Wednesday, December 5, 2012

How to give and receive gifts

It's getting to be that festive time of year when people start thinking about holiday gifts, so it's time we had The Talk. Here it is:

Gifts are meant to be reciprocated. In simpler terms, if someone gives you a gift, you should get that person a gift too.

I know, I know, you've heard gifts are supposed to be given unconditionally with no expectation that the recipient will give anything in return. True, gift-giving is not supposed to be a strictly tit-for-tat experience -- but you also have to consider human nature. If you receive (and expect) presents for years, but it never crosses your mind to offer others a thing, sooner or later most people will assume you don't want to participate or are just a worthless ingrate; either way, they'll stop getting you things. So: if you like getting gifts, give them as well. It's a sign that you're thoughtful of others, a mark of adulthood.

But I always pick rotten gifts!

So you don't have a natural knack for gift-giving. Like many other life skills, it's something that comes with time and practice. You're not going to get the practice if you never try, right?

In the meantime, get a shopping buddy. Find a friend who gives great gifts, grovel shamelessly for help, and take him or her shopping with you. (Buy this person a hot chocolate or something afterward as a gesture of thanks.) Barring that, there are several online services designed to help bad gift-givers make good choices. Dive into one of these if you're completely stymied.

Things to take into consideration when looking for a good gift:
  1. It should be something the recipient actually wants, but might not splurge on.
  2. It should be something you're not ashamed to give.
  3. It should reflect the recipient's tastes and interests.
  4. Unless the recipient specifies otherwise, it shouldn't be highly practical.
  5. It doesn't have to be expensive.
  6. If you're getting something for the person who has everything, offer an experience.
Still in doubt? You could always just ask. Your gift recipient may have some good suggestions or a public wish list somewhere. Even if you don't end up buying an item from the list, it should give you a good idea of the person's likes and interests.

If you can't think of a blessed thing, here are a few standby gifts: movie tickets, gift cards (to a place where the recipient actually shops), bouquets or live plants, homemade bread or cookies, a bottle of good wine or sparkling cider, good coffee or hot cocoa, homemade jam or preserves, a box of quality chocolate (the stuff they sell at the drugstore doesn't cut it), a bestselling book or a good-smelling scented candle. Take into account any allergies, sensitivities or dietary restrictions when making your decision (don't give wine to a teetotaler, for instance).

But I'm broke!

As I write this, the economy is sour and times are tight. Many people are out of work; if you're fortunate enough to have a job, you may be barely scraping by. How are you supposed to get presents for anybody when you have little or no money? There are several options.

First, offer experiences or services. When I didn't have much money and my nieces and nephews were young, I would present them with fancified written scrolls that entitled them to a full day of fun with their auntie at the venue of their choice. We'd agree on the date and the recipient would pick the place, and we'd go have some one-on-one time. This gift worked well for kids, but probably wouldn't cut it for adults. Another sibling used to create personal coupons good for various services: mowing the lawn, cleaning windows, foot rubs, etc. (NOTE: IF YOU OFFER THESE SERVICES, BE PREPARED TO MAKE GOOD ON THEM. Offering someone a coupon for a car wash and then refusing to wash the car is an empty gesture and, frankly, kinda stupid on your part; you might as well not bother. Offering an experience means you're spending time on a person, rather than money.)

Second, make something. You have to be careful about this route, because it can be a disaster. Take the time to think before you start a major project, and consider the good gift rules again. Remember, it needs to be something you're proud to give as a gift, not some inexplicable whatsit cobbled together from pipe cleaners and duct tape. And it needs to be something the recipient wants as a gift. If you spend hours knitting a pair of mittens for someone who thinks hand-knitted items are cheap and tacky, you're both going to be angry and disappointed. Hint: if you're a good baker, homemade baked goods like cookies and quick breads are often very well received.

Third, shop secondhand stores. If you have a little money, a lot of time and a good eye (or just a great shopping buddy), you can find truly gift-worthy items. Hardback books in great condition are especially likely secondhand gifts. The rules for gift-giving also apply here, with an additional caveat: the item you choose should not look (or smell) secondhand.

Fourth, trade. Barter some object or skill you have for something else you'd like to give as a gift. Give yourself enough time to do this; bartering isn't as fast as paying cash and it requires a certain level of patience and effort.

If all else fails, you can do what a relative of mine did while going through college: declare temporary gift bankruptcy. Let people know ahead of time that you simply can't afford to buy gifts this year, and that you don't expect them to give you a gift either. It's honest, properly sets up their expectations and lets them know that you are thinking about them, even if you can't afford anything. Remember, though, gift bankruptcy is temporary; you can't go on doing it forever and expect people to be gracious about it.

But I don't wanna!

Well, it's your call. At its core, gift-giving is purely optional. That means it's also completely optional for the people who currently give you gifts. They don't have to keep at it if you don't show any interest in participating other than taking.

Personally, I think the custom of giving and receiving gifts is fun and helps strengthen relationships between people. It's a particularly thoughtful way of saying, "I like you and I'm thinking about you."

How to wrap a gift

Nearly everyone agrees that wrapping makes the gift. (An unwrapped gift is just an object that's been handed to you.) There are many ways to wrap a gift, from the simple to the complex. Wrapping is partially determined by the shape of the gift itself (although you can always make it simple by putting an oddly-shaped gift into a rectangular box and then wrapping that).

Don't know how to wrap a present? YouTube to the rescue!

Here's the basic way to wrap a square or rectangular gift with wrapping paper and tape. (If you don't have wrapping paper on hand, get creative. You can use color or foreign-language newspapers, kraft paper, wallpaper samples, old maps, even sheet music.)

If you have a large square of fabric or a decorative scarf, you can wrap a present furoshiki style. (You don't need to understand Japanese to be able to follow along; just watch what she does.) Furoshiki wrapping is especially good for wrapping oddly-shaped gifts.

Of course, you can go completely nuts with gift wrapping. It doesn't have to be that complex unless you want it to be.

How to receive a gift graciously

Not everyone knows the proper way to receive a gift. I've flubbed it on more than one occasion. (Once I opened a gift from a family member and said the first thing that crossed my mind, which happened to be something rude. My family member felt justifiably hurt at my insensitive comment, and I felt like a complete jerk. Which I was. Yeah, don't be me if you can help it.)
  1. If the person who gave you the gift is right there, thank him or her immediately, before you even open the gift. The act of gift-giving is thoughtful in itself and deserves recognition.
  2. If there's a card with the gift, open it first and read it. If someone took the time to pick out a card, the least you can do is give it the once-over. And it helps cement in your mind who the gift-giver is. (It also makes sense to check and make sure the present is meant for you, especially at a mass gift-giving event such as Christmas.)
  3. Open the gift carefully. It could be fragile.
  4. Regardless of what the gift is or how well you like it, it's proper to thank the giver. If he or she isn't present, write a thank-you note expressing your gratitude. If, like me, you have a hard time remembering who gave you what, get a pencil and piece of paper and write it down as soon as possible so you can write appropriate thanks later.
And now you know. Armed with your new knowledge, go forth and seek out amazing gifties for all and sundry.

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