Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Art of Giving

This has been a delightfully stress-free pre-Christmas chiefly because I got all of my shopping finished and gifts wrapped weeks ago.... and everything is already paid for. I made a vow to stick to a budget and reined myself in repeatedly. How much you spend is not an indication of the depth of your love. I explained this to my niece who called to say she'd gotten me something but it "wasn't enough" and she needed to know what else I wanted. The truth is, all I really want for Christmas is some delicious turkey with my family and some laughs. That's all I ever really want. Well, that and pie.

I grew up with a large extended family that gathered every Christmas day at my grandparents' home for two hearty meals. A massive, festive buffet for lunch and a huge feast for dinner, complete with pies, cookies, traditional Christmas pudding and Christmas crackers. The house was teaming with relatives from midday to midnight. Teaming! My mother's four brothers and sister, and all of their various and sundry offspring and dates. Everyone brought their particular skills to the party. Aunt Myrna was known for her exceptional gravy. Great Grandma for her turkey basting and stuffing. A cheesy cauliflower dish was another aunt's domain and an uncle was renown for his carving abilities. Traditions were cemented around these skills. In-between meals we played board games. The line of tables were cleared and immediately dressed with Dominos, Sorry, Checkers and more. The boys were wild, playing crokinole and air hockey. The men retreated to an upstairs bedroom for football. There was nary an argument. Never. Not one ever. Only peals of laughter throughout the house. The same held for Thanksgiving. So it has always been a curiosity to me when watching Christmas and Thanksgiving movies where discord is depicted as the prevailing atmosphere. I can't imagine why. It's totally unnecessary.

Today everyone seems stressed about money but also about what the giftee wants. Lists of gimmes are provided via email. I don't remember us putting in an order for our gift when we were children. But then, our parents dashed the Santa myth when we were mere tots. We were told that Santa was a symbol of the spirit of Christmas, not a bona-fide being. Christmas orders were just not done. I still find them tacky. 

I try my best to avoid the gimme list, and find that choosing a gift is the easiest thing in the world if you cultivate the skill of placing your feet in another person's shoes. Paying attention to the things people care about is the key. What do they talk about? What do they love? What do they lament? What do they struggle with?

I use three basic criteria to choose the perfect gift: need, passion or wounds. What do they need in a practical sense that will improve their lives? What are their passions? What are their psychic wounds? Buying gifts that enable an unfulfilled burning desire or an untapped talent always has an impact. The recipient feels "seen." It's surprising how effective that can be in bringing people closer to you.

An associate of mine has a mother who spends extravagantly on all of her adult children every year, but never gives anything of use or value. I heard one of her children once say in frustration, "But I don't wear things like that. I told you I really needed a warm jacket." The mother replied, "Oh, that's not any fun."

The mother's gift giving isn't about her children at all. It's all about her shopping pleasure and finding unique items that thrill her. She never fails to disappoint every Christmas.

I think seeing who people are is really at the heart of giving. The executive producer of a TV show I was working on had written a movie thirty years prior and lamented the fact that the studio had never given him a movie poster. For him, it was the crowning achievement of his career but that one omission bothered him. It took me two solid months, but I finally hunted down a poster in a vintage movie poster outlet and had it framed for him for Christmas. I've never been so tightly hugged by a boss before. The real joy was seeing the light in his eyes. Of course, then we celebrated with cookies and eggnog.

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