Re-gift responsibly

As my friend and I exchanged gifts earlier this week, my appreciation for our friendship grew when she said, “If you don’t like it, you can regift it.” I love a good dose of honesty where there’s no underlying analysis about how much time and money we spent figuring out what to get each other. Instead, we hold a mutual understanding that items we give each other don’t need to reflect the level of closeness we feel.

Still, I put a decent amount of energy into gift giving this time of year. As soon as I finish writing this, I’m headed out to a few more stores to find a few more gifts. My spreadsheet of gift giving is almost full as we literally wrap up the last few gifts. Giving is like a little game: how can you get the most bang for your buck, financially and emotionally. No pressure, but a gift can communicate quite a bit about your level of thoughtfulness towards a friend or family member. It can say as much about you as it says about the person you’re giving the gift. Who doesn’t get a little thrill when you find that gift that is “just perfect”? It’s kind of a science, as this Atlantic piece explains.

If you do decide to try and pick out something personal, stop and think: What do I want to say? Gifts send messages. We talk through them. And that’s where much of their value is bundled — for both the giver and the recipient. To quote California State Unviversity Professor Mary Finely Walfinbarger, “in primitive cultures, the gift was equally economic and symbolic. In societies with well-developed markets, it is hardly surprising that the gift has been at least partially stripped of its economic importance, leaving in a much more prominent position the symbolic value….”

More of the research basically says: Buying for a guy? Get him a gadget. Buying for a girl? Get her something expensive and useless. Ah, stereotypes abound.

During the past few weeks, the New York Times has published a number of pieces this holiday on gift giving, briefly notes a “buy nothing” campaign by Canadian Mennonites. Here’s a portion of a piece on the agony New Yorkers specifically feel.

Part of the anxiety of gift-giving in New York at this moment in history arises from the fact that you can’t merely buy a gift; you must supply a narrative, and the narrative must be in some sense homespun, which then positions you in tasteful opposition to the vulgar excesses of the 1 percent. Fulfilling this obligation ultimately demands that you go to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, no matter the inconvenience, because Williamsburg has made the greatest strides in creating a retail experience that feels like Iowa circa 1950.

And then another story looks at how you have more and more people using online wish lists or registries to pre-empt a need for re-gifting. Some people say it’s rude, but another story suggests that people report higher satisfaction when a gift comes from his or her list.

When married couples were asked about the wedding gifts they’d received, they reported liking the ones from the registry more than the unsolicited ones. When people were given money to buy presents for one another on Amazon, the gifts chosen from the recipient’s wish list were more appreciated than the surprises. Cash was better still — recipients liked gifts of money even more than something of equivalent value from their wish list.

Perhaps an article could explain a little bit more about why, assuming Christmas is a religious holiday for many people, people give gifts. Was there a point when gift giving was normalized? What do religious leaders say about contemporary gift giving, especially in light of some of the anti-consumption movements? There’s a lot of psychology, business, sociology, and even a bit of politics in stories on gift giving but little on religion.

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  • Julia

    A Christmas Carol by Dickens started the gift-giving.
    Nice, good people give each other things at Christmas.
    There was nothing at all in the story that can be construed as religious. It invented “the meaning of Christmas”.

    St Nicholas just left fruit and little things. Dickens and advertising have churned it up – be generous i.e. spend lots of money on people you “love”.

    The American Christmas story in the early 20th century about the man who sold his watch to give his wife a beautiful comb for her hair while she sold her hair to buy him a fob for his watch – was surely influential and suggests that giving up something precious to buy a gift expresses your love for somebody.

  • Jerry

    One answer I found in a couple of places about how gift giving started traces it back to the three wise men in the Bible. says that the Puritans forbade gift giving in the 1600′s but that the Dutch custom was revived in the early 1800′s. says that gift giving was banned by the Catholic Church in the middle ages because of suspected pagan roots.

    So I’m not sure about the Dicken’s origin.

  • Karen

    We have a tradition in our family of giving donations for gifts. One year my sons presented me with two $25 Kiva loan certificates which have so far funded 42 loans (with some added funds over the years.) I’ve given Heifer,org animals, but more recently use The Rainforest Site where you can choose gift certificates from releasing a girl in Nepal from indentured servitude to feeding the hungry in the US or training and supplying a backpack physician in Burma. With nearly 200 giving choices it is easy to match the donation to the interests of the giftee. I’d like to see articles on this as it seems to be rising in popularity as an antidote to materialism.

    The American Christmas story in the early 20th century about the man who sold his watch to give his wife a beautiful comb for her hair while she sold her hair to buy him a fob for his watch – was surely influential and suggests that giving up something precious to buy a gift expresses your love for somebody.

    This has been picked up by immigrant communities with no religious ties. My nominally Buddhist son and his Tibetan partner and their friends celebrate Christmas as a gift giving and appreciation-giving holiday without religious meaning.

  • Rhian

    The 20th century story mentioned twice above, is The gift of the Magi by O.Henry.
    Thanks everyone for your thoughts. Merry Christmas!

  • Wayne Sutton

    Christmas – let’s learn about the truth and celebrate the birth of Christ…giving of gifts is fine, just a sure second place. online prayer

  • Maureen

    Throughout the history of Christianity, there’s been giftgiving as part of the Christmas season. Sometimes it’s more of an Epiphany thing, sometimes it’s Feast of the Circumcision (New Year’s), sometimes other days before or after. But there’s always gift exchange.

    The main difference is that most gifts used to be on the “stocking stuffer” level, although that level varied by economic condition. Also, it used to be more common to give food and candy.

    St. Catherine of Siena famously made a beautiful Renaissance orange recipe for Christmas, and sent her super-special oranges to all her friends (including the Pope). If it’s good enough for the saints, it’s good enough for me! :)