The Art of Gift-Giving

Along with all the glorious choral music of the season, which we’ve praised recently at T&S, Christmas is also a time of gift-giving. We make long lists of presents to give to those we love, trying hard to fulfill everyone’s Christmas wishes. Lots of toys, clothes, CDs, books and flannel pajamas get purchased and carefully wrapped. Some years bigger-ticket items like electronic equipment, jewelry or even furniture are given. Still, despite our best efforts it may be rare that we give gifts that are really cherished because they speak love.

Over the years I’ve come to believe that gift-giving is an art. Like any art, it requires keen observation, patience, creativity, reflection and practice. Although I make continual efforts to improve my skills in this area, I usually fail. For example, last year I decided to give four of my siblings abelskiver pans. Originally I thought the idea was a stroke of genius since the pans would recall special abelskiver birthday breakfasts from our childhood. I hunted down the old recipe my Mom always used and then did some research to try to find the best quality old- fashioned pans. In the end, however, the cast iron pans were difficult to wrap because of their odd shape and really expensive to send because they were so heavy. What’s worse, since the pan is inconvenient to store and abelskivers are fattening and time-consuming to make, the pans are hardly used.

Even though my own attempts at gift-giving are usually unsuccessful, I know a couple of master gift-givers. For years among my siblings there has been an unspoken competition at Christmastime over who can give the best gift. For lack of a better measurement, somewhere along the way we decided that whoever touches my Mom enough to make her cry on Christmas morning wins. My brother, Eliot, achieves this honor almost every year. However, the Christmas that stands out in memory was the year of the barf ball.

In grade school they used to have us make Christmas tree ornaments around the holidays. Usually these ornaments were decorated photos of our 6 year-old selves or plaster of Paris hand prints. One year, however, some teacher must have forgotten about this project and had to scramble to come up with something at the last minute. Instead of endearing keepsake ornaments, my sister Julie’s teacher had decided it would be sufficient if they just glued different colored beans on Styrofoam balls. I think the teacher intended for the kids to arrange the beans in some sort of repeating pattern, but Julie, understandably bored with the tedious activity, just rolled the ball in glue and then randomly in some of the remaining beans instead. The result was not exactly a beautiful sight to behold. Eliot immediately dubbed it the “barf ballâ€? and his description was apt. But, for some reason Julie Ann was attached to her creation. Every year as we decorated the tree a painful battle ensued between them over whether to hang the barf ball. Of course, we’d all reluctantly acquiesce to her hanging it with all our other homemade treasures in the end despite Eliot’s attempts to move the barf ball to the back of the tree.

Then one year some mice got into our basement. They ate through our food storage and found the barf ball too. The glue-covered beans were such a hit that very little remained of the ornament. Inconsolable at her loss that next Christmas, Julie was certain that Eliot had somehow been behind the mice invasion. Though Eliot was gleeful and the rest of us somewhat relieved that the barf ball battle was finally over, Julie never forgot this incident.

The next year, in one of his finer gift-planning moments, Eliot decided to redeem himself. He went to the craft store, bought some glue and a Styrofoam ball and recreated the barf ball. Eliot’s gift to my little sister that Christmas morning made us all cry. We were moved not because it was valuable or pretty, but because it represented the tenderness and compassion of a brother for his little sister and the mending of a wound. The barf ball has since become one of our most priceless family ornaments and always gets pride of place on the family tree.

Eliot has taught me many times over that the way to give gifts that touch people is to give gifts of meaning-gifts that reflect your relationship, recall shared experiences, and indicate you know who someone is and what matters to them. For these reasons there are some gifts that can only be given to us by those who have known and loved us well for a long time.

What are some of the presents you’ve given or received in Christmases past that have expressed the art of gift-giving?

11 comments for “The Art of Gift-Giving

  1. Kaimi
    December 13, 2004 at 5:02 pm


    That’s a great story. I’ll post further thoughts in a little while, but I wanted to take a moment to say that I really enjoyed your post.

  2. December 13, 2004 at 5:11 pm

    I think my brother, John Fowles, and his wife Alli are the most thoughtful gift givers I know. Whatever they get us, we always find ourselves thinking- “that really was the perfect present.”

    One year, John got me a very nice sketch of Exeter College, Oxford to hang on my office or home wall. It was just perfect- something I never would have thought of. Another year, I found from him to me a complete 1890 edition of Heine’s collected works. It was the perfect gift to close off my year at Oxford, since Heine was central to my master’s thesis and I had spent the year completely immersed in his works. It is a beautiful collection, even if I don’t get much chance to peruse it in my current legal studies. Again, John ALWAYS bests me in the art of gift giving.

    John’s gifts are always “perfect” because of the thoughtfulness evident in them. I, on the other hand, am a HORRIBLE gift-giver. I usually end up EMAILING a gift certificate to amazon- the ultimate and utterly thoughtless last minute gift.

    Thoughtful gift-giving takes time, time I should learn how to invest.

  3. December 13, 2004 at 5:13 pm

    The presents I remember are less about the presents than the presentation…

    My parents used to go to the stores and get the old display material. i.e. the cardboard cutouts often used to demo toys at that time. It’s not done as much today, but was big in the 70’s. They then brought them home and setup about half our toys in these fantastic displays. So when we came down our space toys would be on a photographed cardboard display case of the moon, for example. Even some of the lego sets had been put together.

    I really, really remember that and eagerly await my newborn being old enough for me to do that to. Of course, judging from my eagerness, I suspect half the fun for my parents was doing this after we went to be but before we got up.

    I should add, that I’ll always remember this backpack for my Steve Austin, six million dollar man, which was a kind of radio. (it had an earplug you put in your ear) It had an alligator clip you’d clip onto metal to be the antenna. Man I loved that.

    I also have to confess, however, that my favorite part of Christmas morning were the empty boxes and the empty cardboard tubes we’d build castles with and have swordfights with!

  4. Bryce I
    December 13, 2004 at 9:58 pm

    I’ve taken to looking back on the Christmas gifts that I’ve received that have meant the most to me for inspiration in my own gift-giving. Most often, the gifts I value the most now are ones that I didn’t think much of at the time I received them. A Primary Children’s Songbook given before I had any children. A Christmas storybook that has become a part of our family’s Christmas tradition. A Rolodex filled with my mother’s favorite recipes. A camcorder (ok — this was a great present, but not an exemplar for my own gift-giving). A set of file folders with activities for family home evening lessons.

    For the most part, these gifts are things that help to bring my family closer to each other in some way, or that help create or preserve treasured memories. They are not consumable, and they are not toys. They aren’t expensive (except the camcorder), but some do require a lot of effort to put together.

  5. whatever
    December 13, 2004 at 10:33 pm

    my family stopped exchanging gifts at christmas when i was in college about 6 years ago. it was the best decision we could make. we haven’t missed it one bit.

  6. December 13, 2004 at 10:41 pm

    You know, whatever, that does not sound like a bad idea at all. It would certainly get rid of a lot of added stress and expectations. In addition to all the nice things that Christmas can mean, in reality it actually turns out to be a horrendous waste of time most years. And a heck of a lot of stress. Have to keep people happy! Get them the “perfect” well-thought out present!

    Say anything critical of Christmas, and you get called a scrooge.

    Isn’t it great, by the way, that this whole gift-giving fest is always mingled right up with final exams and, later, as a professional, with major end-of-the-year deadlines? Such convenient timing for worrying about not offending your relatives with a less than perfect gift?

    Bah! Humbug! (At least for now until the end of finals….)

  7. December 13, 2004 at 10:51 pm

    There’s a part of me that feels the same. We actually took a vote in my family a few years ago about whether or not to spend our future Christmases (the time and money) on international goodwill expeditions instead. As I recall I was the only one among the kids who voted with my parents in favor of the expeditions over Bing and the Christmas Tree. I don’t actually like to give gifts because the calendar says I should. My favorite type of gift-giving is unexpected—when you give a present “just for love” instead of “for Christmas” or “for birthday”. These kinds of gifts I wouldn’t give up giving (or getting) for the world.

    I relate. See my post on Christmas Trees from last week. I decided against putting up a tree this year because of my school deadlines.

  8. whatever
    December 13, 2004 at 11:37 pm

    the year we decided to do it, it was just to see how it went for one year. my sister was still in high school at the time and had the most to “lose” from the decision. but we all enjoyed it so much that we easily voted the next year to abstain from gifts again and have never looked back. otherwise, everything about our christmas celerbation is the same. we just skip the whole gift-buying drama and the angst of paying for things that are then marked down by 50% one day later. honestly, i can’t recommend it enough.

  9. Rob Briggs
    December 14, 2004 at 2:32 am

    Okay, I’m going to start Grinchy & end on a positive note.

    Actually, Whatever has already bested me, with his suggestion of foregoing presents altogether. I wasn’t going to go so far. I heard recently, and I found that I agreed with it, that the present exchange on Christmas day should be limited to one hour. Bingo. Sounds good to me. It’s not that I’m naturally Scroogy. It’s just that as the years go by, the excessive consumption of the season drives me crazy. Can’t wait for it to be over. My wife feels it’s so important. I don’t. I’m one of those who likes Thanksgiving better. The whole family is usually here and it’s more relaxed. We have the real pleasure of one another’s company without the erstaz excitement of the obligatory gift-giving. Okay, enough with the Scroogy post.

    Melissa, that was a GREAT story. It captures the spirit of true gift-giving. What’s that aphorism? The things we give are not gifts but substitutes for gifts, the true gift being the giving of something of ourselves. Something like that. Anyway, Melissa, almost thou persuadest me to be a Xmas gift-lover.

    Hmm, I think I’ll suggest that we give one gift & it has to be the best gift we can think of.

  10. LoneWriter
    December 14, 2004 at 3:58 pm

    My husband and I no longer have children at home, nor do we yet have grandchildren. As a result, we don’t do a lot of Christmas gift exchanging — we buy gifts for each other throughout the year instead.

    A few years ago, I found the perfect gift — a decorated tin with a single piece of coal inside! He still talks about the year that he was so bad all he got was a piece of coal. :)

    And one year, at a dollar store, I found a clock that measured the US national debt. I don’t know how accurate it was, but it was the perfect gift for my conservative brother-in-law, who kept it on his desk until the batteries died.

  11. whatever
    December 15, 2004 at 12:14 pm

    lonewriter, it is a real shame that the clock didn’t last until now so your conservative brother-in-law could compare the national debts of the clinton and current bush administrations.

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