What are Gifts For

What is gift-giving for? If you believe Madison Avenue circa 2010, your list might go something like this:

1. Gifts are for making the recipient feel bad - you were more thoughtful than they, they now owe you, you can now extract a favor back from them (or just lord the debt over them for a good long time)

2. Gifts are for one-upping others - you got Mom a cooler gift than any of her other kids

3. Gifts are for showing others how on top of things you are - you were able to efficiently navigate the holiday madness and get the perfect item for everyone on your holiday list

4. Gifts are for passing the very hard test imposed upon you by your significant other (almost always portrayed as the girlfriend) - you proved you listened to her and that you value the relationship exactly as much (no more, no less) as she does, as evidenced by the price and difficulty associated with the gift

If this is your gift-giving M.O., I don't blame you for being stressed this time of year. For if every relationship and every purchase is fraught with this kind of calculus, it will make your head spin and your heart sink.

But what if we thought of gift-giving differently? What if we bought into a different set of rules, and to heck with the alternative value system others might want to impose on us? What if these were our reasons for giving gifts:

1. To reward a job well done. Tipping can seem a strange and complex practice, but it you think of it at its core, it is the grateful acknowledgment of services well rendered. It's a lot funner expending effort and money when you are doing it out of gratitude than out of some fuzzy sense of obligation. Take the time not only to buy the gift but to consider how thankful you are for the recipient.

2. To give someone something you think they'll enjoy. Being a huge reader, I somewhat self-centeredly think others will like reading, too, which I admit is not always the case. But still, it's really fun to find a title that is perfect for someone, to give them that title, and then to be right. It doesn't happen all the time, but it's pleasurable when it does, that you've enriched someone with something they wouldn't have found on their own but were able to experience because of your thoughtfulness.

3. To express value for a relationship. This is a loaded one (see #4 above). But it doesn't have to be. If by "value" you are measuring in dollars, then the math can be complicated. But if by "value" you are measuring in thoughtfulness and appreciation and respect, and not in "keeping score," then it can be really meaningful. It's why I've learned that when I receive a gift unexpectedly, I don't say "oh, you shouldn't have" or "but I didn't get anything for you," because that robs the giver of the act of gift-giving for the sake of gift-giving. It's a gift, after all, not a transaction.

4. To exercise an important "love language." Gary Chapman has a book called "The Five Love Languages" that I am sure is required reading for young Christian couples, at least in the minds of the pastors who counsel them. In addition to "gift-giving," there is "physical touch," "acts of service," "words of affirmation," and "quality time." "Gift-giving" is one of my wife's major love language, and the one I'm the worst at, which is more unfortunate for her than for me. But I am learning. Specifically, I am learning that gifts can be a form of love - given out of love, an expression of love, and an act of intimacy and extravagance and meaning between two lovers. I miss far more often than I hit, but it's always fun to try.

Maybe I'm not as sophisticated as Madison Avenue. But maybe it's Madison Avenue that's gone astray. All I know is that gift-giving can be stressful, especially this time of the year. And that's sad, because it doesn't have to be: we're the ones who weigh it down with hidden meaning and strings attached and transactional complexity, when what it's really supposed to be is free and light and joyous. I hope there will be a lot of giving and a lot of receiving around here, and that it will be given and taken in good ways and not bad.

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