Once a year we find surprises for our favorite people, wrap them up in pretty paper, and hope they get the message that we love them. Our wordless gift tells them how special they are to us. It feels good when we find the right present, and our pleasure in giving rivals theirs in receiving.
But the getting-there part can be hard this time of year. You’re trying to find what would be an ideal present for someone who has everything and who spends at least as much time as you do shopping or on-lining. Many people don’t put too much thought into it and just buy a gift—any gift—to cross it off the list. But if you want your gift to foster a deeper connection, then it can be a challenge that takes a lot of time and energy—at a time of year when you have little of both. This doesn’t matter if you enjoy shopping, but if you don’t, I have another idea. But first a story.
One Christmas, when I was about twelve years old, my father bought me a little china figurine of a cartoonish boy with a big smile on his face raising a tennis racket. I wondered if my father was losing his marbles, as I had no interest in tennis, and the figure seemed like something you would give a first-grader. I figured he had swiped the first thing he saw off the dime-store shelf at the last minute.
Oddly, puzzlement was my primary feeling. I wasn’t angry or hurt but dumbfounded. I didn’t know how to react, and I’m not sure I even thanked him. It seemed such an insincere gift for a man who I knew loved me very much. I used to think of this gift occasionally over the years, especially when I was reduced to doing the same thing: settling for a generic gift that fell far short of what I wanted to convey.
But this year as Christmas plans were getting underway, I had a new thought about my father’s gift. The problem was that I didn’t have any context for interpreting the gift, other than as a very unsatisfying Christmas present. I had a thought about how my experience might have been different with the very same gift. What if my father had given it to me with a note that said, “This little guy with his happy face reminded me of you, Merry Christmas!” Now that I think about it, that was probably it: Happy, playful daughter; happy, playful figurine. Something about it had reminded him of me.
Ever since I had that thought, there’s a different feeling around that memory. Now what is foremost in my mind is the likelihood that the cheery character brought me to mind. When he thought of me, perhaps he thought of me not as an emerging teenager, but as his young child.
This alternate story is now quite enough for me. In fact, I would give a lot to still have that gift, all these many years after he’s been gone. Now in my mind’s eye, I see my hapless dad trying to come up with something before Christmas, resolved to get me a present even if he couldn’t think of a good one.
This memory helps me now when I start worrying about finding perfect gifts. It reminds me that something is better than nothing, and that if I’m out shopping for someone, my heart is already in the right place. The Christmas spirit is working.
So what do you do when you still can’t find anything you feel great about giving? You can make the recipient feel great about anything you give. How? By including a note that explains the positive reason why you picked this out for him or her. For instance, let’s say you find something that reminds you of this person in some way, but it’s far from perfect. Instead of worrying about your gift’s shortcomings, you could buy one of those tiny cards that people put inside gifts and tuck it inside your package.
On the card, write, “This made me think of you because…” or “I want you to have this so that—.” You have just given your gift a meaning it didn’t have on its own, with a personal message to boot. It’s just a single sentence on a tiny card, but now the receiver knows you gave thought to what you bought and that it was especially chosen for him or her. With so much stuff and so many presents, that is a very special offering indeed. Christmas is always in the giving of the gift, not just the gift itself.