Gift Essay

I saw a post on Facebook this week from a mom who is advocating that all families get inexpensive gifts for their children so that kids with less aren’t “heartbroken.” I’m no social economist, but I’m pretty sure if this mom got her way, it would not be good for the global economy. And, while I’m also not a huge fan of conspicuous consumption and I’d like to see everyone getting meaningful gifts for their children, something struck me as “off” about trying to protect poor children from the pain of seeing other children get big fancy gifts.

Isn’t it more important that we all appreciate the value of the gifts we are given? And that we put care into the gifts we give?

Studies have shown that giving gifts is a source of happiness even more than receiving them. As reported by Harvard-trained researcher Shawn Achor in his Success Magazine article, “How (And Why) To Give The Perfect Gift,” “people who are constantly giving to their families and friends are significantly happier than those who are not.” Regardless of the gift, says Achor, it’s the thoughtfulness that counts—not only for the receiver, but for the giver too. Increasing the anticipation and time put into gift choice and, when applicable, gift creation, gives more joy to the person giving! Even if the recipient doesn’t appreciate the gift as much as the giver desired, the giver has had weeks or months of joy leading up the moment of giving. That’s worth a lot.

Choosing the Right Gift

I’m in a leadership group where we throw birthday parties for every member of the group and purchase gifts for the birthday boy or girl. The process of choosing a gift is always enlightening. We want it to be something they’ll enjoy, that they wouldn’t get for themselves, and that they won’t throw in the corner and never use. We prefer not to default to Amazon gift cards since we want to show that thought was put into the gift—even if the person has been in our group for only a week!

To jump start the process, we get a list from the recipient of things they would want, and we collaborate from there. Gifts have included energy healing sessions, movie popcorn machines, shirts and ties, cologne, and tickets to Disney World. Without fail, the gifts we give hit the mark and we all get to watch birthday person’s excitement when they discover what we’ve given them.

When we know people well, it’s usually easy to choose a gift that will light them up, whether that’s something we make by hand, a computer-generated photo album, or an expensive electronic gadget (drone anyone?) I recently discovered the “subscription-box” option where you can give someone a monthly box of something they will love! In particular, BetterBox seems like a thoughtful choice: a service which delivers monthly boxes with themes like gratitude, creativity, better sleep, and paying it forward. What a great gift for someone who can use incentive for self-care or slowing down! If are close to someone, you’ll probably be able to find the perfect box subscription for them—and it will last all year!

Creating Satisfaction

There are all kinds of ways to make gift-giving satisfying and joy-inducing for everyone involved. Choosing a charity to give money too has become another popular, and fulfilling, option. One thing’s for sure: Throwing money at a last-minute gift won’t produce a lot of joy—while regardless of cost, a thoughtful gift will bring light to both the giver’s and the recipient’s lives.

To the mom on Facebook, I say this: Instead of trying to limit the types of gifts other people give to their kids, how about starting a campaign for all of us to be thoughtful about our gifts, and to value thoughtfulness over price tag, no matter what our budget?

Now that would be a cause I could support with gusto.

Tomorrrow is Christmas Eve – or maybe more accurately, tomorrow night is Christmas Eve.  Some among us will open their presents at that juncture, while others will wait until Christmas itself.

For Lake Effect essayist Elaine Maly, the timing of the gifts isn’t really the issue:

A french cooking class with a world renowned chef, a stunning haute couture dress, and a sleek black neglige that made me feel like a Victoria Secrets model. These are the gifts my oh so in love husband bestowed on me during the early years of our marriage. Tom knew me so well —my size, my style, my passions.

As we settled into married life, the gifts were still wonderful but gradually became less inspired—a food processor, a terry cloth bathrobe, a jam of the month club membership. The same was true on my end. “How many watches does a guy need?” I thought.

At around year 12, I suggested that we stop getting each other gifts and consider our annual winter vacation our Christmas gift to each other. Tom agreed. Or so I thought. Instead, he went underground. Plotting and planning super secret surprise gifts. I’d check in again and again. “We’re not getting each other anything this year, right?”

“Right,” he’d say.

So imagine my surprise that Christmas, when with our family gathered around the decorated tree, he disappeared into the basement and emerged with a giant wrapped rectangle for me. “You said no gifts!” I complained weakly even though I was completely delighted. “I know,” he said, “but this is something I really want you to have.” He sat close to me as I carefully pulled back the red and white snow flake paper to expose the limited edition numbered and autographed print from renowned artist Jacob Lawrence whom we got to meet in person the year before he died, Elmer-glued into the slightly too large $4.99 poster frame from Target.

“You shouldn’t have,” was all I could say as I tried to keep my face composed knowing that the rescue of this precious piece of art was going to cost us hundreds.

A few years later, when menopause had fully taken up residence in my body as a roaring coal furnace, Tom bought me long-sleeved quilted pajamas. “Why don’t you ever wear them?” he wondered a few weeks later.

Another year, we had been doing some holiday shopping at a big box discount store in the aisle of special gift ideas for people who have everything—electric foot massagers, whopper choppers, and fondue sets—the kind of gifts that get used once or twice and then take up valuable real estate in the back of a closet. There was also something called an instant hot tub that you put into your bathtub to make it like a jacuzzi. I saw Tom looking at it wistfully. He knows how much I enjoy a hot tub.

“I know what you’re thinking,” I said. “Do not get this for me. Listen to me. I do not want it. And I am not trying to use reverse psychology hoping that you’ll get it for me anyway. I really do not want this.”

So, I was not surprised one little bit at the family gift giving gathering when he presented me with a brick shaped box wrapped in Goofy Santa paper with a big green bow. “Wow! I wonder what he got you this year,” said my excited mother-in-law who was sitting cozy with me on the love seat.

I channeled my inner actress, tore off the paper and exclaimed, “Oh how wonderful! Now I can finally turn our ordinary bath tub into a whirl pool hot tub.”

After everyone left, Tom said, “That was a good performance. I’ll take it back tomorrow.”

“From now on, no gifts, right?” I said, relieved that the message had finally gotten through.


This year he gave me the Ellen Degeneris Dance CD.

Essayist Elaine Maly is the 2015 winner of the Wisconsin Writers Association’s humor writing contest.  She writes about her life as a native Milwaukeean at her website.

Essayist Elaine Maly reads "Christmas Gifts"

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