The Art of the Gift

Note: A version of this column appeared in The Olympian, December 12, 2007.

The strangest gift I ever received was a single slice of bread.

I was on my bike at a street corner in Japan, waiting for the light to change. An elderly woman pedaled up next to me and stopped to wait too. Noticing me, she got off her bike and rooted in the bags in her basket, muttering all the while. Then she came over, muttering still, and placed something in my basket. I stood puzzled as the light changed and she rode off. The item she gave me was a single, individually packaged slice of bread.

I think of this woman now that it’s, once again, the season of gifts.

With stores opening at 4 a.m. after Thanksgiving, holiday shopping is a frenzy, and the mounds of stuff under our trees are positively obscene. So it is in our capitalist country. Gotta keep that ol’ economy growing!

But I have some fond memories of gifts of Christmas past.

The weirdest present I received was as a child, when my mom gave my sisters and me matching plastic-molded wigs – one gold, one silver, one black.  In a photo that could be used for blackmail, there we stand, the three sisters (two of us missing front teeth), grinning foolishly in our plastic wigs.

The best Christmas present I received was my daughter, who decided to be born two weeks early, on her grandpa’s birthday, so I wouldn’t have to spend Christmas in the maternity ward. Her first Christmas gift was a trip to meet that grandfather whose day she shares.

My mother says she can’t give someone a gift she doesn’t like herself. (Maybe she wanted one of those wigs?) My son thinks the same way, but a problem arises when he wants to keep the gift himself.

Ideally, all gifts are free – of cost as well as emotional strings. Suppose your daughter asks for books, but you’d really like her to have, say, a canopy bed, just because you think she should have one or you never had one yourself.

Give the books. If nothing else, they’re cheaper and easier to wrap.

The rules for gifts grow more complex every year. So many things to consider. Too many expectations.  Gift cards.  Re-gifting. Perhaps it’s cliché to say, but the best presents aren’t usually things.

The most important point in giving is that the gift is not about you. (Yes guys, we all know who those Victoria’s Secrets items are really for.)  Choosing an appropriate gift means you must pay attention to the one who receives it. If you can’t find a thing, you can always give your time, affection or appreciation. But that’s so much harder to give.

In any gift exchange, the chances are good you’ll receive something you don’t really want. When that happens, it’s just good manners to recognize the sincere effort of the giver. As Mick Jagger sang it, you can’t always get what you want. And we all have to learn to live with disappointment.

I have no idea what motivated the woman in Japan that day, but I appreciate her gesture.

What do you do when someone gives you a slice of bread?

Make toast.