The Drama of Gift Giving


Last Christmas my brother and his wife gave my niece, who goes to college in Colorado, designer ski wear and skis. When she finished opening the boxes, she burst into tears — and not from joy. In order to get to the slopes she needs a car and her parents won’t let her have one because she had three accidents within the first four months of getting her license. “What good is all this?” she lamented. If they really loved her, they’d let her drive! Need I tell you what her parents said?!

As the morning progressed, Gail opened Bob’s gifts. Most ended up in the “return pile” that already had most of the gifts Gail had given Bob. “What were you thinking?” was the phrase of the hour!

When my friend Sue and I had dinner a couple of weeks ago, we talked about all the melodrama that lurks beneath the rituals of gift giving. After all, no happy holiday should pass without some kind of drama!

Here’s a brief list of some classic gift giving rituals — all wonderfully dysfunctional and passive-aggressive!

“If you love me, you’d know what I want.” This is the belief that loving me means knowing how to pick out the perfect gift for me. If you don’t, then you mustn’t truly love me.

“Reject the gift; reject the giver.” The gift-giver is so sensitive that he or she takes it personally if you don’t like their gift. “How can you like me if you don’t like what I gave you?” is their philosophy.

“Let’s agree not to buy each other anything this year.” You’re relieved because money is tight. But then the other person buys you a gift and you feel like a jerk for not having broken the agreement!

“A lousy gift card?” The person is annoyed because, “If you loved me you’d agonize over what to buy me.”

“Never good enough.” No matter what you do, it’s never good enough, so you want to buy the right gift to show the person that you love them and appreciate them making you feel like crap!

“The passive aggressive gift.” I have a friend whose mother-in-law last year gave him just one candlestick holder and no candles. The year before she gave him one placemat and one napkin. She’s not poor as she lives in a lake front house. He wonders if she’s trying to tell him something!

Ultimately, though, gifts should not be a test or a referendum on our love and friendship. A gift is a gift when there are no strings attached. When there’s no sense of obligation. When there’s surprise.

Can we just trust the love and simply say “thank you”?

Please send your questions to JP Reynolds at:

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