Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Joy of Gift Giving

 Or How to Avoid Major Mishaps

The gift giving tradition is much older than we think. It probably started with the first offerings to the gods. Gift giving was practiced in many cultures and often involved complex symbolism. It was practiced in archaic societies where gift giving was a matter of honor and morality and a way to forge relationships with strangers. To give a gift was a sign of generosity and called for respect of the giver. The recipient of a gift would show his respect to the giver by accepting the gift and was given a chance to reciprocate and prove his own generosity. 

In ancient China gift giving was highly ritualized and there was a strict gift giving and receiving etiquette. Some things, like clocks for instance, were considered to be a taboo. Other things, like sweets or perfectly round fruit, were considered propitious. This tradition is still meticulously observed by the majority of Chinese people all over the world. 

In ancient Rome simple gifts such as twigs from sacred groves, were exchanged during the new year's celebration. With passing time more elaborate gifts were given. Gift giving was also practiced by the Nordic societies during their new year's festivities of Yuletide.

In Japan gift giving etiquette regulates the social interaction with strangers and friends. It is obligatory to bring gifts from a trip abroad. Gift giving is an important part of the business protocol and constitutes an entire industry in Japan. There are many complex rules concerning the gift exchange, presentation, and the gift itself.

There are many occasions for gift giving throughout the year. We celebrate birthdays, wedding anniversaries, graduations. There is the Saint Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, and Christmas. We give house warming gifts and wedding gifts. We have baby showers and bachelor parties, First Communions and Bar Mitzvahs. We give gifts just to show that we think of our relatives or friends. Gifts are expression of love and generosity and our way to reinforce our relationships. Much time and energy is devoted and millions of dollars spent annually on gifts that very often are disappointing to their recipients. We seem to seldom receive what we really wanted. And sometimes we manage to give the wrong and disappointing gift ourselves.

Each of us probably received a wrong gift at least once. You were so happy that someone thought of you that you could not wait to unwrap your present... And then, your smile just froze on your face and you wanted to scream, but you were just too shocked to even let a sound out of your mouth. Since you didn't want to offend anyone, you expressed your gratitude. The disappointment took a root in your heart and your mind was frantically working out a strategy for the quick disposal of the gift. Maybe aunt Edna who is 87 years old would love it... 

It is an awkward situation. We really want to be grateful and think that we must, but we just cannot stop thinking that someone who knows us could have made such a wrong judgment. The giver did not even consider what you might like or want, or even what kind of person you were. The giver just satisfied his own joy or need of giving. It seems that the recipient was completely taken out of the equation. It may sound absurd, but it may be very true in many cases. It takes time and energy to really imagine and consider what the other person may like, want, or need.

Three years ago a dear friend of mine was given a gold fish for Christmas. His friends who visited him at his home realized that he did not have a pet and decided that a fish will be a good start, without even considering his lifestyle or his personal choice not to have any pets. He did not have an aquarium and could not relate to the poor creature in any way. It took days for him to recover from his shock! How on earth did his friends get such an idea? The fish eventually died when he went on a long business trip. A sad end for the poor animal that could be avoided if his friends considered his circumstances. Think of it if you decide to give a pet to someone. Try to find out if the person likes and wants to have a pet in the first place. Too many animals end up on the street after Christmas and this is more than cruel.

I was given a horrid gift more than once by the same person. I guess, I probably looked very happy the first time I received the gift, so the same kind of gift was bought for me the next year. I could not stop thinking were did I go wrong. But how to tell someone that you just hate what they gave you. My friend knew that I love reading, but decided that I already had too many books and chose to give me something "nice" instead. Who would ever expect that this very gift was to become one of the most atrocious presents I have ever received? I still wonder where do you get stuff like that.

A friend of mine receives a new cooking utensil from her husband on every possible occasion. She loves cooking, but would prefer to get French lingerie from time to time, or something as exciting if not original. She believes that her husband gets his inspiration from some website discussing best gifts under $50 or so for house wives.

There are millions of similar stories. So where do we go wrong? What can we do to avoid these little disasters? A woman called Patricia Steplyk from Houston, TX wrote in the "Reader to Reader" column of the Body and Soul magazine December 2009 issue that throughout the year she takes notes in her calendar. She would write down her observations about friends and relatives. And when holidays approach she would just go through her notes and use this information to identify thoughtful gifts for every one of them. In this way she can refrain from panic shopping and overspending. This approach not only saves her time and money, but it helps her chose the best and most suitable gift for her friends and loved ones. The recipients seem to be in the center of her gift giving ritual. And I believe they really enjoy their gifts.

Even if gift giving means fun to some of us, it is considered by the psychologists to be one of the most stressful aspects of any Holiday experience. Our creativity, sensitivity, taste, and insight are being put to test and there is always a chance of misunderstanding or faux pas. We look for inspiration, but our choices are sometimes limited by the budget we have to our disposition. In this case we have to be even more creative. And what do we do when our friends already have "everything"?

The best gifts are the gifts that the recipient really wants, enjoys and appreciates, but would possibly never buy for himself or herself. A gift that reflects the amount of time and energy spent on choosing, making or preparing it, is valued much higher than a store wrapped "something" you found on sale. Presentation is important, although some people believe that elaborate wrapping only covers up the poverty of the gift inside. It does not have to be so.  

Here are some aspects to consider when you decide to buy or prepare a gift:
  • put emphasis on relationships rather than things
  • invest more time rather than money
  • choose mindfulness and meaning rather than mindlessness
  • choose ecological, reusable, environmentally friendly gifts
  • give home made delicacies like your own cookies, breads, or preserves
One of the ways to avoid gift giving disaster is to offer a gift card, especially if the recipient has a favorite store. This may appear not as sophisticated as a box of cookies or chocolates made by you, but it will help you avoid stress and disappointment. Buy the most beautiful greeting card you can find, write a sincere personal note, insert your gift card, wrap the card in a beautiful gift paper and tie it up with a festive bow. You cannot go wrong as your gift will show that you spent time and energy preparing it. The recipient, on the other hand, can use the gift card the way he or she really likes. And since gifts are usually reciprocated, you may be surprised what you get next time.

By Dominique Allmon ©2011


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The Joy of Giving or How to Avoid Major Mishaps by Dominique Allmon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.