Tis the Season of Gifting: A Guide to the Do’s and Don’t’s

I enjoy giving gifts. No, it’s more than that.  I love giving them.  Throughout the year, but at no time more than Christmas, I get a thrill when I am going through a store or wandering a craft show and see something that will be perfect for a loved one, a friend, or an acquaintance. Scouring magazines and websites will often lead to “Oh that would be perfect for…”  I will purchase those items right then thinking of the next special occasion when I can wrap them up and see the happiness on someone’s face when opening it.  Many times that special occasion may just be Tuesday…or a rainy day, a made up holiday, or whatever I can use as an excuse to deliver it…including “just because.”  

Gift giving is an art. I believe I am a practitioner of that art – not a virtuoso, but an aspirant one.  I may not get it right all the time, but I love it when I do.  There are times when I see or know what the perfect gift would be but my wallet stops me from fulfilling my desire to get it.  Unfortunately, I’ve been known to tell that wallet to shut up and foolishly step right up to the cashier.  I’m awaiting a package right now that I know I should immediately send back for just that reason. 

Sometimes I don’t have a single idea of what to give and I agonize over finding the right gift.  Right now I have at least three Christmas gifts for the same person sitting on my table when we agreed to exchange exactly one gift. Why?  Because I found things that are okay.  Okay isn’t good enough, and three okays don’t add up to THE gift.  Hopefully these will go back as soon as I find the right one and I won’t be forced to settle because that would be unfulfilling.

I tried to teach my child to purchase gifts for every special occasion. It is not acceptable for a child to ignore a parent’s, grandparent’s, or sibling’s birthday. It isn’t always something that comes naturally either. They need to be taught that remembering someone’s birthday and acknowledging it is very important. I wasn’t about to be one of those mothers who took care of all the gift giving for him or who allowed him to forget my special day or any other loved one’s. It is one of the ways we show that we care.

I first taught Travis that a gift can be making someone something – breakfast, a card, or a gift certificate for a favor to be done. When it came time to give gifts, I allowed him to pick out what he wanted but I guided him to consider who was getting the gift. When he got a little bit older, I took him to a local store that had a special shop set up at Christmas time or he went to the one set up in his school. Each of these allowed only the children in through the tiny door designed to keep adults from wandering in. I marked off the recipients on a check list so they knew he was buying for mom, dad, grandma or whoever and indicated how much he had to spend. From there he went inside, selected gifts, paid for them, and had them wrapped. Sometimes the gifts elicited a chuckle, but when asked how he picked out what he bought, his explanations always showed how much consideration he had given and why he chose the item.

Since I consider this an art that involves learning and skill, here is what I have learned so far and the guidelines I follow about giving gifts:

I don’t have to like the gift.  The whole idea of buying others a gift is to give what they want and will love rather than what I want and love.  I recently bought a pair of jeans I didn’t like at all. They were ripped up, had tears and holes across the thighs and knees.  They were a pair of jeans that, had they been in my closet, would have gone straight to the trash.  I wouldn’t have even thought to give them to a charity!  But to my fourteen-year-old granddaughter who had just walked out of the dressing room with her face lit up because she loved them, these jeans were perfect.  I remember wanting clothes that were in style but my mother thought were ugly.  Now and then she refused to buy something only because she didn’t think it was pretty. This difference in perspective comes with the age difference, trends, and the passing of time.  I don’t have to love Skylanders, fantasy or horror novels, a sweater in a color I would never wear, or anything else I buy as a gift as long as the recipient loves it.

Just because I love something doesn’t mean it is a great gift.  On the other side of guide #1 is the idea that just because I like it doesn’t make it the perfect gift. Once Mom bought me a bright red, wool dress coat that she loved and I thought was hideous.  She ended up wearing it because I wouldn’t.  At times I find something that I really, really love and just feel the desire to purchase when I am looking for a gift.  At that moment it is really important to assess the situation.  Just because I love it doesn’t mean that the gift recipient will love it.  I must ask myself why I am really purchasing it.  If it won’t thrill the other person, if it won’t elicit the joy of having received something selected solely with that individual in mind…well, then I’m really buying to please myself.  In hindsight, that red coat was a beautiful, quality garment, but it was a dressy coat and I was a kid who didn’t like red. If something is calling to me exceptionally hard, I just buy it for myself and keep looking for the gift.  If the wallet’s argument wins out, then the gift goes back to the shelf and the search goes on.

Never buy gifts in bulk.  When I’m looking for some filler in a Christmas stocking, I’m likely to buy a whole lot of candy, trinkets, pens, or hair ties.  But that is filler not the gift.  Businesses give out gifts to clients at the holidays.  These are impersonal acknowledgements of a business relationship and a “thank you” for the support given.  It’s fine if a company gives every customer a calendar.  It’s acceptable for a sales rep to hand out the same small gift to each buyer visited during the holidays. I will sometimes buy this way for co-workers to show appreciation for them if they are work friends only – much the way kids might bring a token to their teachers.  But those bulk purchases are not appropriate for individuals exchanging presents.  Gifts should be personalized, individualized.  If I find a sweater I love, I’m not going to buy ten of them and give the same sweater to everyone on my list.  I’m not even going to buy the sweater in a variety of colors for each person on the list.  It’s still impersonal if all you have done is switch color. It screams that the gift is about the giver not the receiver.

I get great joy from reading.  Many of my friends do as well, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going out to buy everyone a copy of the good book I just finished.  One of the best books I read last year was Caste by Isabel Wilkerson.  I lent my copy to a friend I believe will enjoy it.  I recommended it to anyone with ears to listen to me tout the merits of it.  I did not go out and buy one for everyone on my list.  Why?  Because I know that it isn’t a genre some of them read.  Because I know that it wouldn’t be as rewarding a read to some as it was for me.

I love giving books to friends, but even if I buy them for several people on my list, each book needs to be chosen with care and a reason.  I look for the one title, author, genre, and subject that each friend will love.  Joe gets nonfiction histories about ancient Egypt.  Rob gets World War II nonfiction about planes and weaponry.  I would never buy either of those for Dani or Chapin or Laura.  I won’t buy the blow-up-everything-in-sight thrillers that Denise loves for Sherri who loves cozy mysteries.  Sometimes I try to select the book I think will turn the children in my life into a lifelong readers — not by purchasing the old classic that worked for my grandparents or even for me.  I find the hottest book just published and being veraciously read by kids, I find a book that feeds their interests and style.  I’ll buy graphic novels and other genres that I slog through if that’s what they will love.  

I’m not always successful here.  I bought The Ragamuffin Gospel for a friend a few years ago because he and the writer, Brennan Manning, have a kind of history that they share and I thought the book would resonate with him.  It doesn’t work if the man never opens the book!  Similar things have happened with other book gifts – sometimes because I bought what I loved instead of what they loved, sometimes because they put it on a shelf and never got around to it.  I was disappointed that the gift flopped but that was because I missed the mark, I failed to get the right gift.  

On the other hand I have had the reward of a niece posting on Facebook that it was a perfect day to curl up with a cup of tea under a blanket and lose herself in a good book.  I gave my three nieces books along with other gifts the whole time they were growing up.  They didn’t get the same books (see the guidelines above).  Two of them were devouring every title, but I never knew if I had hooked the third one until that day.  When I told her how happy that post made me, she replied, “How could I not love reading with all of the good books you picked for me over the years!”  My heart soared.

A gift doesn’t always work just because it serves a special purpose for you.  My Dani has a wonderful business that helps people to preserve their photos and videos, offers personalized books and projects, and allows customers to create beautiful printed gifts.  I have bought and will continue to select and buy very personalized gifts through Dani’s Pixel Place online.  I love the idea of giving a personalized gift that someone will cherish while it also benefits her business.  While I love supporting her work, that doesn’t mean that every gift I buy will come from her.  There are people who just wouldn’t use the calendar, hang the photo collage, or appreciate another mug even if it has a photo of their loved ones on it.  

She lovingly offered at one time to help me make a graduation present for my son — a scrapbook chronicling his college years using all the photos he took during those four years.  Lovely thought.  However, I had given him a couple disposable cameras to take along to school which he brought home four years later unused.  It seldom passes through his mind to take a photo even now when he’s carrying his cell phone and can capture his daughter’s childhood.  I saved many photos and memorabilia for him over the years.  But it was really because these things meant something to me.  He tossed them.  He doesn’t hang on to things from the past.  It isn’t who he is. While a scrapbook would be a thrill for many, he would have looked at me like I’d lost my mind.  He would have seen clutter and something he’d never look at.

A gift for the house or the whole family is not a gift to be given to one person.  My mother drilled this idea into all of us when we were growing up.  If the item is for the house or to get work done in the house, it isn’t a gift.  You give appliances for a bridal shower but never for a birthday, anniversary, or Christmas.  You don’t buy something for “the family” as a gift for a birthday or anniversary when it should be something specific for the honoree. You don’t give a swing set to one child when you have three who will be using it and the recipient will be expected to allow everyone else to use it as if it is theirs.  If you need a new toaster, washer, mop, couch then go and buy one. But don’t pretend it is a gift for anyone.  

Are there exceptions. To this guideline, there are, but you need to consider carefully. I once asked my mother for a cappuccino machine.  I had to convince her that a coffee pot may be just an appliance but a cappuccino machine is a luxury.  Even then she bought it but wasn’t sure that she liked the idea.  She held very tightly to this guideline.  She just about had a fit when my daughter-in-law asked for a vacuum cleaner for Christmas.  Mom didn’t want to buy it, but it wasn’t some run-of-the-mill tool. It was an expensive Dyson that Mom and Dad could afford but wouldn’t arrive in that house any other way.  Mom finally allowed that if someone is ASKING for it, WISHING for it, then it was okay. The asking/wishing rule also applied to a table saw that was used for a wood working hobby and not for work.

Be careful of what message the gift conveys beyond celebration of the person and the occasion.  As I talked about the giving of appliances or family gifts, it had to be acknowledged that there is a difference between “I bought my wife a refrigerator (iron, vacuum, paper shredder)” that was given because she asked for the item and buying it because you were clueless about the message sent. If you buy one of those items because you don’t see any difference between who she is and the chores she performs, you’re in trouble. If you don’t realize that items like that send a message about how you see the person or their importance in your life, you are going to be in hot water for sure. Please remember that it isn’t what you MEANT to convey, it is what the receiver felt in the the meaning.

I have a weight problem.  One year I asked for an exercise bike as a Christmas gift.  I was extremely pleased to get it – even if it doesn’t get used like I had intended and hoped.  However there was a birthday where I received gifts from loved ones that I never indicated that I wanted in any way.  One gave me a Weight Watchers cookbook and the other gave me sessions at a weight loss/exercise facility.  I never used either one.  Every time I thought of either gift, I didn’t feel at all celebrated.  I felt criticized and that I wasn’t good enough as I was.  The passage of time has not assuaged these feelings. Another year I received two gifts that were identical from people who loved me.  I got two sets of golf clubs and two golf bags.  I didn’t play golf or like golf then or now. They did.  I find golf frustrating and just an opportunity to show how little athletic ability I have.  (A “well-endowed” woman cannot keep her arm straight as she takes it across the front of her body to swing a club.  Look at the golf pros and you won’t find a busty one anywhere!) Hindsight and maturity tells me that I could have looked at the gifts as their way of wanting to include me in the game they liked. I know that their intentions were probably good and that they didn’t mean to hurt, insult, or disappoint me.  But they did.

Buying a bunch of gifts and then deciding who they are for is a lousy gift-giving technique.  I have a gift stash on a shelf in the basement.  The stash has two kinds of gifts.  One kind is the perfect Christmas gift or October birthday gift for someone that I found and bought in March.  It is sitting there awaiting the day it gets wrapped and delivered at the right time.  The other kind is the “generic” gift I can use as a hostess gift or a quick pick-me-up for someone.  These gifts could be some item like scented candles, a pretty vase, a book of quotes.  They still cannot be just randomly plucked off the shelf and wrapped.  They need to be selected from the stash based on the individual receiving them.  I’ve been guilty of buying things because I liked them, putting them on the shelf, and never finding the person who gets that gift because it wasn’t bought with someone in particular in mind.  For that reason there are little items that sit there for years until I decide to use them myself.

Don’t go out Christmas shopping and just pick up items that look like they would make a good gift for “someone.”  Don’t pick up 15 different pairs of mittens or colognes figuring you’ll decide who gets which later. I know people who have been disappointed in the lack-luster, ho-hum reaction people have to getting a gift.  If the gift was selected because “somebody” will like it rather than “Oh, my sister will love this,” it was chosen randomly and will probably be received without enthusiasm.  Shopping this way goes against the guidance regarding choosing something they will love instead of something you will love, bulk buying, or buying to support the business only.

All of these guidelines come down to something very simple. Choose with love. When you are buying gifts, you should be trying to show the others that they are special to you. Gifting shouldn’t be a dreaded obligation but something you do with your heart. It should be taken on as an opportunity to show how much you care for the other person rather than as the burden of buying something by a certain date or just to get it done.

As far back as I can remember I was taught that it was more blessed to give than to receive.  I heard over and over that there was more joy in giving than getting.  And over the years I have experienced the truth of this thought.  I have pure joy in giving something that lights up someone’s eyes. I enjoy making my loved ones feel special by selecting something just right for them. I put a lot of time and effort into finding the things I hope will convey a bit of how much I value the person who will be unwrapping that gift.  I really love surprising someone with a gift for no reason other than because it may bring them a sense of being cared for and known.  No one is more disappointed in a lousy gift than I am when I know that I failed to find and give that one perfect gift, that special item large or small that delivers love and acceptance and good wishes.

Christmas started with a gift to us from God.  Angels appeared to the shepherds and sang of the arrival of the gift, declaring “the good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (Luk Let us give without hope of receiving, with a generous spirit, and with true affection.  Happy gift giving this season! May you know the glee of giving from your heart and have a very Merry Christmas!

3 responses to “Tis the Season of Gifting: A Guide to the Do’s and Don’t’s”

  1. This is so beautiful and heart felt, you should publish it! You are such an amazing and inspiring writer ❤

    On Sun, Dec 12, 2021, 2:28 PM A Word Aptly Spoken wrote:

    > Lynne Vanderveen Smith posted: ” I enjoy giving gifts. No, it’s more than > that. I love giving them. Throughout the year, but at no time more than > Christmas, I get a thrill when I am going through a store or wandering a > craft show and see something that will be perfect f” >

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