It's been building up for a few years now.  Rising awareness of how buying stuff correlates with waste and bigger strains on the environment.  Economic disaster.  Longing for deeper meaning.  The villain, at this time of year, is gift-giving.  The message is everywhere, although not nearly as "everywhere" as cheesy commercials for toys and electric shavers with that annoying, knifelike "Carol of the Bells" playing in the background.  I'd like to shoot that song dead, how about you?

No, the anti-gift message is everywhere and in addition to waste, it often refers to the "bad gifts," and, by association, the incompetent gift giver.  "Not another ugly sweater" "Don't give him a toy he doesn't need" etc.  Instead, send your dollars to Africa, build wells for clean water, buy a poor family a cow, give of your time and not your money.

Which is of course all wonderful. 

The thing that bugs me is that gift-giving is not the problem.  I say this because I am a "gifts person" and I think deeply about gifts, I love giving them and I love receiving them and I think gift-giving is an art and an important part of our culture.  My description of myself as a "gifts person" comes from Gary Chapman's "Five Love Languages," by the way, which is on the one hand a reductive relationship quiz but on the other hand a helpful way to understand how to give others what they need in the ways that they need it.  The five love languages according to Dr. Chapman are: gifts, physical touch, quality time, words of affirmation, and acts of service.

Gift-giving, when done well, is not about buying a sweater and hoping it's the right size.  It's about listening.  I have one family member who excels at gift-giving and she has given me amazing things over the years.  Things I didn't realize I needed.  Things I did not realize she heard me say I liked, back in February or April.  Giving gifts with this person has been an act of being known and loved that has deepened our relationship in surprising ways.  She gave me a coat one year, a sweeping dramatic black coat with a hood and fur around the collar that fits like a glove (well, not at the moment) and then flares around my legs.  I feel like a Russian princess in this coat.  She gave me this coat because it seemed dramatic and glamorous, two things she sees in me, and she said "it just was you."

I was part of an organization once where we decided to give Christmas gifts but they had to cost less than a dollar.  There was much agonizing and complaining but the exchange ended up being a hilarious evening.  People gave handmade things.  People recited poems.  The meaning of the gift, the wonderful qualities of the recipient that the gift acknowledged, the origins of the $1 item, all formed the basis of an evening of sharing what we knew of each other and learning more.  Many of us still have our $1 items many years later because of what they represent.

Gift-giving done well is about sacrifice, not just of money, but of thought and energy.  Bad gifts are bad because someone didn't think about us and they might not have even thought about the gift.  If New Year's Eve is amateur night for drunks, then Christmas is amateur gift-giving season and it's no wonder the results are bad.  

But let's not blame the gifts.  If I have to buy a gift for a family member I'm on bad terms with, then it's not the gift's fault that I don't know what to get.  If I receive size medium sweaters from Aunt Mimi every year and they never fit, it's not her fault that I never let her know that M is in the rearview mirror for me and may never come back.  If I believe that my cherished husband should know enough to get me the pink citrine earrings just because I always rave about how much I like pink citrine, even though he's a terrible gift-giver, it's not his fault that he got me garden gloves instead.   

I think bad, unsatisfactory gift-giving experience comes from 1) broken or superficial relationships, 2) bad or nonexistent communication and 3) lack of ability in the gift-giving department.  It's not the gifts' fault.  If your Thanksgiving dinner ends up a shouting match, do you blame the turkey?  Stop serving cranberry sauce because of it?  I don't think so.

Now there are many of us, and by "us" I mean "you," who just aren't "gifts people."  You don't have to do the 30-second quiz over at Dr. Chapman's website, or read the books, to know that gifts are nothing to you but quality time, or words of affirmation, or something else, is what helps you to feel loved and whole.  That's great.  But please keep in mind that some of us are gifts people too, and it's not about getting a Coach bag for us: it's how we like to know and be known, and it's not about money.  I would never be able to say "oh, crap, do I have to say nice things about them again?  It's such a waste of my time" or "Why do I have to help my family members who need it?  I'm too busy."   Acts of service and words of affirmation are legit things that some people need and gifts are legit too.

A few years ago the husband of a dear friend called me to ask if I could help him with gifts for his wife, a known gifts person.  He said she wanted clothes for Christmas and he was lost about what to get.  I suggested he plan, as his gift, a shopping trip with her, where she would show him what she liked and why she liked it, and that he could also have some input about what he liked on her and the ways that she wears her clothes that he finds attractive.  I don't know if they actually did that shopping trip or not.  I hope so.

The reason why this gift is touching to me is that this husband wants to speak his wife's language.  He could just give her a gift card.  Instead, he wants to understand how to give her the right gifts, which means he wants to know her better.  He wants to know a side of her that he has to dig to get to, and he is willing to do it even if it takes him into areas (gift-giving, women's clothes) that he doesn't understand and maybe doesn't like.

When I hear of families giving all their gift budget away, having a no-gifts Christmas, I think that's great.  It teaches kids really good things and to people who truly don't like gift-giving, it's probably a great relief.  But gift-giving is a skill that we need in our culture, and I don't think it's going away, so I also hope that those of us for whom gift-giving is difficult can ask for help, the way my friend's husband did (and that I wish my own husband would).  It's not always the sweater's fault.

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