
The elf who walked me from table to table was patient as I tried to choose. I knew that money wasn’t to be spent carelessly. My frugal parents always impressed upon me the importance of saving money. They made do with what they had, using it up until it was worn out and then fixing it to last a little longer. That was true of our car, the floorboards recently patched so I could no longer see the road rippling past in a dizzying gray stripe as we drove. That was true of my hand-me-down clothes, sagging at the knees and stitched at the elbows. So I shopped carefully.
I spent fifty cents on an super-sized paperclip for my schoolteacher father. I spent a quarter on a plastic optical illusion toy for my older sister. I couldn’t find anything for my mother. The elf told me a large strangely shaped bottle of perfume would be perfect. She nodded so much as she talked that the bell on her hat tinkled and the flesh under her chin wobbled. The liquid inside the bottle was dark. She unscrewed the cap and let me smell it. It smelled awful. She told me it was the best deal there. I knew “deal” meant a good thing. I’d heard my parents use that word. So I bought it, even though it cost a dollar and twenty-five cents.
The days before Christmas weren’t filled with delicious anticipation. I woke each morning with a heavy feeling. My Santa Shop gifts under our Christmas tree were terrible. I’d wanted to get my father a gift that would make him feel like whistling little tunes all day, the way he did when he was lighthearted. I’d wanted to get my sister something she liked so much that she’d never let me play with it. And I’d wanted to get my mother something special. When I thought of that bottle of perfume I knew it was what she called “vulgar.” It hit me then, the days leading up to my kindergarten year Christmas, that no gift could show people how much I loved them. It was a sad realization, particularly when every holiday commercial on TV told me the opposite.
I’m a lot more cheerful than my five-year-old self but I keep trying to give gifts that say the impossible. Every birthday and holiday I try. I realize holiday gift-giving is overhyped. Are we really supposed to show someone we care by presenting them with a mass-produced item? “I got you one of the 3 million identical objects made by underpaid workers in an overseas factory. Merry Christmas!”
I love to give all sorts of gifts. Books, music, tools. Handmade gifts (or gifts others make by hand). Gifts of service, do-gooder gifts , gifts that support non-profit organizations, Fair Trade gifts, gifts to local restaurants/theaters/galleries, and of course, gifts that are exactly what the recipient requested. What I want to give is so much more. I want each person to know how much they are cherished. That can’t be wrapped.
If the cliché “it’s the thought that counts” really counted, my gifts would shimmer with magic. Instead my loved ones may be getting this year’s equivalent of a paper clip, plastic toy, and vulgar bottle of perfume despite my best attempts.
Do you suffer from gift-related dilemmas? What are you really trying to say with your gifts? What gifts have you given that were downright wondrous? Rest assured, one of my favorite gift-giving memories is finding a bagpipe action figure (that made farting sounds rather than pipe music) for a certain teenager. Sometimes silliness is magic too.
“Presents” illustration courtesy of BulletsInGunn