Wandering through the airport, I spotted a knick knack shop full of odds and ends, half jokes and half gifts. In front, there was a table laboriously set with Halloween themed sweets, and behind that, tall shelves were packed with Christmas stuffers and red-green-white cards. Gift season creeps up fast, no doubt.
The giving of gifts—the bonds that foster relationships, as described by Robin Wall Kimmerer—permeates this entire globe. The basic premise of giving a gift is that you want to offer something to someone you care about, given willingly without payment. It’s also known, then, that gifts quietly ask for reciprocity.
Now, there are two kinds: short-term and long-term reciprocity. Short-term refers the common gift exchange—instant gratification, a transfer of two objects or promises. It’s calculable. Long-term, though, is what Kimmerer refers to: gifts that create meaningful relationships. For example, a farmer might give someone free blueberries every Sunday, and in return, that person gives the farmer fresh blueberry muffins on following Mondays. There is an exchange of goods, but those goods build a steady bond between the two people, creating something more than full, hearty stomachs.
Sadly, the nature of gift-giving today is full of loopholes. A part of those loopholes resides in buying items at the generic toy store, ordering gifts that are rated 4.5-5 stars on Amazon, acquiring low-risk pleasers such as brand gift cards, chocolate and caramels, smartphones and tablets, etc. The other part comes from holidays. We simply find little reason to give gifts except when (inter)national words on a calendar mark a “special occasion.”
And we don’t take risks! We’re intensely aware of potential gift returns, and we fret: will they like it? Will they toss it in a pile of dusty memorabilia, or will they worship it by their bedside every night? But all of that has reduced gift exchanges to timid guesses at what’s “cool” (read: person buys a generic bluetooth speaker for a white elephant exchange) to avoid entangling themselves in long-term reciprocity. Especially in a technological society, most people feed on instant gratification.
“That is the fundamental nature of gifts: they move, and their value increases with their passage.”¹ You could spend years giving and receiving the same things between friends: a well-worn & annotated book, a basket of annual herbs, a winter concert every new year. The gifts may not be shiny and impressive, but the connections between the gift-givers would be sacred.
There is nothing wrong with buying a rainbow, ceramic bird for your friend on her birthday, but there is something wrong with feeling obligated to buy a gift for the sake of buying a gift. You shouldn’t give that Eagles CD to your father because it’s Christmas; you should give it to him because he likes 70’s and 80’s music, because he’s been having a rough day, because he loves the blast of electric guitars in his cool convertible.
Final thoughts: good gifts are easy to miss. Ironically, bad gifts are hard to forget (remember that time a girl received a used garage hammer in the gift exchange, and that boy who opened up a box that revealed a dented trash bin). Exchanges of gifts don’t need to be of the same form: a box of cookies for a warm smile, a compliment for a good hug. After all, the magic of gifts isn’t in the objects; it’s in the heart.
¹ The Gift of Strawberries, Robin Wall Kimmerer