Friday, November 25, 2011

An Introduction to the Art of Gift Giving

Perhaps you've heard the story of the Gift of the Magi. Two lovers who were very poor wanted to get each other Christmas gifts, even though they had both agreed that they couldn't afford to get gifts that year. The man spotted one day a jewel encrusted comb of great beauty. So he pawned his prized possession, his grandfather's pocket watch, so that he could buy his wife this gift. The wife one day found a gold watch chain that would look perfectly on her husbands watch. Having no money to buy the chain, she cut her long silky hair and sold it to buy her husband this gift. On Christmas day the two revealed what they had sacrificed to show the other how they loved them, and despite having no use for the gifts, they realized that they had a love that could withstand great sacrifice. 

What does it take to give good gifts? What can we do to become skilled at the art of gift giving? Well, Michael Angelo started by putting paint on canvas. If we want to be masters at expressing our gratitude, then we have to start at the beginning. This is part two in a three part series on the Art of Giving and Receiving gifts. Today I want to talk about how to give a good gift. Consider this an Intro to Beginners Gift Giving. I want to give here some basics on how to start giving good, real, meaningful gifts. Let's open our paint set and get started. 

As I see it, a gift can have value in two categories: functionality or practicality, and sentimental or personal value. I find that most gifts can be found along a spectrum between the two:

A broken treadmill is an awful gift, so are pictures of strangers. They have no practical or personal value. Your goal is strike a perfect balance between the two.Yes, that home made sweater took a lot of soul to make, but will they actually wear it? Cash is tacky, but useful. (Note. in my opinion, stay away from gift cards. They are less useful than cash, and try to affect emotional significance by saying, "Hey! I really know very little about you, but I assume that you can probably find something at Barnes and Noble/Best Buy/Other anonymous department store." Do the work, get them a real gift.) In giving a gift, we often try to be smarter than the person receiving the gift. We think, "What's something this person really needs or wants, but would never buy for themselves?" This is very difficult. Most of the time, if they wanted it, they could buy it themselves. You could run the risk of buying them something they can't afford, but that gift often becomes a shame and a burden to both of you. Or you could buy them something you know they don't have or haven't thought to buy for themselves, and run the risk of getting them something they don't actually want or wont use. 

We often start the whole gift giving process off on the wrong foot by asking, "What will this person want?" Instead of asking, "What will tell them how grateful I am for them?" Don't get me wrong, it's important to take what they want into account - but gift giving should revolve around the core question of how to love your recipient, not around getting them what they want. 

For this reason, and many others, I prefer homemade gifts. They have more character, usually take more time, and express more of the person giving and receiving the gift. The problem here is that a homemade gift often sacrifices practicality. These are the kinds of gifts children get their parents. Drawings on the fridge, popsicle stick picture frames, painted rock paper weights, etc. Parents love them because their kids made them, not because they really needed a paper weight. Unfortunately, we believe that we can't get away with this as adults. However the best gifts I have received have been made, albeit skillfully, by hand. One of the best gifts I ever received was from my Mom. I had no idea that she could draw, but for some reason she decided to give me a drawing of a dolphin that she had made into a refrigerator magnet. Why a dolphin? I have no idea. But it was an excellent gift because she made it, for me, to the best of her ability. It was a great drawing and I could use it to boot. Personal + functional = great gift. 

Frankly, I think we too often air on the practical side and buy gifts that have little personality. Like painting in black and white, we buy gifts for people at the same stores they are buying gifts for other people. If you would rather buy a gift than make one, why not find them something that would be hard for them to get themselves? Perhaps something at a garage sale, or antique store, or on ebay. Get them something that not anyone can get. It may sound rude at first to get them something that's been used, but perhaps they would like something with a little more color than X new video game or anonymous best seller - which they could probably buy themselves if they really wanted. 

What you need to give a good gift

So now that we've covered some basic gift theory, let's see what the ingredients of a good gift include. In my experience, all good gifts consist of four primary ingredients. Without these, your gift will be doomed to mediocrity. (Not that all mediocre gifts are bad, as we shall see. Occasionally a spontaneous gift with little forethought is the most perfect one. As with all art forms, a novice knows the rules, a master knows the exceptions.) So what goes into a good gift?

-Time - A good gift takes time. Time to decide what to get. Time to find it. Time to make it. Time to present it properly. This is why a good gift is so rare. The more time put into a gift, the better it is. It really depends on how much time you are willing to invest. For me this is that hardest part of giving a gift. Sometimes you may spend hours carefully deciding what you want to say with your gift, choosing what object would express that idea well, formulating a picture or idea in your mind, and systematically collecting or assembling each component of your gift, painting, sanding, knitting, welding, building. Or perhaps you may search garage sales and thrift stores religiously, surfing ebay compulsively looking for who knows what, until you stumble upon the perfect thing for a certain person like a flash of lightning. Until you have that sense of certainty about your gift, you haven't put in enough time. When you can say, "That is it!" with all assurance, you're golden. If ever think about your gift, "Well, this will do I suppose," even for a moment, you have chosen a mediocre gift. Investing time into your gift shows that you are willing to pay a cost for your recipient, which brings me to my next point.
-Cost - A good gift should cost you something. Now, this isn't necessarily money. Perhaps it's time, or emotional resources, or a good deal of research, creativity, and hard work. When we are willing to settle on cash or gift cards, we are saying precisely, "I am willing to spend 50 American dollars and 3 minutes of thought on you. No more, no less." I think the cost of a good gift should be greater, and more ambiguous. Perhaps your gift says, "I am willing to spend four hours thinking about you, glue, varnish, paint, $25, 12 working man hours, and a hammered thumb on getting you a good gift." That's more like it. The best gift I ever received was from a friend in college. It's a small cushioned kneeling pad used for prayer that my friend had sown an image of a thorny crown upon. It took her months to make. It's a beautiful thing. It has immense personal value, and I used it every day in the states. But what made it the perfect gift is that it reflected our relationship, and uniquely expressed both of our personalities. Her gift was enriched because of the context. 
-Context - None of these rules are hard and fast. There are times when cash is the most sincere and valuable gift a person can give. There are times when a delicate handmade gift is wildly inappropriate. It all depends on the context. Remember, a gift expresses the meaning of a relationship between one person and another person (or couple, or group of people). It should therefore reflect the unique characteristics of that relationship. A good gift has some history behind it. It has a story.  It should be the sum of all the experiences, conversations, struggles, reconciliations, good times, and bad that you have shared with that person. A good gift for one person is a terrible gift for another. Therefore, the deeper relationship you have with the person, the greater potential you have to give a meaningful gift. The context of a gift is often the hardest to navigate, it really takes some delicacy and artfulness to do it well. But when considered with precision, it is context that gives a gift its meaning. 

-Love - A gift can't express what isn't there. Unless you genuinely love and feel gratitude toward your recipient, how can you possibly give them a good gift? In fact, what's the point of getting a gift for someone you don't love? A good gift cannot be given under compulsion. This is why I'm generally against secret santas and other games like it. This is also why it's a shame that gift giving has been marginalized to Christmas, Valentines, and birthdays. The spontaneity and unexpectedness of a gift is a supremely important tool in our gift giving toolbox. Why? Because an unexpected gift says, "The love I have for you is not restricted to the time of the year when I'm expected to get something for you." A gift given under compulsion isn't a gift, it's a payment. A tax. Whereas a gift given out of love is immediately recognized. Taking gift giving seriously may mean that you actually end up giving less gifts that you are used to. That's ok. After all, gifts are about quality, not quantity. And a mediocre gift, given without love, will be soon forgotten. 

I realize that this is a lot to ask, especially for those who are expected to give several gifts to multiple people each year. Giving a good gift costs a lot of personal resources. If I could give only one gift a year to one person, but have it be a truly good gift, I would do so in a heartbeat. Most of the time I would rather not receive a gift at all than receive one that had little meaning or effort behind it. Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I would rather that the giver save their resources for his or her own needs than spend them getting a gift that doesn't work. That being said, receiving a gift is almost as delicate an art as giving one. Next week, I'll complete this series by talking about how to receive a gift well, with grace and gratitude. 


  1. Greg, beautifully expressed and explained... Hope a lot of people will read this and learn from it...

    A good gift takes time. Time to decide what to get. Time to find it. Time to make it. Time to present it properly. This is why a good gift is so rare.
    "What will tell them how grateful I am for them?"

    "I am willing to spend four hours thinking about you, glue, varnish, paint, $25, 12 working man hours, and a hammered thumb on getting you a good gift."

    It is context that gives a gift its meaning.

    A good gift cannot be given under compulsion.

  2. Since We started making our gifts for Christmas I find I enjoy the holidays more. I love thinking about what Iam going to make and have a blast making it. I look forward to opening presents and seeing what everyone gets. I only hope is that the person Iam giving the gift to enjoys it as much as I did making it. Love Mom

  3. Greg, I really enjoyed this post. This got me thinking a lot about the gifts I'll be giving in a few weeks, particularly for one person, and helped me shift my motivations a bit to be more in line with a good gift, rather than a semi-snarky one. Looking forward to more blog posts.


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