Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Boxing Day Thoughts on Gift Giving

Quest for the Perfect Gift

I stopped reading the papers for most of the month of December, frustrated with their thinly veiled “advertorial” content. Editors seemed to assume the whole world was frantically seeking advice from strangers on what gifts to give their loved ones this Christmas. Nevertheless I clicked through to a “gift suggestions” article put together by two homemaker friends on their web site, “Not Oprah.”

One bit of wisdom I appreciated was this: “Don’t give a practical person a sentimental gift, and vice versa.” It’s a bit of an oversimplification – there are more than just two kinds of people in the world, and it’s probably a continuum and not an either/or situation – but I do wish people would think about this. Don’t worry, I’m not saying this because my friends or family offended me this year; but because I think our culture has some assumptions we’d be wise to challenge.

One almost always hears just the “vice versa” on this suggestion, and it’s almost always linked to gender. In particular, it seems widely believed and joked about that men are going to want to give their wives or womenfolk practical, unromantic gifts that supposedly no woman is going to want, as if just because she’s female a woman is going to be hurt because someone gives her what she actually wants and needs, instead of knick-knacks, perfume, and things that may serve no other use than to be cute or pretty. But wait! It’s not a gender thing, people, it’s a personality thing! Best gift I got last year? New tires for my car. Perfect.

The Stress of Trying to Be Fair

Here’s another thing I noticed this year, and maybe it’s related: How stressful it is to try to keep gift-giving equitable, and the sad inevitability of failing in this regard, most of the time. How do we either give up on “fair” or achieve it, to some extent? At any rate, are there ways we can reduce the stress and increase the peace?

Sometimes it feels like an old Western showdown – on the count of three, draw! Inevitably there is some inequality that can tempt the giver and/or recipient to feel guilty, ashamed, or disappointed, rather than generous/blessed. Exchanging birthday gifts with my sister, as we are twins, can hold this same stress more than the more common “turn taking” of other sibling birthdays (“When it was my birthday, she did this, so I’ll do that…”)

You can find some level of peace within yourself by giving everyone the same thing or items of the same value for Christmas; I think most people try to strive for that. It does, however, squash the spirit of giving and generosity a bit, and may mean the gift does not say “I understand you!” as much to the recipient as it might otherwise (e.g., you know you got the banana bread because everybody else got banana bread too).

And it does nothing to recognize perceived inequities on the recipient’s part: e.g., the kid notices that the divorced dad gave him a ‘wii’ while Mom only got him clothes. It makes Dad look better than Mom. How many moms will find this stressful and discouraging, not feeling they can “compete” in such matters? (Women are often more practical than sentimental in comparison with men in these situations, you’ll observe!)

Do We Spoil the Surprise by Talking about It?

Another thing we can (theoretically) do is communicate about these things openly in advance. I know, communication is something that requires effort, vulnerability, and trust, so sometimes it seems impossible!

The various ways many families and other social groups set across-the-group rules (while it may knock the sparkle off) can greatly reduce this stress and may therefore be an act of kindness to all involved. “Drawing names,” setting price limits, and proscribed gift “exchanges” of various kinds usually greatly reduce the inequalities. And sometimes they have additional elements of fun. How do you feel about such things – do you like drawing rules and setting boundaries, or not? Is the sentimental/practical divide the operative element here, or not?

Or Try This...

I just heard of a funny twist on gift-giving that seems to maintain an element of surprise, without losing the element of control (on the recipient’s side at least). A man and woman, married, went out and each bought themselves a nice gift, brought it home and wrapped it. On Christmas morning each opened the gift their spouse had bought, instead of their own, to discover what they had given their mate!

(Personally, I'd often rather not get a gift than to have to pick it out myself - I hate shopping!)

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