There’s More to Exchanging Gifts Than Meets The Eye

The art of making someone happy and celebrating the relationship

This is our grandson, Ethan Miller. He was five-years-old. I choose this image because it represents the kind of joy we’d all like to see on someone’s face when they receive a gift from us. The subtitle indicates that there’s an art to gift-giving because done well it’s creative in several ways—conceiving of what to give; designing, constructing or purchasing the item; wrapping and presenting it.

Gift-giving is one of the earliest traits of hominids. Holes were drilled into bones, animal teeth and stones to make necklaces and other adornments. Having appeal, they and other items were exchanged to form alliances that improved the chances for survival. With the growth of civilizations, gift-giving became a tradition. Pharaohs, Greek and Maya kings were given gifts to celebrate their accession to the throne, birth dates and to show allegiance and foster political or religious favors. In the Middle Ages, New Year’s Day and other dates were specified as times for everyone to exchange gifts. Food was exchanged to express the giver’s bounty and generosity; manuscripts and books became popular as gifts because they were expensive. 

Many indigenous and tribal cultures engaged in elaborate rituals of gift-giving. Most well-studied by anthropologists and ethnologists are the Kwakiutl of the American Northwest coast. Between 1849 and 1925, their potlatch ceremonies reached a peak. Their purpose was mainly to validate the donor’s claim to high social rank; the more he gifted the community, the more he was revered as a “Big Man.” Sometimes, contenders spent decades amassing their wealth, only to give it all away on one occasion. A potlatch could also be held for someone to save face after suffering public embarrassment. I”ve read some of the ethnographic research on these ceremonies and the extent of gift-giving was massive. The sponsor would literally become broke overnight, and the next day he’d begin again to build his wealth so he could give it away. 

Today, gift-giving is a worldwide phenomenon, each culture prescribing the what, where, when and how it’s done. In China, New Year’s gifts are wrapped in red or money is given in a red envelope to signify wealth and prosperity. A gift and its wrapping cannot be black, white or blue, colors associated with death and funerals. The Japanese place nearly as much value on the wrapping of a gift as they do its content. In India, flowers, clothes and sweets are exchanged on Diwali, the festival of light that marks the celebration of good over evil. In Russia, a child’s birthday is special for all who attend the celebration, because a game is played where gifts are hung from a clothesline and everybody gets one. And finally, gifting is an important part of Arab tradition. It brings people together and reflects the giver’s graciousness, generosity and goodwill. Neighbors exchange gifts no matter how well they are known, and if a guest expresses an interest in an item they have in their home, it will likely be given to him.

The Medium Is The Message

Gifts communicate. The message may or may not be expressed overtly, as in “I know you like dark chocolate…” or “It’ll go with your blue…” Always, regardless of what the gift is or who’s giving it, there’s a subtextual message that reveals the giver’s intention relative to the receiver. 

Some gifts are exchanged out of obligation, usually at events such as Christmas and holiday office parties, weddings, birthdays, graduations and baby showers. Other gifts come as a surprise to the recipient. Whatever the context, the choice of the gift, its wrapping and presentation speak to the relationship. Of course, the message can vary widely, conveying feelings about the recipient, the present or future relationship, attitudes about reciprocation, protocol or social pressure or beliefs about the nature of gift-giving itself. For instance, some consider the gifting protocol an imposition at times, a commercially-driven nuisance. Father’s Day, Mother’s Day and Valentines Day are examples where there’s social pressure to give a gift.

The Intention    

The giver’s intention is the all-important first question, even before considering what to give because it’s the motivating force that drives everything else. Who is this person to me? What role does she play? What do I want to convey? What do I want him or her to feel about me—and the gift? Little to nothing? Friendship? Important or not important relationship? Colleague? Superior or junior status? Compassion? Love? Unconditional love? And the many “colors” in-between. More simply, the intention is to give a person a moment of joy. 

The Gift

For the giver, the experience is pleasing if the gift expresses the intention. For instance, the big smile on our grandson’s face is precisely what his parents had hoped for. Good gifting occurs when the gift and the subtext are aligned. The item is appreciated not only for what it is, but also because it “says” something about the relationship that pleases the receiver. Examples of subtextual messages include, “I see you.” “I know what you like.” “I hear you.” “I want to support your interest.” “I want to help you…” “I love what you do.” “I love who you are.” “I hope this gives you joy.” “You’re so good at…” “You’re such a good friend (or whatever).” “You mean a lot to me.” “I appreciate you.” 

Some gifts are disappointing for the receiver. Not wanting to offend the sender, we never say so. The prime example is “returns,” gifts we don’t like or want.  Perhaps the sender didn’t understand or consider the interests, preferences, or situation of the receiver. Another disappointing gift is the one that sends an unwelcome message: “Honey, I heard you complain about the vacuum cleaner; this one’s fantastic! Subtext: “I see you as the maid.” Gifts that can, with some exceptions, qualify the joy in receiving are those where the giver gets to share in the use of the gift. “I signed you up for archery lessons—both of us—so we can go together!” Or “I got you a kayak! Tomorrow we pick it up.” Such items are best discussed before being purchased. Another example is the gift of travel, tickets to an event and consumables. Gift cards can go both ways.   

When someone hasn’t taught them differently, boys and young men are tempted to give a woman a gift that’s impersonal—appliance, tool, equipment, machinery and gadgets. There are exceptions, but generally, women would rather select those kinds of things for themselves. A gift is “personal” when it says the sender regards the receiver as a unique and special—beautiful, intelligent, capable, good, loving—person. This could consist of items that contribute to a woman’s comfort, appearance, adornment, occupation, interests or social life. Novels carry positive associations, but self-help books imply a subtext that says, “There’s something wrong with you.”

Men and boys, on the other hand, generally prefer items that will enhance their work, hobbies, or special interests, including tools, nonfiction books, electronics, sporting goods, subscriptions,  videos, competitive games, cool gadgets and enjoyable foods and beverages. Clothing can go both ways, largely depending on the age of the receiver. I tease my grandson every year inquiring about what color of socks he’d like for Christmas. Enough said.

With respect to children living with their parents, it’s advisable to check with the parents before buying a gift, both to avoid duplication and honor the way the child is being raised. Some parents don’t want their children to have certain movies, smartphones, and other electronics, video games and toys that mimic guns of any kind.

From the receiver’s point-of-view, a good or great gift can be what was hoped for, what brings delight, contributes to current interests or touches the heart. Depending upon age and gender, it can be fun, exciting, surprising, beautiful, helpful, or inspiring. And great gifts don’t necessarily equate with the cost. One of the most satisfying gifts I gave to Jennifer, our daughter, was a poem. And one of the most memorable gifts from Linda was a ride in a glider. What have you received that gave you great joy? Who gave it to you? And what did it say about the relationship? 


Here too, the subtext communicates. How much time or creativity went into the wrapping? One Christmas I witnessed a child, six or seven years of age, handing his mother a gift wrapped in a garbage bag. Whatever happened there, the lesson for me was that the process of gift-wrapping has to be learned. It doesn’t come naturally. My dad always took me to buy gifts for my mom, and he taught me how to wrap them. Later on, observing how Linda made each package special using a variety of materials—some of which I’d never think to put on a package—I realized that there’s an art to it. Simply put, the more time and creativity invested in the wrapping and presentation, the more effectively the intention is communicated. 

While cocooning during the pandemic is a challenge this holiday season, the spirit of celebration is alive and well, indicated by record-breaking early shopping, lighting displays in neighborhoods, tree lightings, ramped-up charitable initiatives and Christmas movies. The limitations we’re experiencing this year are certainly unwanted, but for those of us privileged to be healthy they can bring out the best in us—like doing what we can to safeguard each others’ health and invest the gifts we give with meaning beyond obligation. An expression of our intention to bring joy to someone can be as simple as a phone or zoom call or a card. Beyond the physical gift, what matters more is being mindful of subtext and remembering why we’re exchanging gifts—to bring joy to others, renew our relationships and  demonstrate peace and love. 

Receiving A Gift

When we receive a gift that makes us happy, it provides an opportunity to make the giver happy as well. How we receive a gift communicates. At the very least, if we’re not in the presence of the one who offered the gift we need to acknowledge that it was received. Whether or not we’re in the giver’s presence a simple “thank you” is flat, barely moves the enjoyment needle. Talking about the gift later on moves it a little more, but the needle really gets “pinged” when, after time goes by, the receiver provides words or evidence that the gift is being used and is very much appreciated. “That sweater you gave me for my birthday has become my favorite!” “Every morning I use your coffee mug.” “That wireless headset is giving me a fresh appreciation for music I’ve been listening to for years.” Just as there’s an art to giving, there’s an art to receiving, expressing appreciation and enjoyment for what we received.


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