June 15th 2006 The Gift of Giving

I’ve been thinking a lot about “gifting” lately, especially the giving of gifts on “special days”: birthdays, Christmas, anniversaries, Father’s and Mother’s Day, and so forth. On the surface, this seems like a harmless, and very nice, tradition. But like many seemingly innocent things, something sinister lurks beneath that calm exterior.

Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit. Giving gifts is always a nice thing (well, not always). But our societal traditions regarding gift giving might not be the best idea, even given their pure intentions.

Let’s look at Christmas. Every year, lots and lots of money is spent around Christmas, and in the couple of months leading up to the holiday. We all give lots of goodies, and we all get lots of goodies, and that makes us all feel warm and fuzzy inside. But I’ve begun to think that giving gifts at Christmas presents a few problems:

  1. Sometimes I find an awesome gift for people at other times of the year. For example, I found something for my brother a few weeks ago. I’d like to give it to him now, but under our current traditions, I’ll have to wait until Christmas (or his birthday, but that’s not until next April).

  2. If someone buys you a gift at Christmas, it’s nice—and generally expected—that you’ll reciprocate. We pay a lot of lip service to giving without expecting anything in return, but let’s be honest: If you give a gift at Christmas, you expect one in return. The proof: How many times have you and other friends agreed to either give each other gifts, or not give each other gifts, at Christmas? Has there ever been a time when you got a gift from someone, but you didn’t get them anything? How did that make you feel?

    Basically, it seems that people feel obligated to give gifts at Christmas. But you should never feel obligated to give a gift. It’s practically meaningless if you give a gift just because you are expected to do so.

  3. I don’t think Christmas should be about things. It should be about relationships, i.e. spending time with close friends and family. Sure, kids don’t understand that concept, so it’s still a good idea to buy things for kids. But look: I’m twenty years old now. Around Christmas, my disposable income is probably about that of my parents. In other words, if I can’t afford something for myself, they probably can’t afford it, either. So unlike kids, I’m not getting a lot of things that I necessarily want but can’t afford.

    What I don’t have a lot of is time. I almost feel old saying this, but life is starting to get the best of me. I work about forty hours a week in the summer. I go to school the rest of the year. I don’t have tons of time to see friends and family (not as much as I’d like, anyway). So, even though this sounds really sappy, it’s almost as much fun to go to Christmas parties and family get-togethers as it is to open gifts—and a lot more valuable, too.

    And that brings up an interesting point: Christmas—and most “special days” in America—are entirely too commercial. Corporations have convinced us to spend, spend, spend on these days. But as any Christian will tell you, that’s not what Christmas is about. Sometimes I think Christians are a bit too uptight about the Christmas-isn’t-about-gifts-it’s-about-Jesus thing, but on some level I agree with them: Christmas isn’t and shouldn’t be about gifts, in my mind—it should be about friends and family.

  4. I’m not a Christian, so isn’t it a bit ridiculous that I celebrate Christmas?

Okay, that rant was specifically about Christmas, but I think it applies to most special gift-giving days: birthdays, anniversaries, and so forth. So what do I propose to do about the “problem of gift-giving” in America? The answer is simple: I think we should give gifts when we feel like it.

Think about it: Aren’t some of the best gifts ones people just give you for no reason? Before I started school this year, my mom gave me a set of books that I’d wanted—for no reason. She didn’t have to do that, but she did, and it really meant a lot to me.

Here’s another thing about gifts: They should be personal. The best gifts are the ones where you’re walking along, catch something out of the corner of your eye, and say to yourself, “So-and-so would love that” or “That’s definitely so-and-so’s style”.

Barring that, the best gifts are ones that are unique in some way—things a person would be hard pressed to buy on his own. For example, when he was a kid, my brother loved raccoons, and he really liked this book called Frosty, A Raccoon to Remember. He tried to order it once, but it was out of print. So my mom shopped around used bookstores, trying to find an old copy. She managed to locate some, but they were expensive—$60 or so for a paperback, including shipping and handling. But one day she found it on my uncle’s bookshelf (my uncle has a massive personal library). My uncle let her have it, and she in turn gave it to my brother. That’s a great gift because it’s something personal that my brother would probably never, ever be able to pick up on his own. Now, doesn’t that mean a lot more than buying him a sweatshirt or some socks?

Great gifts are also ones that enable and fortify social relationships. For example, my friend Noah, one of my closest friends, goes to the University of Pittsburgh. During his freshman year, a bunch of his friends bought him a bus ticket for his birthday, so he could come home to see everyone that weekend. That’s a great gift because he couldn’t afford to come home on his own, and it allowed his friends to share in the gift as well.

Great gifts might even involve simply spending time with another person, even if you each pay your share. For example, Noah and I are both James Bond fans. The new Bond movie is coming out on November 17—two days after my twenty-first birthday. So he’s planning on coming home that weekend. We’re going to see Casino Royale, then go out for vodka martinis afterwards to commemorate this momentous occasion. Sure, Noah might not be giving me anything of monetary value, but the fact that he is coming back from school and going out to celebrate a movie that we both will enjoy, near my birthday, is more meaningful than any material object.

Likewise, on Mother’s and Father’s Day, my brother and I always take my parents out to dinner. Not only do we all get good food, but we get to spend some much-needed time with each other, too.

This last point is especially true of anniversaries, in my opinion. Anniversaries should be about celebrating time together; I don’t see how a gift of a diamond ring or a DVD player celebrates time together.

So, because of all these thoughts, I have proposed a new set of guidelines for bestowing others with gifts, that can be summarized as follows:

  1. Give gifts when you feel like it, not because it’s a day you’re supposed to. They’re more meaningful that way. (But don’t use the I-don’t-give-gifts-on-Christmas idea as an excuse to skimp on gift-giving—your karma will suffer!)
  2. Holidays and other special days should be about celebrating togetherness and life, not worshipping capitalism and material objects.
  3. Having said that, giving gifts is nice. But follow these rules when giving gifts:
    1. Gifts should be personal. They should have some sort of connection or attachment to the person. You should buy a gift for a person because it makes you think of them. (And except in rare circumstances, socks and Oxford shirts shouldn’t “make you think of someone”.) This is all the more reason to give gifts whenever you want!
    2. The best gifts are unique—things that special someone couldn’t get any other way.
    3. Gifts should strengthen personal relationships, either by allowing people to get together (a bus ticket, for example), or through an item to which both people have some sort of personal connection.
    4. Making time for a person is a great gift in and of itself, given the fact that we’re all so short on time.