Some tips on giving gifts

December is a good time to talk about a few gift-giving principles, with some illustrative stories. First, the principles:

  1. When you give a gift, truly give it. Let it go. Don’t hover over the gift forever after and be invested in what the receiver does with it. That’s not a gift, that’s an obligation.
  2. Give gifts that are ready to use. Don’t give gifts that need repair or assembly unless you know the person will love doing that work.
  3. Give gifts the receiver will like, not gifts that you would like. Sometimes your taste and the receiver’s will intersect, but not always.
  4. Give gifts within your means, but don’t be cheap about it. You’ve heard, “It’s the thought that counts.” True. But if you’re using that as an excuse to give a cheap gift (cheap isn’t the same as inexpensive–cheap means you are cutting corners), then the thought is “you aren’t worth my time and thoughtfulness.” Give gifts within your means, yes, but don’t give gifts that are insulting. (Unless you want to insult someone. Then by all means, go ahead.)
  5. Give gifts because you want to give gifts, not out of obligation. Especially, don’t try to buy someone’s approval with a gift. Any approval you get that way isn’t true approval; it’s manipulation.

1. Truly give gifts

Some people give gifts, then expect to be able to dictate how and when and whether the receiver uses it. Please don’t be that person.

Here”s a story that illustrates this principle.

The broody hen

A friend once gave me some lovely wine glasses she’d purchased in Italy and had schlepped all over Europe. When she gave them to me, she explained how much trouble she’d gone through to take care of them and to get them to me intact.

But she couldn’t stop nagging me about them. “Are they still intact? Are you using them? Are you enjoying them?” For YEARS.

I finally decided I didn’t like living with a gift that would someday, inevitably, break. Then I’d have to face my friend’s huge disappointment that I hadn’t taken better care of them. (Which, as a side note, was ironic, because when she smashed a vintage mixing bowl my mother had given me, she blithely told me, without apology, that “everything glass gets broken eventually.”)

Anyway, when I divorced, I let my soon-to-be-ex husband take the wine glasses. The feeling of relief I felt on seeing the last of those wine glasses was very telling.

My friend was disappointed and upset, and I told her then that her constant hovering and nervousness over the wine glasses had made them an obligation and a burden.

Now, those were lovely wine glasses, and it did mean a lot to me that my friend had taken such care to bring them to me.

But it wasn’t a gift; it was a loan.

If you act as though you have the right to dictate anything about what the receiver does with a gift, you haven’t actually given anything.

As a side corollary, if you give your child a gift, that is now your child’s property and you have no right to take it away, dictate its use, etc. I have so much I can say about that, but I’ll reserve it for now. This post isn’t about child-rearing.

2. Give gifts that are ready to use

This story falls into both #1 and #2 on the list.

When my mother was alive, she had a habit of giving me “gifts,” often broken, then stealing them and giving them to someone else once I repaired them.

For example, she gave me a shabby, painted wooden rocking chair, saying I could keep it if I refinished it (an odd thing to say in any case). I stripped the paint and refinished the rocking chair. Then she stole it from me and proudly presented it to my oldest brother and his wife as a gift from her.

Another time, she told me that I could have her antique Lane cedar chest, which had been her hope chest, if I retrieved it from her friends’ house and refinished it. I called her friends and found they’d been storing it outside. As you might imagine, the finish was in terrible shape. I hauled it home, stripped it, and refinished it with tung oil. Those of you who have worked with tung oil know it’s a lovely finish, but takes a long time and a lot of work to do right.

It was gorgeous once I’d finished it. A few years later, she asked for it back. Uncharacteristically for me, I refused, and because it was so large, she couldn’t steal it, but she did keep asking for it.

I’d like to think no one else in the world does this kind of thing, but because I have some friends who give me gifts that “just need a small repair” (though at least they never take them back), I know my mother wasn’t unique.

Don’t be like that. Don’t give someone a gift that needs work–repair, assembly, whatever–unless you know absolutely for sure that the receiver will welcome having to do that work. Otherwise, all you’re doing is giving them an obligation and something to feel guilty about.

And for all that’s holy, don’t ask for the gift back, and don’t steal it back. I feel I shouldn’t have to say this, and yet, my experience shows that some people do this kind of thing. (Granted, my mother was a narcissist–and I don’t say that to mean someone who thought a lot of themselves, I say that meaning a genuine, clinically narcissistic person, so she was a bit of an outlier.)

3. Give gifts the receiver will like

I love handmade gifts. I love to make them, I love to give them, I love to receive them. Anything from home-canned preserves to my absolutely fabulous snow-covered gingersnaps, to embroidered art–I love it all, I cherish it when I get it, and I love to give such items as gifts.

But others have different preferences. I’ve given embroidered projects that I spent tens of hours on, only to have the receiver be less than thrilled. (I tell a pertinent story about one such gift when I discuss #5.) Or I’ve given a book I love, only to have it just not be the receiver’s cup of tea.

About the only handmade gift I’ve given that has met with unanimous and consistent approval is a batch of my snow-covered gingersnaps. The recipe has been in the family for several generations and has been a life-long favorite for good reason–the cookies are flat-out amazingly delicious. (You can find the recipe on page 86 of my desserts cookbook.)

So when choosing gifts, take a moment to ask yourself if the person you’re giving the gift to will truly enjoy it. If you suspect they won’t, but you can’t think of what they might like, consult with someone who knows them.

4. Give good-quality gifts that are within your means

There’s no excuse for giving cheap gifts. But “cheap” has nothing with value, and “good quality” doesn’t always mean “expensive.” You can be dirt poor and still be able to give something thoughtful and tasteful. For example,

  • You can create great gifts with very inexpensive supplies. (Though homemade gifts might not welcome by everyone–see #3.) Does your friend like to grow things? Buy some inexpensive waterproof paints and terra-cotta flowerpots and paint the flowerpots. Does your friend have a baby or a cat or dog? Knit or crochet a baby blanket. Don’t worry about artistic merit–homemade is always charming, and we crafty people tend to see all the flaws in our own creations. Nobody else will see them. The Internet (or your local library) can be a great resource for finding do-it-yourself projects at all skill levels. (Though unfortunately, a number of DIY video people fake it and you’ll never be able to get the results they claim they got.)
  • Shop at thrift stores. Some of them have great finds for just a few dollars. (If you’re local to Sonoma County, check out Pick of the Litter, my favorite thrift shop. They have some top-notch items. And as a bonus, Forgotten Felines runs it.)
  • You can give gifts of your time. For example, if you have friends with a small child, offer to babysit for them so they can have a night off. Or maybe a friend needs help or even just your company doing chores or running errands. Or just needs someone to spend some time with them.

If you have money, some people welcome it (including me), but some people see money as a gift that says “I can’t be bothered to pick out something I think you’ll like.” So just be aware that some people get insulted if you give them money.

5. Give gifts because you want to

You should never give anyone gifts because you feel obligated or are attempting to buy someone’s approval. That’s the opposite of the idea behind giving gifts. Only give gifts because you truly want to.

The money snob

Here’s an example of giving gifts out of obligation. When I was in my early 20s, I dated a young man who came from an upper-middle class family. Money was the only yardstick by which his mother measured anything. If it was expensive, or if a person had money, they were good in her eyes. Otherwise, forget about her having any respect for you.

Since I came from a dirt-poor family, you can imagine what she thought of me, let along that I was dating her son. It didn’t matter that I came from a highly educated family or that I was on the Dean’s list almost every quarter (being on the Dean’s list means I earned straight As) at a private Jesuit university. (I was putting myself through by earning scholarships, getting grants and loans, and working 20 hours a week during the school year and full-time in the summer.) All that mattered to her was that I didn’t have money and I didn’t come from money.

The young man was hugely tense about giving his mother gifts. He said that he always had to give her something from Gump’s in San Francisco. (Gump’s is–or at least was–the kind of place where, if you had to ask how much an item was, you couldn’t afford it.) It didn’t matter what the gift was, or how graceless–if it was from Gump’s, it was acceptable to her–barely.

The one Christmas the young man and I were together, I couldn’t afford anything from Gumps, so I spent tens of hours hand-embroidering a lovely winter scene. The finished piece was about 2′ by 3′ (yes, that’s feet.) I framed it in a wide, solid-oak frame.

When his mother unwrapped it, she wrinkled her nose and said in a tone that said it all, “Oh. It’s handmade.” (In the same voice she might have used for, “Oh, It’s human excrement.”) She then said, “I guess we can hang it in the den.” (Nobody ever went into the den.)

That gave me some inkling of what her son was going through. He had failed out of the same university I was attending, and worked at a pizza parlor, and she constantly reminded him of what a disappointment he was.

The point here is that although her son was giving her gifts because he wanted to, he was also giving her gifts he couldn’t afford because he was trying to buy her approval. No one should ever be in that position. If your family doesn’t love and accept you as you are, they aren’t family.

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