I think most people would agree, giving gifts isn’t easy. The challenge is to objectify caring, to make tangible a feeling or sentiment. To complicate matters there are levels of caring and the potential for embarrassment if the offering doesn’t live up to expectation—on the part of the giver or receiver. Indeed, gift-giving can be fraught with guilt or disappointment, depending upon a lot of variables. Of course it also holds the potential for giving and receiving tremendous happiness and joy.
Ethan Miller, my grandson, when he was four
Wouldn’t we all like to get the response above from those we deeply care about—at any age? Gifting is a critically significant form of communication, extending as far back as one Neanderthal offering a bone club to another for saving him from being attacked by a wolf.
Marriage and political alliances were sealed and terminated over the exchange of gifts. Historian Dorothy Johansen describes the gift-giving dynamic among the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada: “In the potlatch, the host in effect challenged a guest chieftain to exceed him in his ‘power’ to give away or to destroy goods. If the guest did not return 100 percent on the gifts received and destroy even more wealth in a bigger and better bonfire, he and his people lost face and so his ‘power’ was diminished. Hierarchical relations within and between clans, villages, and nations, were observed and reinforced through the distribution or sometimes destruction of wealth, dance performances, and other ceremonies. The status of any given family is raised not by who has the most resources, but by who distributes the most resources. The hosts demonstrate their wealth and prominence through giving away goods.”
Anthropologist Franz Boas reported that “Every present received at a potlatch has to be returned at another potlatch, and a man who would not give his feast in due time would be considered as not paying his debts.” My anthropology teacher, Dr. Beth Dillingham, said a family would amass great wealth over a number of years and then give it all away to those who came to witness the rite of passage. Being tied to religion, these massive giving events were perceived as ceremonies and rites of passage rather than celebrations or negotiations. They would go on for days, and when everything was gone, the host was considered powerful—because he’d demonstrated his powerful spirit. All this to say that the giving of gifts is one of the most fundamental human activities across time and cultures.
As part of the research for one of my stories I read about subtext and it helped me to see that underlying meanings are a significant part of gift giving. When we say “It’s not the gift, it’s the thought that matters,” we’re essentially saying it’s the subtext, what the gift and its manner of presentation are saying. What does it say, for instance, about a gift wrapped in a garbage or grocery bag? A gift that’s casually tossed onto someone’s lap? A gift that benefits the giver as much as the receiver? What does it say when everyone gets the same gift? Or no gift at all? Gifts speak loudly and clearly. In a matter of seconds the receiver understands the subtext. That’s why, if we really care about someone, we want the gift to say that we care about them, we see them.
The movie Dolly Parton’s Christmas of Many Colors: The Circle of Love moved me to contemplate this theme. The true story, beautifully produced, tells how Dolly’s father saw her mother admiring a ring in a store. He wanted to get it for her, particularly because they hadn’t had enough money to buy a ring when they got married. Still, he couldn’t afford it. When his eleven kids realized how badly he wanted the ring for his wife, they secretly met together and decided to give their father the cost of the one gift they each wanted. It wasn’t enough, so Dolly’s father, against his wife’s wishes, went off to work in a coal mine. Long story short, miracles happened and Dolly’s father surprised his wife with the ring on Christmas morning. Here was a demonstration of deep and precious love, the giving of self, of blood, sweat and tears in order to give joy—and communicate love. Indeed, when the message is love and caring, it’s not so much the object given as what it says. And sacrifice for the sake of another is arguably the epitome of genuine caring.
The challenge for those of us who are privileged is to come up with a gift, a “text” that conveys the subtext of love, caring or appreciation. Most everyone wants to be seen for who they authentically are. Gifts that acknowledge this require paying attention—well in advance of presentation—to the objects and experiences that will please, excite or feed an interest or concern of the receiver. Although we browse for gifts in stores and online because we’ve been indoctrinated to do so in our culture, the more direct way to objectify feelings and sentiments is to give the gift of time, energy or creativity, for instance by making, writing or performing or providing something that touches the heart.
Linda taught me that women in general hope for a gift from their significant other that’s personal rather than utilitarian—something the affirms or reflects their values, qualities and virtues. Books, appliances, tickets to an event, electronics, music, videos and so on are fine, but they speak to interests, whereas personal items speak, well, to the person—how they are seen, appreciated and loved. Men on the other hand—speaking for myself and observing other men—tend to hope for items that are generally less personal and more utilitarian, objects we can use to play with, grow, construct, learn or otherwise support our work and interests.
When the intended recipients have everything they need or can buy what they want, we sometimes exchange lists to insure the recipient’s satisfaction. The subtext not only says “I want you to have what you really want,” it also provides the gift of time saved—by not needing to return an unwanted item. It’s a win-win strategy. The downside is the lack of a surprise, and for some people that’s important. Besides offering the expected in this way, a handwritten message—perhaps a compliment, appreciation or intention along with it—can enhance the subtext.
When I think of all the gifts I’ve given my daughter at Christmas time, the one that’s most memorable for both of us is a poem I wrote for her when she was in her early twenties. It was called The Tapestry Of Your Life. I haven’t been able to top it since. She framed it and occasionally mentions that the metaphor it contains continues to inspire her, even provide application in her work. Direct expressions like this are gifts that go beyond hope and expectation. They are gifts from the heart.
A subtle but significant gift that the receiver can give the giver is that of genuine gratitude for what is received, even if it’s not the perfect gift. I think it’s as important to know how to receive as it is to give. And this is important for children as well as adults. Because gifting is culturally conditioned, children need to be taught its significance, purpose and the rituals of presentation and appreciation. I know our conversations about gift-giving and receiving when Jennifer was growing up, especially as Linda wrapped gifts, made a difference in this regard. And every time I wrap a present I thank my dad for taking me shopping for my mom and sister, and then showing me how to wrap their gifts.
If you’re looking for unusual and exceptional gift ideas that deliver loving subtextual messages for children, I highly recommend Jennifer’s blog. Among other inspiring ideas there you’ll read—
“In addition to these imaginative toys, you might consider how can you give something that offers your child a part of you? This does not refer to anything store bought. Could you write a letter about what you learn from your child or all the good you see in them? Could you draw him? Could you frame your favorite picture of her? Could you write your wishes for her future? Think about how you might treat your child to an heirloom—a gift of your love—that they might keep well beyond their childhood years.”
There is no greater love than this: that a person would lay down his life for the sake of his friends.
Photography Monographs (Click on the pages to turn them)