The first Christmas gift I ever bought, at the age of eight, was five doll-size bottles of pastel-coloured eau de toilette with big-eyed pixies on the labels. I just knew they’d thrill my sister Joyce, who was four. They were lavish enough to have cleaned out my piggy bank. Better yet, they came from me, the big sister she admired. I’d always thought of Joyce as the tag-along playmate who broke my toys. With this big-girl gift, I hoped to tell her she wasn’t just a baby anymore.
Joyce quickly forgot those little bottles, and our parents made it clear that in their view, four-year-olds didn’t need beauty products. Yet I still look back on that gift as the one that taught me the joy of giving. I’d often been told that I was selfish for not sharing toys with my sister. When I counted out my change to buy her present, holding my breath lest I came up short, I discovered what it meant to put someone else’s happiness front and centre. At the same time, I realized that I loved my pesky sister.
Now my holiday shopping is a project so complex that it can feel like the job of giving. Is the necklace too edgy, the sweater too predictable, the electric wine cooler destined for a landfill? In my relentless quest for objects that will prove how much I care, I’ve put myself at the centre of the whole exercise. At eight I knew better. I just wanted to make my sister happy.
When gifts go wrong
‘The gifts we give are rarely essential for the recipient,’ says Ellen J. Langer, a Harvard University psychologist. Yet the ritual of giving creates a chance to strengthen the ties that bind. To make a wise choice for a friend, you have to consider her personality, her life and her tastes. Anyone could buy her an umbrella, but only a friend could find the umbrella that matches her favourite bag. Knowing she’ll be pleased, you feel competent and loving, says Langer, who bases her conclusion on studies of mindfulness.
Failed gifts, she contends, tend to have one thing in common: They’re not given mindfully. Whatever the occasion, they practically scream to the recipient, ‘I’ve got more urgent things to do than think about this present.’ My friend Liz still cringes at the memory of the hat-and-glove sets she and her two sisters once received from their mother. The letdown was not the cheap price (which Liz discovered when she exchanged the gift) but the fact that they were all exactly the same; her mother hadn’t taken the time to choose a distinctive present for each young-adult daughter.
Letting go of the lavish
Overly extravagant gifts can also betray a lack of attention to the recipients. My husband and I once had a friend who showed up one long-ago Christmas with a serious-looking microscope for our son, then barely out of diapers. Was his goal to delight a child, or (as we suspected) to prove his own generosity?
Some gifts bomb because of a mismatch between the giver’s notion of a special treat and the recipient’s wildly different view. I know a woman who was crushed when her husband gave her an expensive set of chef’s knives that, to him, were a symbol of quality and permanence. To her they were a symbol of old-fashioned wifely duty, with none of the surprise or romance that she craved.
It’s a familiar scenario to Margaret Rucker, a consumer psychologist at the University of California, Davis. Her research has shown that women tend to value the emotional resonance of a gift over its price. For men, it’s the other way around. (Now I understand why boyfriends and husbands like to ask, as the big day approaches, ‘Honey, how much have you spent on my gifts?’ Bless their hearts, they don’t want to fall short.)
Changing the message
There are so many ways to go wrong with holiday giving that I’ve asked myself why we don’t just make charitable donations instead. Think of the garbage we’d be preventing, the feisty message we’d be sending to retailers who start decking their aisles with holly while the rest of us are still displaying pumpkins. But my grinch-like moments never last long. I wouldn’t want to lose the pure pleasure two people can share when a mindfully chosen gift changes hands.
Take the necklace I’m wearing as I write this. A garland of interlocking tin leaves, it’s a flea-market find that a colleague gave me one Christmas. We weren’t intimates, yet she had noticed my interest in distinctive costume jewellery. Every time I put it on, I think of her thinking of me’and it brings me joy. That’s the point, right?
How to nurture the joy of giving
- Give to people as they really are, not as you think they should be. A gym membership will send the wrong message if given to an overweight person who has never expressed any interest in working out. What makes a perfect gift is not the item itself, but the fit between the gift and the recipient.
- Don’t let worries about reciprocity deter you from giving something small and wonderfully appropriate to a new friend who might not have a gift for you. ‘I know we don’t have a history of exchanging gifts,’ you might say. ‘But as soon as I saw this, I thought of you.’
- If you’d like to give a charitable donation in lieu of a gift, let the recipient choose the charity, advises Langer. Otherwise, she may be disappointed in the gift’and feel uncharitable.
- Not sure how to shop for family members who simply buy whatever they want for themselves? Avoid being beaten to the punch by declaring the month before Christmas off limits for discretionary personal spending.
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