Thoughts on Intentional Gift-Giving

wrapped gifts under treeChristmas is less than a week away, a fact that prompts me to think about gift-giving. What a very fraught subject! I’d be more than willing to just forget about the whole process myself, being content with good food, decorations, socializing with friends and family, and special outings. But I can’t be a complete Scrooge, can I? So here are some ways that I enter into the spirit of the season without putting myself through the wringer or giving items that may not be used or appreciated:

1) Give experiences.

Every Christmas for a number of years Jim and I have bought tickets for his parents, sister and brother-in-law to some special holiday museum exhibit. The Denver Art Museum is a great favorite, and we can usually get a membership and discounted tickets for about the price we’d pay just for non-member tickets. Three that sound out in my memory are the blockbuster Van Gogh exhibit several years ago, a gorgeous jewelry display, and a Star Wars costume show. This year’s show is of Impressionistic paintings by women, so we’ll plan on that. I always agonize over the timing of our tickets, as we want to eat either before or after our visit. This year it’s going to be bitterly cold, but we’ll survive, probably even making our way to the other end of downtown to visit our beloved Tattered Cover Bookstore.

2) Ask people what they want.

So obvious, right? Gideon asked me a few days ago what I’d like, and I told him that the subscription of Cook’s Illustrated Magazine that he got for me several years ago was a real favorite. I expect to see an envelope with a notification of my newly-started subscription under the tree, and I’ll get a little jolt of happiness every time the magazine lands in the mailbox.

3) Give healthy treats.

Please, no more layered Russian tea mix or hot chocolate mix or chocolate-chip cookie mix! Puh-leeze! Here’s what I’m planning to do for small gifts to be given out on Christmas night: homemade whole-grain items that are really, really good. I’ll make some whole-grain crackers, some savory biscotti, and some regular but unfrosted biscotti. I’ll (probably) make some gluten-free items for two of my giftees. I’ll include some cards with ingredient lists and ideas for using the items, putting the whole schemozzle into some kind of inexpensive and disposable bag.

4) Remember that your time and effort matter only to you.

This is a somewhat slippery concept, but I think it’s very helpful to remember. So, for instance, a couple of years ago I decided to make herb-and-spice wreaths for my stepsisters-in-law. The idea was that you would attach culinary items such as bay leaves, peppercorns, star anise, and cinnamon sticks onto a small twig wreath that could be hung up in the kitchen. As the recipient made dinner she’d say, “Oh, I need a bay leaf!” and pluck one off the wreath. It seemed like a great idea. So I plunged into the project with gusto, gathering the materials and then facing the daunting task of attaching the food items to the wreaths with some type of food-safe glue. I don’t really remember what I ended up using, but they were pretty cute. The thing of it was, I was really doing the project for myself. I thought that the wreaths were pretty, and I wanted to make them. I spent quite a bit of time and effort on them, never asking myself whether or not anyone really wanted or would use them. After all, if you’re a good cook who uses herbs and spices you probably have all that you need, and if you’re not, well, getting a little wreath isn’t going to change you. I look back on the things with a certain amount of fondness, but I doubt that they gave all that much joy to their recipients. People judge the gift in terms of the gift itself, if that makes sense. (This principle doesn’t apply to children’s gifts, especially the handmade ones, but that’s another story.)

5) Consider the expertise level of your recipient.

I’m still a little embarrassed to remember a gift we gave to Jim’s brother Ed a number of years ago. Ed likes jazz, and he’s sometimes a little hard to buy gifts for, so we thought, “Hey, let’s get Ed a jazz CD!” So we got him something like “Jazz Greatest Hits.” He graciously thanked us. But I got to thinking later that he probably already had recordings of those pieces, or at least of the pieces he liked. Our gift was sort of clueless, kind of like giving a classical music buff a “100 Greatest Classical Hits” CD, or an opera buff “The World’s Greatest Arias.” When people are really into something they don’t want something generic. If we’d thought about it for about five minutes we’d have given him some type of music subscription service so that he could pick out his own jazz favorites.

Well, time’s a-wastin’. I’ll include pictures and recipes for my healthy treats, but I won’t make them until this weekend, too late to be of any help to you, dear readers. And remember–there’s always the donation gift, given in the recipient’s name. Maybe the best one of all, if you think about it.

How do you handle your gift-giving?

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