On Gifts, Giving, and Unevenness

Holiday shopping used to be a major source of stress for me.

I would pick out everyone’s gift, making sure that they were in the same price range as the gifts I was expecting from each person. This was not always easy, because we have a much more limited budget than a lot of people. I would often become resentful, because I wished we could just downscale the gifts we were exchanging. Then, I would look at everyone’s gifts, and get little trinkets to “even them up,” so that nobody was getting more than anyone else at the same party. Finally, I would grab a few generic items, wrap them, and carry them in my car, in case someone sprang an unexpected gift on me. It really bothered me when people brought gifts to parties, after we decided they would be gift-free.

It was full of stress and completely devoid of joy. And I was missing the point.

The point is that reciprocal gift-giving is not the best way. Sure, we think we’re more comfortable with it. It’s an economic exchange–the gifts are exactly equal, so nobody owes anybody anything. We don’t like to be indebted.

However, this system quickly turned me into a grinch. Here I was, breaking the bank to buy presents, and, while the presents we received were nice, we would have much rather used the money to buy food or fix the car (which was always broken at Christmas time). Again, resentment.

But then I started looking at it another way.

Relationships–the best, closest ones that we have–are 50/50 as an average only. They tilt; one person is always giving more than the other. When a friend helps you through a difficult time, that is not a debt that needs to be repaid. It’s an act of love. One act of love often leads to another, but they aren’t weighed and measured out. And they rarely are even. That’s the nature of a relationship.

And so it is with gift-giving. If somebody is incredibly generous at Christmas, it’s not because they expect a monetary return on their investment. It’s because they like you and want to give you something nice. It’s an act of love. If someone gives you an unexpected gift, it’s because they want to suprise you, not because they are expecting a material item in return.

This change of view has not only lessened the stress we face during the holidays, it has led to better gift-giving. Now, we don’t ask, “How much should we spend?” We ask, “What would make them happy, that they wouldn’t buy for themselves?” The reality is that, in our lifestyle, we’ve chosen time over money. It’s not a choice that we regret, but it does mean that we have less to spend than most of the people on our list. There is nothing that we could buy, that they couldn’t afford to buy themselves. So we get creative and try to find unique things that they would love, but wouldn’t buy on their own. We’ve given fancy food gifts, homemade gifts, nice items from our home that we don’t use anymore (but that the other person ended up loving!), and so on. It’s led to more joy for all involved.

So, if you’ve left the holiday season feeling guilty because you received a gift that was greater than you gave, or if you’re just glad that Christmas is over because you spent more than you could afford to, keep all of this in mind for next year. Let’s bring the joy back to giving!

2 thoughts on “On Gifts, Giving, and Unevenness

  1. “It’s because they like you and want to give you something nice. It’s an act of love. ”

    Which is why it is so hard for many of us to learn to accept gifts. We have to let our walls down and allow ourselves to be vulnerable to graciously receive gifts or love. It is definitely something I have to continue to work on.


    • Somehow, in this very “connected” age, we’ve lost connections, and have lost our ability to become vulnerable. Our efforts to protect ourselves have led to more isolation and stress.

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