It's at this time of year that many heated discussions arise on the touchy subject of gift giving, gift receiving and the materialism of the season. Have you had these conversations? Which side are you on – the side which says gifts can be a fun and meaningful way of expressing your friendship, love or appreciation for someone, or the side which sees the commercialism and materialism in giving and receiving gifts?
This is a subject dear and close to my heart, mainly because I love giving gifts. Truth be told, I love receiving them as well. I grew up in a household with a mother who loved Christmas. At least that's the memory I have from being a child. I remember sitting outside her bedroom door, listening to the sound of wrapping paper being cut, tape being pulled and ribbons being curled as she carefully hid each present in the brightly coloured paper. When she was done, I would quietly creep away, only to return, clandestinely, to my parent's bedroom, on the hunt for these very same parcels. I didn't want to open them or know what they were, but I did take it as a challenge each year to find her hiding spot. I would sneak back every few days and watch with glee as the number of gifts grew. And somehow, on Christmas morning, there would always be more gifts under the tree then I had seen. Of course, Santa helped with that but I'm sure now that I never did find all her hiding places!
My mother had a gift for gift giving. Her presents were always thoughtful, fun, practical and humorous. Candied worms in my stocking one year, and I don't mean Gummy Worms; fun knee high socks, incredibly challenging puzzles and all manner of games and books. PJ's were always a favourite. Always one main gift, such as the camera I asked for one year or new cross-country skis and boots. When my mother gave a gift, she gave it from her heart.
As much as my mother, bless her heart, gave from her heart, her giving was not without its pitfalls. There were strings attached. To receive from my mother one had to be prepared to be very, very thankful. One thank you and a big hug wasn't enough and the receiving of a gift was often followed by a string of questions: "Do you really like it? If you don't like it, you can always take it back! Does it fit? Is it the right colour? Do you love it? You don't like it, do you?" For my mother, my acceptance of her gifts was also my acceptance of her, and around that she had her demons.
There's a lot of emotion tied up in gift giving and receiving. In all honesty, have you ever given a gift without any expectation of something in return? Acknowledgment? Something of equal value? An appropriate emotional response? The giving and receiving of gifts is a language in and of itself and every culture, throughout time, has a relationship with this language. Gifts are given to show status and prestige, the more given the higher the status; gifts are given as tributes, bribes, and to show acquiescence. The value or cost of a gift has its own meaning in certain circles, as does the type of gift given from one person to another of different rank and social status.
Our North American culture doesn't exchange gifts this time of the year because the Three Wise Mages gave special gifts to the baby Jesus (and that has its own history of controversy!); we give gifts because we always have. People give gifts, it's as simple as that. We give gifts in pair bonding, to show affection and love. We give gifts to acknowledge each other's help or support. We give gifts to celebrate each other's births, achievements and big transitions in each other's lives. I believe that if we give up gift giving we deprive ourselves of a crucial part of human communication.
Not only communication but in the sharing of resources as well. In the northern parts of the world the best way to make it through the winter was to share what had been sowed, reaped and stored and the best way to survive the long, cold nights was to gather in community in support and celebration of each other. So many of our modern holiday traditions come from our deep connection to this collective memory of long nights and cold days – the burning of the Yule Log, the Christmas tree, the holly and the ivy, twinkle lights and gift giving – to name a few.
This is my vision of what gift giving and receiving could look like:
Only give because you want to, not because you feel you must; a gift not freely given will carry with it the energy of expectation and entitlement.
Give gifts that speak to you of the other person, not the number on the price tag; I'm as happy with a bouquet of hand-picked flowers as I would be with a diamond covered pin of the same flowers – even happier!
Don't ask people NOT to give you a gift – this is the same as telling them you don't need their help when they offer it – you deprive them of the joy they get from the giving of the gift and shut down the energy flowing between you.
Give yourself permission to move away from the idea that a gift must have a price tag on it – make your gifts, offer to help someone as your gift to them, create a card or a photo album of memories, re-gift – the possibilities are as limitless as your imagination!
Finally, if you don't like the commercialism and materialism that seems to be such a part of the holidays – don't participate in it! It's really that simple. Or, shop with intention and purpose. Spend your time and money in locally owned shops, support the businesses in your community, donate to a local charity, share the services of others, such as massage therapists, artists, or classes. You can reclaim the sacredness of gift giving and receiving; you can learn this ancient language and give it a modern flavour; you can make it your own.
Give a little, receive a little and watch how it all grows. Whatever you celebrate, enjoy each other and Happy Holidays!