The Greatest Gift Of All

christmas-gift-settingIf you’re one of those Martha Stewart types who’ve spent the last year carefully and creatively hand making gifts for each person on your holiday list, from your children down to the UPS delivery guy, then congratulations. You win the Best Gift Giver Ever Award! Now, if you’re like the rest of us, who find  themselves on Christmas Eve at Kmart debating between the hot chocolate gift set with the matching mugs and that little mini whisk or the John Deere-themed barbeque sauce variety pack, then read on, my friend. This is for you.

Thanks to a Japanese author named Marie Kondo and her record-breaking bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, almost everyone on the planet is now aware of the concept of only keeping the tangible objects in your life that spark joy and tossing the rest. Have you missed this? It’s simple: According to Kondo, pick up an item in your home, hold it, sit with it, ask yourself if it makes you happy and buoyant or does it say “meh” to you? If it makes you happy—or sparks joy—it’s yours forever and the rest goes into the garage sale pile.

Keeping this concept in mind, perhaps it’s time we applied it to our gift-giving habits. Instead of allowing desperation, the desire to impress, or the need to simply give someone something so we can check them off our holiday list, perhaps we should take a few moments and contemplate whether or not our gift will be considered thoughtful and appropriate. Can we see joy sparking in the eyes of our recipient, fireworks and rainbows shooting out at us? Or does the light slowly dim like the waning flame of a candle at the end of its wick?

If we get back to basics, the essential act of gift giving is intended to show the recipient we care and are thinking about them. The gift is then intended to be something that reminds the recipient of the giver and, therefore, strengthens the overall relationship. John Deere-themed barbeque sauces rarely strengthen most relationships.

But it might…if that’s what they asked for.

According to a study done by Frank Flynn, an organizational behavior psychology professor at Stanford, and Francesca Gino, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard, there’s a very simple way to give the most thoughtful gift: don’t think too hard. If someone tells you what they want, or presents a list, then they’ve given you the blueprint to gift-giving perfection. By giving someone what they ask for, you’re being thoughtful of their wishes and you win!

On the other hand, if you deem the items on your recipient’s wish list not fun, fancy, exciting, or expensive enough and go off on your own, carefully selecting a gift you think meets all the high standards of proper gift giving, Flynn and Gino discovered that the recipients were fairly underwhelmed and pretty disappointed they didn’t get what was on their list. Even if your darlings and dears asked for cash, a store gift card turned out to be just as disappointing since they still didn’t get what they asked for.

Right now you might be thinking, “What? But I try so hard!” Based on this research, maybe you’re trying too hard. If you have a list – and the means to do so – shop according to that list, and your gifts will never be considered thoughtless.

But what if someone doesn’t tell you what they want? If, when asked, they hem and haw, claim they don’t know what they want, shrug and leave you in a general state of frustration, it’s time to take a step back. Who hasn’t had such an experience? In this instant-gratification, easy-access world of ours, it’s almost too simple to get exactly what we want when we want it, leaving most of us wanting for almost nothing. How does a frantic gift giver overcome the obstacle of a free-market retail economy and internet shopping?

Maybe this is where thoughtful gifting entails getting back to basics. After a quick stock check around my own home, I can say with confidence that most of the goods in use on a near daily basis were gifts from relatives and friends. Maybe it’s generational, but my grandmothers and great aunts always gave useful gifts – embroidered cloth napkins, a collapsible shopping bag, a refillable ink pen, cotton dish towels – items that remind me of them every day, which makes each gift even more precious now that most of those relatives of mine are gone.

bad-giftThat doesn’t mean you should raid Staples and give a ream of paper to every person on your list who owns a printer. (If that were the case, let’s skip all pretense and give everyone a roll of toilet paper.) The suggestion is that if you want to give a thoughtful gift to someone who doesn’t know what to ask for, then give a gift you know they can use and will stand the test of time. A surfer will never say no to surfboard wax, a coffee drinker can always use another mug, teachers love classroom supplies, and who wouldn’t appreciate an mp3 gift card to build their music library? You could even consider giving away a much-admired item of your own – a piece of jewelry your niece adores, a heirloom tablecloth to your new in-laws, or a clipping from a special plant in your home or garden.

The point is that a thoughtful gift can often come from the heart. If you have even the most basic cooking skills, make someone a casserole their whole family can enjoy. An actual handwritten note (instead of a pre-printed signature or posed family photo) in a holiday card makes a wonderful gift these days. An older neighbor or relative who lives alone would love the gift of an afternoon tea and a little help around the house. Your over-extended child would appreciate some one-on-one time alone with you – minus all those time-sucking digital devices. And that friend you’ve been meaning to catch up with for months would be overjoyed with the prospect of a brunch date! In this modern era, our time has never been more valuable, which means the giving of it to another could very well be the most generous gift you give anyone.

Obvious, right? Perhaps, but thoughtful gift giving isn’t necessarily glamorous, and it probably won’t make you a viral internet celebrity. But it’s the little things, the small gestures – not the grand – that tend to impress people the most these days.

This holiday season – and throughout the year – if you find yourself in CVS considering a pink fleece robe and slipper set for your mother, take a second and think hard: Maybe she mentioned something she really wanted that you could get instead, like a book or some loose tea. If not, you know she would love an afternoon of lunch and local shopping with you. Or maybe, just maybe, she really could use a new robe. Take the time to think it through, set aside your own expectations, and you should see sparks of joy shooting from everyone on your list!

Give the gift of experiences!

Stumped on what to get the dad who has everything, grandparents who say they don’t need a thing, or kids who have an excess of toys as it is? In today’s fast-paced world, your time and energy tend to be more highly valued than most material possessions, so if you are stumped, consider gifting experiences this year.

For a friend:

  • Bake their favorite foods If you’re really good, you could even turn this into a monthly delivery service.
  • A good book Give a copy of your favorite book with your handwritten review/synopsis.
  • A recipe book Compile your time-honored family recipes into a book or recipe box.
  • TicketsPurchase tickets for an event that you know they would like.
  • A charitable donation Consider a charity that the recipient would appreciate and make a donation in his or her name.

For her:

  • Classes Has she expressed interest in learning a new skill? Enroll her in a class at COA. Choose from painting, pottery, dance, jewelry making, web design, and more.
  • The day off No cooking, cleaning, driving, or planning for one whole day!
  • Spa day Spa days are popular for good reason. Treat her to a tandem professional massage or manicure, or just gather nail polish, face masks, and a movie to pamper yourselves together at home.
  • Night of freedomAKA babysit the kids.
  • Professional photographySelfies are all well and good, but a professional family or couples photo shoot can be displayed in the living room for years to come.

For him:

  • Clean the garage & the car If the kids are wondering what to get dad for Christmas, hand them the cleaning supplies.
  • Cut the grassHave the kids create grass cutting vouchers for their dad.
  • Feed his music addiction Provide him with the gift of endless music choices via an Apple music or Spotify subscription.
  • Allow him to be a rebelGift him an experience that he’s always wanted to try. Perhaps skydiving, hang gliding, or even a first tattoo?
  • Replace his favorite _________ Every guy has that one clothing item or tool that has been worn or used to death. Whether it is his favorite pair of shoes, work pants, or drill, find an exact replacement and put a bow on it.

For the kids:

  • Memberships Whether it’s an annual family membership to Children at Play or the YMCA, or season theater tickets to The Theater of Dare, indulge in a favorite family activity.
  • Lessons Choose from swimming, surfing, horseback riding, painting, dancing, or even a season of community league sports.
  • Watching something grow Give a gardening kit including seeds, soil, and tools. Kids love to watch the plants progress and then can transfer their new plants to the garden in the spring.
  • Something practical For the young adult, rent, student loans, gas cards, and car payments may be more important than any tangible item you could give.
  • Plan a camping trip Wrap a camping package under the tree, including tents, fire-starters, or sleeping bags with the promise of a camping trip in the spring. ♦

    Meaghan Beasley is a local bookseller, sometime freelance writer, and can often be found sewing in her workroom.

Meaghan Beasley has lived on the Outer Banks over 14 years; although not a local herself, she married one and finds herself completely at home here among the water and dunes. A sort of modern Renaissance woman, Meaghan works as an Indie Bookseller, a bookkeeper, a freelance writer, a small sewing business owner, and the wife of a crabber (truly a job in and of itself). When not working, she’s reading: on the beach, on the deck, on the couch – anywhere’s perfect for reading!

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