The Fine Art of Giving

ca-packagesThe following post is adapted from a newspaper column published in 2011 and included in my book,
A Seasoned Life Lived in Small Towns.

Once again, Christmas commercials feature folks exchanging perfect gifts, joyfully given and joyfully received.

I have never given a gift that caused such jubilation.

No matter how much thought, money, and time I spend on a present, I doubt myself: What was I thinking? Did I buy the needlepoint pillow kit for my outdoorsy friend because she would like it; because I wanted it; or because shopping made my feet ache?

I’m particularly inept at choosing gifts for group exchanges or Secret Santa festivities.

I remember purchasing a book of Life Savers for a gift exchange at a friend’s Christmas party in 8th grade. With Santa on the cover, it looked festive, and—what the heck—everybody likes Life Savers.

As the party approached, I began to worry. One friend was taking Cheery Cherry lipstick; another chose a ponytail barrette shaped like a butterfly. What was I thinking with my babyish gift? After much fussing, I stayed home and crunched Life Savers until my teeth ached.

I’m also plagued by gift exchange rules: a recommended price or the specification of a white elephant or joke gift. When I comply, others don’t; when I don’t, others do. Either way, as my gift is opened, I stick my head in a houseplant.

I once attended an all female Christmas party where we were instructed to bring joke gifts. The guests smiled happily over the exclamations of others as they opened their gifts: decorative candles, See’s chocolates, and holly-bedecked hand towels.

An appalled silence greeted my contribution: a dead gold fish afloat in a quart jar.

A rough-and-tumble child once gave me the best lesson I’ve ever received about giving.

The day before Christmas vacation, I stood on an icy playground, braced against a snow-flecked wind, keeping an eye on children bouncing with excitement. Feeling a tug on my sleeve, I looked down at the beaming face of Freddy, a young boy of exuberance, who sometimes visited with me in my office about the need for rules.

He opened his hand and revealed a soggy piece of fudge melting in his sweaty palm. “Here, principal, my mom made this, and I saved one of my pieces for you because I really like you.”

A humble offering from an open heart: the perfect gift, given and received with joy.

Have some thoughts about
the best or worst Christmas present
you’ve given or received?
Please share.

Summary of comments about “See to Your Siblings.”
Last week’s post seemed to resonate with readers of all ages. Dawna said, “This post brought tears to my eyes and a longing to go home to be with my siblings and parents;” Bonnie wondered if that longing ever goes away and feels that every moment with her siblings is precious. Janice wrote that she has always admired the affection my siblings and I feel for one another — what a lovely comment. And, finally, Jeannie wrote a delightful description of the bond between sisters that any reader who is a sister should read in its entirety, if you have the time.



10 thoughts on “The Fine Art of Giving

  1. I especially remember one Christmas. As usual Mom and Dad didn’t have much money. One day in early December mom handed me the Montgomery Wards catalog and said anything you want for 5 dollars. JL and I pored over that catalog. We categorized each page that had possibilities. Finally the choice was made. My mother pierced my heart with the words “No Knife”. I sickly went to choice number 2. On Christmas day I was the proud owner of the Little Golden Trumpet,$4.99. The rest as they say is history. I have never looked forward to any gift as I did that year. Now, of course, the best gift we can give each other is our presence.


  2. My step-mother always tried to give us a wonderful gift. We don’t really travel during Christmas, but this particular year we went to New Mexico. I wanted my children to experience Christmas there. Of course, all of the kids got sick and then JL and I did as well. On Christmas morning I opened my gift from my step-mother. It was a bright (I do mean BRIGHT) pink wind suit. I said my thanks and hoped I looked somewhat happy. I had plans to quietly donate it to any handy charity. Everyone received a wind suit and of course we all had to wear them and pose for pictures! I look back on that now and it makes me laugh! It also brings back the memories of those who are gone. In the end, it’s being together that counts.


  3. I love the sentiments that have been said in the comments. This time of year brings back many fond memories for me and surprisingly enough, they aren’t about the gifts that were received or given. They were about the times spent with loved ones. Like Blaine has said, “the best gift we can give each other is our presence.” So, so true!


  4. The best present I ever received is the one I didn’t get.

    A year out of the Air Force, my very stressed son told me “I’ve walked all over the mall and I can’t find any- thing for you. Nothing I buy could show you how much I love you. I don’t know what to do.” A few hours earlier his sister, a broke college student, told me she was sad because she didn’t have money for presents. We decided to get together and exchange no gifts. None. That Christmas Eve was one of our best celebrations. We loved it so much we decided to make it a tradition.

    We’ve had to convince new spouses and family members that there is more joy around the tree when there are no worries about scarce money spent, wrong sizes/colors/styles, gifts that seem meaningless, etc., and now they love the tradition.
    We give generously only to the kids under eighteen.

    It takes a lot of courage because outsiders think we’re scrooges, grinches, or un-American. “Don’t you even draw names?” We just smile and say “Nope”.

    No hours of shopping, no frenzied crowds, no angst, no credit card bills.

    We give each other the GIFT of NOT giving gifts…. the best present ever.


      • Thank you, dawna. I might add every once in a while someone will try to sneak gifts “it isn’t much or I thought you’d like it”. We laugh and and say “you’re breaking the rule”, and insist the gift be given later as a birthday present.
        Work exchanges or secret Santa I solved by saying “long ago I decided I’ll not give a Christmas gift to adults as long as children are going without”, and I opt out. It worked so well that for years at work our unit excitedly choose a charity and we all donated.
        Never wavering and giving in is the secret, and it’s so rewarding.


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