There are few moments more thrilling than the ones in which you watch your gift being unwrapped by someone you adore. You study their face, not wanting to miss a moment of their reaction. The light in their eyes will tell you if all your saving/searching/making was worth it, if they understand that you're trying to say with this present, as with all presents: "I think you're wonderful"...
I recently read an article by Penelope Green in the New York Times entitled "The Gimme Guide", and it shocked me. Did you know, "..for the last five years, gift cards have been the most requested gift, according to surveys by the National Retail Foundation"? And that recipients "are treating loved ones like catalogs or department stores, brandishing lengthy wish lists, demanding gift cards or boldly asking for cash"? According to consumer research psychologist Kit Yarrow, "It's no longer about this special delightful something from me to you. More and more people have gotten mercenary about the whole thing." As sad as this all makes me, I understand a bit of it. I have very limited space, and very limited income. I don't have room to keep things I don't love/use, and I would love to receive things I need (but can't/won't buy for myself). Luckily, my family understands all this and gives me very small but lovely things. My mom in particular wants gifts to be magical, so she doesn't like to shop for a list, but does like to have an idea of what I need. For example, she's always afraid that I'll be cold, so it makes her happy to know that I have plenty of scarves but could use some new tights & socks. She always picks out the best stuff, surprising things I would never think of, things I use for years.
But as much as I can understand some aspect of asking for what you want, in general it seems to be missing the point. Thank goodness for Miss Manners, laying down the law: "Blatant greed is the No. 1 etiquette problem today... Most of my mail boils down to that. It's either from people who think there is a polite way to go begging, or victims who feel they have to comply. They are getting other people to do their shopping for them. They are exchanging shopping lists and paying for the milestones of life." Doesn't it sound tragic when phrased that way? Where's the spark, the magic, the risk?
Because when it comes down to it, giving someone a gift is a risk. It makes you vulnerable. It shows the recipient that you thought a lot about them, that you were paying attention, that you were listening and you remembered, that you truly see them. A gift given from the heart is exactly that: a little piece of your heart, just for them. Whether it's a painstakingly-sewn white-on-white tea towel for your mom's white kitchen or a crazy survival gadget for your safety-loving dad, all gifts are our humblest attempts to show people a tiny fraction of what they mean to us. And if you can do that with a lovingly-chosen gift card, I say go for it. Last year I was given a gift card to an incredible San Francisco vintage store: a dress museum, a holy place for someone who loves dresses as much as I do. I would never be able to afford anything there, but now I can, and I've visited the store a few times, just gazing and daydreaming. I haven't even spent the card yet but it's already given me so much joy. Someone knew me well.
I'm going to leave you with the wise, growly words of Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock: "Gift-giving is the purest expression of friendship. I'm going to think about what I know and like about you, and that will lead me to the perfect gift, and you will do the same."
And of course, Liz Lemon's equally-wise response: "So..bath salts in a coffee mug would be........not it."
Image: Apartment Therapy