Getting to the Heart of Holiday Gifting

by Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

The annual December hype around buying and exchanging gifts doesn't usually include an in-depth discussion of the tact and ritual of gift giving. Stores just want to get us inside their doors and buying. Advertisers are more interested in opening up our wallets than opening up our hearts. Credit card companies seem to send daily offers to run up more debt in the name of the holiday season.

Some people do find the whole exercise an obligatory but meaningless exchange of goods. As long as they are exchanging gifts only with people who feel the same way, they probably don't have much trouble with this season. For them, gift giving (and receiving) ranges from a thoroughly annoying annual expense to a convenient excuse to acquire things they want.

For many others, though, gifts are a major statement about the meaning of the relationship between the giver and receiver. For these people, every gift is fraught with meaning. Events that involve gift giving are opportunities to make a statement about membership in a friendship circle, a couple, or a family. For them, gift giving is a communication that carries an emotional charge.

Managing a season of giving, when giving is taken personally and seriously, requires a kind of mindfulness. Our grandmothers were right. It truly is "the thought that counts." We need to think about the receiver's role in our life. We need to think about what we are trying to say with our gift. We need to think about how the receiver will interpret it as much as we think about our own intent. Finding the "perfect gift" is about taking the time to get into the other person's shoes and thinking about what would be most meaningful and appreciated by this particular person at this particular time.

Giving with Grace

Gift giving can bring out the very best in us. Instead of a rush to just "get it done," shopping or creating gifts can be a meditation on how much we value the other people in our life and the opportunity to tell them so. A graceful gift is not about money, status or materialism (unless, of course, you are giving to someone who only values money, status, and materialism). A graceful gift for most people isn't about how much we spend, but how much heart and care went into the selection and presenting.

Here are some examples of "heartfelt" giving:

  • Ellen and her husband bought their first house last year. She's still talking about the best gift she says she ever received: a toolbox and tools of her own. Ellen's best friend knew how frustrating it was for Ellen to use her husband's heavy professional tools. So she gave Ellen a hammer, a screwdriver, pliers, and a wrench that fit her smaller hands. "I felt really taken care of by my friend," Ellen says. "I probably use my tools every week."

  • Jim has a dog he really loves. Jim is chronically short of both time and money this year. He is working full time and trying to finish up a college degree he started years ago but never finished. His sister gave him "a perfect gift": a gift certificate to the local veterinarian and a promise to take Jim's dog to any needed check-ups this year.

  • Best friends Hanna and Emily are both cash poor but friendship rich. Friends for over 20 years, neither of them need or want any more "stuff." What they both need from each other is time – time away from the demands of their families, time away from work worries, time to get the kind of revitalization and recharge that comes from feeling loved and understood by a girlfriend. They talked it over. Each gave the other a set of "coupons," redeemable each month, for things like a breakfast out, a trip to the movies, a walk in the woods, etc. Their mutual gift is a statement of their mutual commitment to not let their friendship go unattended because of other demands, however real and pressing.

  • Will, a movie buff, had been going out with his girlfriend Lisa for about a year when he was invited to share a Christmas week meal with Lisa's family. Traditionally, several members of Lisa's extended family exchanged gifts during this annual gathering. Lisa's mother gave the situation a lot of thought. She didn't want Will to feel awkward or left out, but at the same time knew that the gift she presented to him would carry meaning. She wanted to acknowledge that he was important in her daughter's life, but she didn't want to put pressure on a relationship that had promise but not a commitment. After conferring with her daughter about Will's interests, she settled on some passes to the local video store. Just right. He knew she had taken the time to choose a gift especially for him, but the gift wasn't so elaborate or expensive that it carried an obligation for more than a thank you.

I like to think of gifting as a verb, an act of caring between people who care about each other. Keeping that in mind is the best antidote I've found for the hype and commercialism that inundate us all each December. Happy Holidays.

Date published: 12/1/00
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 9 Oct 2013
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The most important things in life aren't things.
-- Art Buchwald