Christmas! Santa Claus!! Toys!!! Gifts galore!!!! What child isn't transported with joy, incapable of quelling the tumultuous anticipation of holiday delights? I well remember, at age 6, not being able to concentrate on anything but my excitement. The sweet pain was so unbearable I decided
to trick myself: Christmas would come faster, I reasoned, if I wished for my birthday [quoteright](which was in January) instead of Christmas. That way, Christmas would somehow just sneak up on me and take me unawares.
The scheme didn't work, of course, and eventually the glorious day arrived, and all the promised delights materialized, each gift more wonderful than the last. Santa Claus never disappointed me.
No, Santa never disappointed me, but those days are gone, replaced by an exchange of gifts. We've all grown up being admonished "It's better to give than to receive." When I was a kid, I dismissed that silly proverb as a bunch of sanctimonious blather designed to rob kids of their rightful holiday joy and magic. As an adult, though, I find the saying to be true — sometimes. How satisfying to bestow a gift that I know will bring great pleasure!
The difficult part, of course, is figuring out what to give someone. Who hasn't given or received some real duds of gifts, at Christmas or any other time? What astonishes me is that over time, I've come to cherish some of those duds I've received, and for the oddest reasons. I've ended up challenging my own ideas on what gift-giving is all about, and what it ought to be.
I used to limit my notions of a "good" gift to something that was fun or frivolous — perhaps a game or toy or gadget. Distinctive clothing or jewelry would be okay, but certainly not ho-hum ties or socks. Whatever the nature of the gift, ideally it would have two qualities: first, to be tailored enough to the recipient's likes or interests to bring pleasure, and second, to somehow surprise or even overwhelm the recipient. In fact, the more copious the tears, the better the gift.
I used to have a truly horrid system for Christmas shopping. I'd budget $10 for certain people, $20 for others, and so on. The system had several inherent flaws, not the least of which was deciding how much each person was "worth." The system also fostered secret guilt for failing to spend the "right" amount or "equal" amounts on people of equal "value." How ridiculous to go shopping by price tag! How absurd to search for a $20 item — any $20 item — that might please!
Back in 1966 I learned an important lesson from a friend with ten siblings. Robert had no hesitation in spending a dollar on a paperback novel for a brother, and $12 on a necklace for a sister. Aghast, I taxed him with the inequity. He merely smiled and replied, "I just get what I think they'll like." So uncomplex! So logical! So sensible!
One Christmas I got three wallets. One was of hand-crafted leather, probably purchased from a San Francisco street artist. The second wallet was a Givenchy deluxe, with a zillion G's worked into its fabric so everyone would be sure to know it was Tres Chic. In between was a nice, ordinary, functional Buxton leather wallet. Each wallet giver genuinely tried to please me by responding to my hints that a wallet would be welcome. What's significant is that each wallet represented the taste of the giver. I used one happily, one reluctantly, and packed away the really objectionable one. Oddly, the one I so disliked now gives me pleasure, but not because my taste has changed. Indeed, the wallet is as atrocious as ever, but now it reminds me of the good friend who gave it to me.
I've come to value gifts that may well please the giver more than they please me, because they bring a sense of closeness to that person. I delight in going about my daily business and using gifts. I don't just use them; I often think of the giver and feel happy inside.
On the eve of my return to the U.S. after two years overseas, an artist friend named John gave me two farewell gifts. One was an elegant gold bracelet, exactly to my taste. But I value the other more. It was a pencil sketch he'd made a few years previously at a temple in India, a place he loved so well he'd spent five years there. Things Indian don't do much for me, and I'll probably never display that sketch on my wall, but I treasure it. To me it was a very personal gift, something John had created for himself. He knew I'd never been to India and couldn't truly understand or appreciate his sketch, but he honored me with it anyway. What he gave me was his trust and a bit of himself — a touching farewell gift.
Various occasions, like weddings, mandate gifts, but the best kind of gift is the no-occasion gift. Because such a gift is voluntary, the recipient feels twice-gifted: first, by the gift itself, and equally important, by the extra dollop of friendship it signifies.
I'll always remember a certain bottle of Johnnie Walker Red, a gift that pleased me beyond words, even though I detest Scotch. I was living in Iran. It was January 1st, and I was glad to have a very lonely Christmas over and done with. Mr. Mohseni, the father of an Iranian friend, must have thought that the American New Year was as important to me as the Iranian New Year is to Iranians. (It's a time of joy. The country shuts down for two weeks, and parents give their children money and presents.) In his best non-existent English, Mr. Mohseni wished me "Happy Jan-oo-ar!" and presented the Scotch. Even though I didn't value the gift itself, I was enormously pleased. It was a classic case of the thought that vounts." I will always love that man for having validated my existence.
As I grow older, I can afford to buy myself most things I really want. My personal notions of what makes a "good" gift have changed radically. If a gift happens to be fun or frivolous and suits my taste, that's super. If the gift doesn't match my taste... well, that's not so bad, especially if there's something of the giver in it. What matters most is that someone cares enough to give me a present now and then.
But just once in a while, I secretly wish Santa Claus would come back...
Staffer DAUNNA MINNICH is a linguist, teacher, and free-lance technical writer. She lives in Palo Alto with two dogs, four computers, and a husband named Tod. The latter is business manager of this magazine. It's a small world.
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