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How I Give Gifts

This has been one of the most fascinating discussions — at least, for me.  Bea said it best when she called discussing gift giving a minefield.  I really did worry about offending someone because I get the sense that the gift portion of Christmas is sacred not for the tangible items to be obtained but for the tradition of unwrapping presents that maybe stretches back to childhood.

I’ll start by saying that I love receiving gifts and giving gifts.  Not a huge fan of accumulating clutter or things I’ll never use, but a well-planned gift that lets me know the person cares about me?  Which can mean a gift card — I love receiving gift cards to places I go all the time because it makes me feel free to treat myself to something I really want.  But seriously, who doesn’t like to get something, especially if it’s something they want?  I prefer gifts to be “just because” than at a certain time of year out of obligation (same gift card, but I’d rather get it on a random day which makes me think that it’s about me, vs. getting it on a holiday or my birthday which is still very much appreciated, but sort of becomes about the event instead of me.  Does that make sense?)

I like giving gifts when I think of something the person might want.  I like it when I can come up with something clever, but most of my gifts are more of the standard thoughtful variety.  I know the person’s taste in jewelry, so I get them some jewelry.  Or I know they like cooking equipment, so I get them something I enjoy using that I think they might enjoy too.

I give the same mishloach manot basket to everyone for Purim, though tweaked to keep in mind people’s food allergies and likes/dislikes.  That holiday is probably the closest we have to Christmas shopping, but the gifts are entirely of the food variety with the exception of children.  I give kids toys or books with their mishloach manot baskets.  And I LOVE to give those every year; I would cry if I couldn’t go overboard with Purim baking and candy making.  I end up mailing or delivering about 50 of those boxes, and it is one of my favourite things I do all year.  I like thinking about people opening their box and eating their way through their box, but even more, I like the expectation that they’re going to receive a box.  That it’s a given that it’s near Purim, and I’m sending mishloach manot.  So I guess I understand that side of the Christmas tradition, even though ours differs in the sense that everyone receives identical baskets of baked goods and candy vs. having to go to the mall and hunt down the perfect item for each individual.

But mishloach manot is a small piece of the holiday, and not really one that the twins seem to pay too much attention to overall.  They don’t make wish lists or race down the stairs in the morning in anticipation of the gift.  There have been plenty of years where we haven’t given them a tangible item for Purim and if they’ve noticed, nothing was said.  I think if I had to point out what they obsess over with Purim, it would be their costume.  Purim is about going to shul and the megillah reading, and it’s also about the carnival.  But mostly, they want to design their costume and have something cool to wear for the Purim parade.


I realized reading your responses why it would be difficult for me to do Christmas shopping, especially if I had to come up with multiple gifts for the same person and stocking stuffers, etc.  Shopping is done — I’m assuming — over the course of weeks or even months.  I’m going to assume that if you have 20 presents to buy, you don’t do all of them in one day, the day before Christmas.  There might be the rare person who does that, but more than one person mentioned that specifically stocking stuffers are small items collected up over the course of the year.

Here is the problem: When I buy something for someone, I give it to them immediately with only a few exceptions.  If I think to myself, “the twins would love a new hexbug set,” I go out that day and buy them the new hexbug set and surprise them with it when they get in the car from school.  Gifts are less tied to behaviour or reward or celebration, and are more just one more way of me saying, “hey, I thought you’d find this cool” or “I couldn’t help but notice that you’re really into this right now.”  I usually don’t hold onto gifts for more than a day or two.

I don’t like to stockpile gifts, shopping over the course of weeks and tucking the gifts away for a specific occasion.  And if I can’t come up with something that makes sense in the moment, something I think the person really wants, I hate just getting something for the sake of getting something.  So for the most part, the twins get gifts when the thought strikes me vs. tied to a holiday (that said, they receive small items on their birthday, Purim, Befana Day, and their floating second birthday — more on that in a moment).

Coincidentally, I saw The Descendents on Monday and realized as I watched the movie why I give gifts this way.  When I was younger, I saw someone not receive something she wanted, and a few weeks later, she died.  And all I could think about at the funeral was how stupid it had been for her parents to deny her this simple thing she wanted because life is so tenuous and brief and no one knows which day may be their last day.  Since I was little, this idea has stuck with me and permeates everything I do.  Which doesn’t mean that I live my life without planning things, but we are more of an eat-dessert-first family.  If the twins have an idea and there’s no reason to say no, I don’t say no.  Somehow we’ve been able to keep life in check, not devolving into complete hedonism.  But I do tend to give presents for no reason, right when the idea strikes me.

The movie; the randomness of death, his wife going from vibrantly alive to in an irreversible coma in the space of a second, flipped the light switch for me, and I was still crying as I walked to the car, remembering this girl and how much her death has affected the way I live life.  I wouldn’t change the way I live life, frankly.  I like being mindful of how quickly things can change, and as long as the kids balance out following their wants with remembering their needs, I’m fine to keep going this way without change.  Because there is a broken part of me that I know would obsess about putting off something fun just to have it fall in line with something on the calendar.  I think that it’s both an irreparably damaged side of my personality as well as one of my best traits at the same time.


I have to admit that I don’t remember most of the presents my parents got me over the years.  I remember a few here and there, but while I know I must have been really excited in the moment, they didn’t really stick with me.  The gift I do remember is the one I still have; long after the stuffed animals and Playmobil sets and electronics are gone.  One year, my dad wrote a poem for each of us; a specific poem about each child in the family.  I still have that poem.  I have no idea what my parents thought before they gave it to me, but it is still my favourite gift they ever gave me (I mean, when you take things out such as life, food, college tuition, etc).  I knew it was my favourite gift in the moment, and that is why I still have it — I knew enough to tuck it away for safe keeping whereas I didn’t do that with any of my old Playmobil sets.

Knowing that sort of puts the compiling of plastic toys in perspective.  The twins may have a different experience pointing to one of their toys as their favourite gift when they’re in their late thirties, but I’m hopeful that even if it is something I bought, that it will be something I bought mindfully.  With great intention behind it.  Or maybe they’ll screw with me and it will be some random thing I could have never predicted would make a big impact on their psyche.

I think my parents instilled a good appreciation though not expectation of gifts, and we’re desperately trying to do the same for the twins.  So far, it has worked, and they don’t behave as if they’re owed presents, though they do love to receive them.  If we tell them that they can’t keep something, they roll with it.  We sometimes ask them what they want, but usually just try to listen to the sorts of things they talk about and compile gift ideas that way.  I also get them things such as an iTunes gift card for no reason whatsoever so they can treat themselves to things such as a new app or e-book just because.  I certainly buy myself gifts over the course of the year, and I want them to have the power to make themselves happy rather than having to wait for someone to buy things for them.  I think springing gifts on them when they least expect it creates a Phantom Tollboothy feel in our house, great unexpected adventures may happen on a completely ordinary day.  And it keeps us from having too much of a letdown after any holiday or birthday.

In fact, because the twins share a birthday, we created a floating birthday-like holiday for each of them, and it springs out of the calendar without warning.  One night they go to bed without knowing anything is up, and the next morning they wake up to their kitchen chair decorated in candy and presents.  They get to choose all the meals and activities for the day.  But without knowing it’s coming, they can’t anticipate it.  And once it’s gone, there is sometimes a bit of a letdown to know that it’s over for the year, but there is usually something else to look forward to before them.  Such as their real birthday.  But that is another way for me to slip a present in there, one that I bought that day that I want to give them immediately anyway.


I don’t think there is a right or wrong way to give presents (there may be a wrong way to receive presents… I’m thinking of Veruca Salt).  I think there’s just the way you feel comfortable doing it.  Some people like to give extravagantly, and some people like to give more restrained.  Some people like to give a lot of small gifts so there can be a lot of moments of tearing off the paper, and some people like to give one big ticket item that the other person would never receive otherwise.  I think, for me, I will continue letting my fatalistic fears of how brief life is rule how I give presents and hand them off immediately after purchasing them.  Mostly because I like the idea that every day could be a potentially wonderful day where you get the excitement of a present.

I read this to Josh before posting and he wants me to add that I am terrible with keeping gift secrets, though fine with all other sorts of information.  He claims that when I get him something, I immediately start taunting him with hints about it, and when he doesn’t take the bait, I need to give it to him immediately so we can talk about the gift — not because he wants to know what it is, but because I can’t stand knowing something that he doesn’t know.  This is true.


1 Her Royal Fabulousness { 12.28.11 at 8:43 am }

I love your approach to gift giving and mine is similar. I also love the idea of a floating holiday for the twins. Brilliant.

In general, I love giving gifts because I love to give gifts. I love making people happy and making them feel special. I do not claim to be a great gift giver (I myself heart the gift card) but every now and then I’ll see THE PERFECT THING and give it to someone almost immediately, because I can’t keep a secret. 🙂

This whole discussion has made me consider my relationship to gifts and my parents though. Let me preface by saying I have lived 3,000 miles away from my folks since I was 18. I am now 31. When I was a kid, I would def get good bday and Hannukah gifts. Nothing over the top but lots of CDs, a computer once, clothes, posters for my room, gift cards, etc. However, over the years, my parents rarely give me gifts any more. This coupled with the fact that we have a somewhat distant relationship and money is tight has not helped them to make an effort. I used to send them gifts for all occasions, but slowly but surely they have almost altogether stopped sending me any gifts. None for my birthday, Hannukah, anything really. Although I am an adult and I shouldn’t put a lot of weight on presents, it makes me feel unloved and forgotten. I know in reality that they DO love me and they figure grown ups shouldn’t need to give grown-ups presents, but I have to admit, it hurts me.

I don’t think I’ll make the same mistake with my hypothetical children
when they grow up. On some level, we all want to feel like the special kids we were when we were little.

Thanks for letting me get that off my chest. 🙂

2 a { 12.28.11 at 9:39 am }

I guess the thing to be taken away from all of this is that we all like to give (and receive) gifts. We also like deadlines, so a holiday to give out these gifts makes us get off our duffs and do it.

3 niobe { 12.28.11 at 10:05 am }

I’m not a fan of gifts. Not (for the most part) of giving them and certainly not of getting them.

I’ve found that they tend to have too many strings attached. And I’m not talking about the ribbons.

4 Anna { 12.28.11 at 10:37 am }

Thanks for discussing all of this. I don’t think I’ve resolved all my issues around Xmas gift-giving yet.

We changed the form of Xmas, having spent our childhood and single adulthoods being dragged around the country visiting relatives every day and without anybody enjoying it much. We stay at home with our girl. However, the overload of plastic toys still finds us, this year we’ve held 3/4 of the gifts back to pass on or for our girl to discover later on, I’m already finding this awkward to explain to people (why their gifts aren’t currently on display in our front room).

In the past 2 years I have decided to send cards only to a number of people I don’t see often and am not close to. People who have never met my daughter and haven’t seen me for years are bound to send not-quite-right gifts. Last year I contacted some friends in this position and suggested stopping/scaling things down. I thought they would carry over this understanding for this year but they haven’t, the presents rolled in again. So I still haven’t quite sorted out expectations or how to get across my feelings on this politely and with lasting impact.

Floating birthdays?! You have such great ideas and family traditions in your family. How wonderful. I’m not sure how I can make that one right for us but I am now very excited about trying it.

5 Hope { 12.28.11 at 11:08 am }

I love the idea of random gifts throughout the year, just because you thought the other person would like it!

6 Ellen K. { 12.28.11 at 1:08 pm }

The floating birthday for the twins is a terrific idea. I, too, love to give gifts spontaneously and take a lot of pleasure in it. To me it express love and appreciation year-round. This goes for friends as well as I. & N. There is an excellent thrift store and five-and-dime across from the coffeeshop where I do my freelance work, and so the girls might just find a huge plastic dinosaur in their carseat when I pick them up, or a strip of candy buttons. Or they might not. I usually run errands without the girls, so they don’t have expectations of getting a treat or toy at the store — and when I do take them shopping, I find I regret wasting my money on something without the element of surprise. I enjoy the random, why-not gifting more than Christmas or birthdays. I like to send flowers, too, because I love to receive them.

LOL at Josh’s comment. I’m not good at keeping gifts secret, either.

7 Lut C. { 12.28.11 at 3:22 pm }

Those of us that don’t participate in the Christmas shopping rush will never make the news headlines I suppose.
My husband and I give each other the same thing each year for Christmas – nothing. And each year I appreciate very much that I don’t have to go through the difficult exercise of Christmas shopping.
We usually make up for it by indulging in something whenever the idea comes to mind. A bit like floating Christmas. 🙂

8 Eggs In A Row { 12.28.11 at 4:51 pm }

I love giving the perfect gift. My hubby works outside a lot, and loves his music. I found ear muffs with little head sets, for instance, and was PUMPED to give it to him. That being said, most times I have to wait to buy him something so that I don’t give him his November birthday present in March.

My MIL loves giving gifts. But, they aren’t ever anything that make sense. For instance, she found these mirrors that make your pores look like the size of an eraser. And I guess she thought, Rachel would love this! Me, not ever saying anything like, I love the trauma that comes with looking at my pores through a microscope. But she was so excited to give it to me out of nowhere. LOL. I just hope I never come across as that crazy

9 Bea { 12.28.11 at 7:34 pm }

Yes, I like your approach. With my sisters, we have a sort of agreement around Christmas and birthdays that there will only be a present if we see something appropriate – not out of obligation. We don’t do the random presents thing as much as you seem to (once in a while though) but we do try to stick to mindful gifts or nothing at all. And I hate gift secrets, too – keeping them and being the one in the dark! So the stockpiling sort of gets to me a bit, too.

But Mr Bea’s family is different, and I guess that’s where the minefield sets in. First of all, tying presents to specific events is key. Even if presents are received before the occasion, they MUST NOT BE OPENED until the occasion (this has caused arguments – I think once your gift is in your hands you should be free to tear off that paper, especially if you’re only three). And the gift-giving seems (to me) to have more of a sense of obligation (in terms of timing, size, value, etc) than the gift giving in my family. I find it very stressful. I have to say it has really helped to understand it in terms of a language of caring as per my previous comment. These are different people expressing themselves to each other in different ways. I do feel a bit like a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language enough to give an appropriate greeting and maybe order fried rice for lunch in his house at Christmas sometimes. But they seem to understand each other, as do we in our family.


10 Chickenpig { 12.28.11 at 8:56 pm }

I love to give my kids random gifts. It is hard for me to squirrel away stocking things. If I find something that one of them would love I just want to give it to them. Today we went to Lowe.s just to look for discounted Christmas decor and stuff and I ended up buying my daughter an inexpensive lamp. When we came home Nate burst into tears because he thought the lamp was for him. His heart was broken. You know that I’m going to get him a lamp now, the poor little widget.

11 Emily { 12.28.11 at 10:20 pm }

I have a hard time waiting to give a gift too. If I find something perfect for someone I usually just give it to them. I usually end up forcing myself to hold something for Christmas.

12 Baby Smiling In Back Seat { 12.29.11 at 1:10 am }

I talked a lot about my history with Xmas gifts in my last comment, but didn’t mention how we give gifts now. With the twins, I get all sorts of stuff all the time, then I give them something every few days — often when I’m stuck inside with them for a few hours and they’re starting to go stir crazy. There is a spot on the mantle where I always have a couple of new books ready to whip out at any moment; it’s so high that the twins can’t see what is up there or even, usually, whether there is anything there. Yesterday I was holding Tamale while walking past the mantle and she said expectantly, “New book!” So I guess my unpredictability has become predictable.

With DH, we almost never get each other gifts. Instead, we each just buy whatever we want for ourselves throughout the year, within reason. We’re actually both very thrifty about it, so there aren’t many purchases for ourselves, but I’d much rather have our money spent on things we actually want and reserve our mutual thoughtfulness for daily life. Not that we never give gifts; we just don’t HAVE to. I can be an outstanding gift-giver, so I do come up with truly great presents for him now and then. He has tried very hard to wow me many times over the years, but I guess I am hard to please. Or rather, easy to please, hard to delight.

13 mash { 12.29.11 at 4:05 am }

We’ve changed our family Christmas tradition for the sake of the environment and our pockets. We all get each child a present, because for them the magic of Christmas is definitely in ripping open those mysterious wrapped parcels. But for the adults, we have Secret Santa. We each pull a name out of a hat, and then we each make a list of possible gifts that we would like to receive. We have a limit on spending, which in dollars would be about $40. Each list is made available, and the Secret Santa has a choice to buy from that list or something else that they want to buy you. It works really well, and takes the pressure out of buying for everyone, but most importantly, also the waste of receiving gifts that aren’t really useful. Thank heavens we don’t have a tradition here of buying for friends! I prefer anyway to do as you do, random gifts “Just Because”, or to just spend some quality time with those people over this period.

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