The Art of Gift-Giving

December 2020 | by  holly netz

Back in the '70s and '80s, when people still "dropped by" unannounced to visit each other, I have vivid memories of an aunt who was the coolest person ever. With her tree dressed to the nines, she kept a smattering of small gifts under the tree in a particular type of paper. These gifts were unmarked and placed strategically so that no two with the same paper were near each other. I watched more than once when a family would stop by unannounced, the wife with a small gift for my aunt in hand, and in turn she would say, "Oh! I am so glad you stopped by! I wasn't sure when we would see each over this holiday!" She would summon whichever child was nearest the tree: "Be a dear and grab that gift for [insert name here]..." she'd gesture with a "No, no, the one to the right … with the silver wrapping … yes! That's the one!" She'd then mention that she had finally gotten the gifts under the tree; they weren't even all tagged yet. 

 The gift was something generic, perhaps a box of cordials or a candy dish. The point was, she always had something for everyone. You never knew who might bring you a gift that you’d not expected, and you mustn’t appear as if you hadn’t also thought of them. Looking back, this act that seemed so glamorous to me was far removed from the true meaning of gift-giving. Regardless, her intentions were good. I’m sure the adults on the receiving end were far savvier than my 9-year old eyes. They knew what was up -- but they most likely did the same thing at their homes. 


 Human nature has been programmed to give gifts since early times. Gift-giving is a surprisingly complex and essential part of our interaction with others. For centuries, it has been a way that we define relationships and strengthen bonds. Ancient cultures used to hold large gift-giving celebrations called potlaches. Families would secure their position in the tribal structure, not by who received the most but by who gave the most. Even apes and chimpanzees give each other gifts of food and tools. Gift-giving may do more psychologically for the gift-giver than the receiver. 

 While it is understandable that 4 out of 5 Americans think the holidays have become too materialistic and commercial, it behooves us as a society to take a step back. When we don’t allow others to give us gifts, we rob them of the opportunity to think about us and the things we like, an act that strengthens bonds and relationships.  

 So how do we bridge the divide between rampant consumerism and the joy that gift-giving can bring?  


 If you are suffering from a bit of the bah humbugs regarding gifts, take a minute and think about your overall gift plan. Remember - as mentioned earlier - that gift-giving is more critical emotionally to the gift-giver than the recipient? Removing yourself from others’ expectations and thinking about the people you want to get a gift for will help you begin to enjoy the process. It is also essential to let go of any notions that you will find the perfect gift for everyone on your list. Not only does that invite stress back into the process, but it is also quite literally impossible.  

Start the season with a list of those you know will be on your gift list. Give yourself three minutes to run down that list and write the first thing that comes to mind when you read that person’s name. Allow yourself to dream. After this initial first-instinct dump, you can begin to brainstorm more practically. Next to your dad, you put “Trip to Packers game”? Next, you find the line between generic and the dream. Maybe another Packers coffee mug isn't going to make you feel great, but a personalized cheese head hat to wear during games might be the perfect level of fun. 


 What to get, what to get? The scale can swing wildly on this one. My favorite gift ever cost my husband $3.99. Knowing I love words and poetry but having no skill in that area, he bought a simple notebook and wrote out lyrics to about 30 songs that made him think of me. Conversely, last year he ordered a pillowcase online, to which I had sent him a direct link. Guess what? That was also a present I cherish, as it isn’t something I would have splurged on.  

 Gifts don't have to be expensive and they also don't have to be the perfect, one-of-a-kind find that takes you weeks and months to procure. You can do that with one person on your list, but not all. One of my favorite things to do is purchase beautiful little things that I find throughout the year that are amazing, but I don't need them. Come gift-giving time; I usually go through this box first. Many times, something will strike a chord as the perfect fit for someone on my list. Had I been searching for that person the week before Christmas, I would never have found it, but here it is, stored away. I subconsciously picked it up, knowing it would fit someone I love. 

Another controversial gift is the gift card -- or even cash. While I wholeheartedly despise gift cards, I’ve come to realize there is a time and place for them. As the mother of college kids and having other teens/young adults in my life, gift cards or "just money" really CAN be a gift you can feel good about. Sometimes there is nothing a college student NEEDS more than a gas card, a pizza card, or just some cash.  

 Let's revisit the idea that giving is truly about the giver rather than the receiver. The young adult isn't going to be upset that you defaulted to "just money." They will be thrilled. Be honest with yourself; it's you that feels unfulfilled when you give something they need rather than something special and unique to them. A fantastic way to satisfy both needs (yours AND the recipient) is to enclose a little note with something special about them, a memory, a quote, anything. This small gesture shows that you are thinking about their needs, are happy that you have the means to give them something, and they are also special to you.  


 No matter how much you plan, how far ahead you start, or how much you spend, you will never feel like you nailed it. Again, that’s okay. You are dealing with the evolution of the human brain and complex emotions not even on your radar. In the end, you’ve done your best, and no one is harder on you than yourself. Giving is simply the act of showing appreciation for another. And if having extra wrapped boxes of candy under the tree to hand out like Saint Nick fills your “gift-giving” bucket, there is nothing wrong with that either. 

Originally printed in the December 2020 issue of Simply Local Magazine

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