Whether it’s Hanukkah, Christmas, or Kwanzaa that you observe, the season of gift giving is upon us.
The joy of giving and receiving gifts is often in conflict with the stress of gift giving – the financial stress and consumerism of buying gifts, the emotional stress of choosing gifts, and the time stress of making gifts or creating gift experiences. We preach that it’s the thought that counts and not the gift itself, but the culture via advertising makes us unsure of that truism.
A famous story about gift giving that comes to mind in this season is the O. Henry story, “The Gift of the Magi.” A young wife sells her long hair and a young husband sells his heirloom gold watch to buy each other a watch fob and hair combs, which neither can now use. Their willingness to give up their treasured possessions to buy each other a gift turns out to be their greatest gift to each other.
Over the years, I’ve made some spectacular mistakes in gift giving and had a few winners. I’ve also fortunately felt blessed more often than disappointed as a gift recipient. So, I’d like to share what I’ve learned.
Listening to others is paramount to being a great gift giver. Others will tell you either directly in words or indirectly in their interests the gifts that they want. Responding to another’s desires is like making a wish come true and communicating that you really see who they are.
I once threw a big birthday party for a girlfriend who had said in clear English that she didn’t want a party. She didn’t come to the party, and our friendship broke up over the party. I had disrespected her wish and signaled that I thought I knew better than she what would honor her birthday. I was wrong. A happier story is hearing another girlfriend say that she wanted hardware tools for Christmas and buying her a set of screwdrivers and wrenches, which she loved.
Giving someone what they need is tricky, because it raises the issue of who decides what those needs are. Someone may be wearing clothing that is out of style, but pining for a night at the symphony. Giving a person a needed winter coat can be a blessing, but it can feel demeaning to the recipient if it’s given without kindness and respect. Some people choose to live simply and don’t need the things that you find necessary in your life. My daughter needs an electric hair iron, but I don’t need a single hair accessory or tool.
Giving what you have in abundance, whether it’s money or extra things in your cupboards may be a wonderful expression of sharing. But if the things in your cupboards are things that aren’t good enough for you to keep for yourself, will they actually be a blessing to someone else? Think about it before giving those items. Giving what you still need and could use, like money and items you bought for your own use, is sacrificial giving and will undoubtedly bless someone else. I’ve learned from the example of others to buy extras of some items, like toothbrushes, socks, and underwear, in order to give them away.
Giving your time is a great gift whether it’s a gift to a grandchild, a friend, or a helping organization. In our family, we’ve migrated from giving material gifts to giving experiences, like taking the grandchildren to a play or a ballgame. The gift of presence is something that people need and often don’t ask for, because they don’t want to impose on you and your limited time. Taking an older relative on an outing or volunteering to mentor kids after school are ways to give your time.
Consider giving a gift of money or an in-kind gift to a nonprofit cause in honor of the friends and relatives who don’t need another personal gift, and write them a special holiday card to tell them what you’ve done and how they inspired the contribution. It will be meaningful to them!
Finally, give spontaneously, because it will make you feel good. Your loved ones deserve unexpected gifts that convey your love and care all year long. Helping organizations do their good work throughout the year and would benefit from your spontaneous gifts, given in gratitude for your blessings, throughout the year, too.
2 Corinthians 9:7 Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.