Emotional Health

The 7 Keys to the Gracious Art of Giving—and Receiving—Gifts

Whatever customs surround the holiday traditions in your family, chances are, if you live in the United States, December is the month that you are expected to give and receive gifts. It seems like the shopping pressure (and ads) start earlier and earlier, and a sense of pressure mounts, drowning out the excitement. As Johnny Carson once joked in a December monologue, “Christmas is at our throats!”

There is always a lot of talk this time of year about the materialism and commercialization of the holiday season. Those who object to this aspect are encouraged to give handmade gifts or make charitable contributions. But when taking steps to improve your gift giving, there are good, better, and even best ways to proceed.

If you choose to reject the “commercial” route altogether, remember that even these kinds of gifts are best if made personal. Don’t just give the cookies you like best to everyone; try to keep in mind what the recipient likes. By the same token, when making a donation, make sure it is a cause close to the intended’s heart, not just yours. While people may appreciate the spirit of charity, they want to feel that a gift is truly meant for them, not part of a general effort to reject materialism or support a cause you care about.

A good gift is an expression of your love and esteem for someone. It should not be a reward, a weapon, or a means of showing off. Despite the old “You Better Watch Out. . .” song that threatens that Santa rates the level of your behavior all year long, presents between adults often carry a lot of meaning. Particularly with those closest to you, it is important to make sure it reflects the right values.

The holiday season is a time when we all have an opportunity to show caring and gratitude to each other. In many ways, it’s better than birthdays because everyone is included and it’s reciprocal. With that as a starting point, try to frame this as positive, soul-enriching experience, rather than an obligation or pressure. While the “deadline” aspect can be nerve-racking, who doesn’t need deadlines to get things done, even things we want to do?

A good place to begin is to think of some of the gifts that have meant the most to you. Why were they good gifts? This is not to suggest that you should give the same gift to someone else (though sometimes that is appropriate), but the spirit behind the gift could be emulated.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that cost equals value when it comes to giving. The most personal gifts are usually the most appreciated. My daughter registered for her wedding presents, and definitely liked getting just what she needed. But one of her favorite gifts came from a cousin: a pot she had put on the list, but it was also accompanied by a collection of family recipes, which made the gift personal and special. Similarly, one year my sister and I hit one out of the park: we gave my mother a small notebook filled with all her most witty comments and sayings. She thought we weren’t listening but we were. No gift I had given her pleased her more.

Here are some basic guidelines to being a good gift giver:

  1. Don’t project yourself onto others.
  2. Study your subject all year long.
  3. Identify their thing: experience vs. objects vs. cash.
  4. Make it personal in any way you can.
  5. Give something the recipient can’t give herself.
  6. Include a card.
  7. Don’t focus too much on the “gift giving” moment.

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