If the commercials are to be believed this time of year, the perfect present is the cherry atop a peppermint sundae. In this fantasy, we gather in pristinely decorated cottages with our photogenic families, where they gingerly unwrap their diamond earrings (or toy truck or what-have-you) and burst into appreciative smiles. It’s sweet, perhaps to a cavity-inducing degree—not to mention dripping with obligation and expectation. You have to buy that bauble, because that’s just what you do as a “good” sister, or parent, or son. The recipient, in turn, had better be moved to ecstasy. For all your effort and dollars, you’re entitled to at least one gushing, “Oh, it’s just what I wanted!”
Of course, when your daughter decides the box is better than the doll you went to retail hell and back for, consider your wound salted. “It was all supposed to be so magical,” you think bitterly. But it isn’t that you’ve fallen hopelessly short of television commercial perfection, or that your sweater’s too coarse or your spirits too low—that ideal was always, by design, unattainable. Perhaps it’s time to shake up your intention, and ultimately the meaning, of gift giving.
Besides that old gem, “because I’m expected to,” there are dozens of personal and spiritual reasons to give generously this winter. To name just a few:
• We give to make memories. Do you remember a particular present from a family member you admired? Perhaps a hand-me-down book, the pages reassuringly worn, or a pendant treasured by a beloved relative? Heirlooms are a thread between generations that remind us where we came from and reinforce our shared history. What we pass on doesn’t have to be expensive, because the value of an heirloom is intrinsic. Nor does a tradition have to be sensical: in my family, we share a very grimy bronze cup known as the Holy Grail. The cup has no value, not even for drinking out of, and best belongs in a sock drawer. But we love it.
• We give because we feel guilty—and that’s a good thing. Guilt, that oft-maligned emotion, can empower us to repair our lapsed obligations to care for one another. When a family member seems especially mired in a struggle, our gifts of time, friendship, assistance, and money can relieve their burden. Guilt is the alarm bell that drives us from the comfy bed, that pesky little voice saying, “Isn’t it time you did something?” The sense that we, as humans, have a responsibility to others can even motivate us to acts of charity on a grander, global scale.
• We give because of our spirituality and faith. Most religions and spiritual practices have a teaching about giving, though the character of this tenet differs. Buddhists give as part of karma, a belief system in which our past rights and wrongs determine our future. Similarly, Wiccans follow the Rule of Three: whatever positive or negative energy a witch puts forth into the world will be reflected back on them, with tripled intensity. As such, both karma and the Rule of Three incentivize individuals to be proactively generous. In the Jewish and Christian faiths, on the other hand, adherents are commanded to give a certain percent of their income to charity—it’s a codified obligation to assist the community.
• We give for fun. It’s objective truth: no one can resist the charms of a Tickle Me Elmo.
How Can We Give Better?
If you delight in the noisy, festive spirit of a mall in December, more power to you—you’re sure to have fun filling and fulfilling that shopping list. But, if you’ve been looking for some alternative ways to get into the spirit of giving this winter—both to your family and your community—here are some ideas that might change the way you think about generosity:
Give what you’re great at. Are you a killer baker with a knack for sculpting penguins and polar bears out of frosting? Or a writer with wit and a classy calligrapher’s pen? Gifts that are personal, and exclusively made by you, have a special thrill for recipients. So make that marzipan diorama of the North Pole, or craft some thoughtful letters (everyone’s a sucker for a sonnet of adoration, especially in iambic pentameter).
Go big: Giving to your community doesn’t have to mean a cash donation. You can offer specialized skills, too. If you’re a barber, donate some haircuts to guests at a homeless shelter. If you’re an avid musician, play for a few hours at a senior center. Your gifts may be just what the world needs!
Give opportunities to learn and grow. A gift can change a life. Have you ever received a book that blew your mind? Or a present that started you down a new hobby, like a guitar, chemistry set, or fishing rod? Pass on your favorite books, pay for a kid’s music lessons or a friend’s photography class, and give your loved ones tickets for mind-expanding experiences, like a kayak outing or guided tour. Spiritual consultations from a variety of traditions are another type of gift that can inspire and aid.
Go big: Help the people in your community be self-sufficient by offering mentorship, tutoring, career advice, and networking help as you’re able. Providing someone the tools to forge their own success is possibly the greatest gift of all.
Give people what they want. Does your best friend want a fancy espresso machine? Did he send you a link to the exact model online? It’s okay—and usually appreciated—to give people precisely what they ask for.
Go big: If your local women’s shelter or food pantry has a list of items they need, knock a few items off their list.
Give to causes you believe in. If your family is swimming in knick-knacks, sweaters, mittens, toys, and every other form of holiday jingle jangle, consider a holiday of only giving. Many charities offer catalogs, which allow you to designate what your donation will be used for: a species of tree, for conservation organizations, or a farm animal, to support rural economies. Let everyone choose a gift from the catalog in place of receiving one— it’s all the thrill of shopping, with the added glow of a good deed.
Go big: Make a charitable donation in the name of someone in your town you admire and wish to thank.
Whatever Your Reason, Give With Love
You can’t control what a recipient does with your well-thought-out present, especially if they’re under a certain age, but you can change the way you think about the whole business of exchanging gifts. So whether you’re giving for karma, for a happier world, or for the betterment of your brother’s Godzilla memorabilia collection, remember that there are thousands of ways to give creatively and meaningfully. When you choose presents that, though not necessarily conventional, feel authentic and personal, you just might start to find a whole new kind of enlightenment under the twinkling bulbs of holiday lights.
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