November 16, 2003

It’s the thought that counts

By: Kelly Jane Torrance

It’s that time of year again. It gets earlier every time. Even before the French maid costumes and jack-o’-lanterns are put away, stores roll out the Santa hats and gaudy greeting cards. The savior of retailers everywhere is here.

Christmas shopping is filled with pressure. I don’t mean the worry that comes with spending hundreds of dollars in a rather short period of time and being not quite sure from where it will come. I’m not talking about braving the crowds at the mall, exhausted, after you’ve spent what seems like hours finding parking. Forget all that. Give in to the spirit of the season. Seize the opportunity to focus your energies on other people for a change. Take joy in giving others joy. And then worry about finding everyone the perfect present.

The real tension in holiday shopping is between what people want and what you give them. And between what you want and what you get. Gift-giving truly is an art, and a sadly unappreciated one, even in this materialistic age.

I buy a lot of presents for a very wide variety of people. And I pride myself on what I think is a rather good gift-giving reputation. This year, I’ve already finished shopping for my family. That is the first rule of good gift-giving–start early. Admittedly, this is the earliest I’ve ever started. Last year, realizing I hadn’t yet bought a card for my beloved, I was at Hallmark Christmas Eve, wondering if I could pass off a Spanish-language card as a cute joke.

Starting well ahead of time allows you the leisure to put some real thought into your gifts, rather than just picking up whatever prepackaged items they still have left at Macy’s. And if you’re shopping online, it gives you piece of mind in knowing your orders should arrive on time.

So what do you buy? Listen to your recipients. Be ready to mentally file away things said in passing. Think about their interests. And then put a slight twist on them. My friend Dan loves the David Lean classic Brief Encounter. So last year I got him In the Mood for Love on DVD, a sort of Hong Kong Brief Encounter, and a movie of which he had never even heard. Donald is a fan of the social realist artist William Gropper. I searched on eBay and other websites and found a first edition of The Illustrious Dunderheads, a Rex Stout book on Congressmen on World War II with illustrations by Gropper. In both cases, I found original gifts they loved, but for which they hadn’t asked.

Speaking of asking for gifts–What do I make of the increasing use of the (usually wish list? It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, isn’t it? You can get exactly what your friends want–but then you take away some of the surprise and originality. Still, I refuse to dismiss them entirely. People are happy when they get things they want. It can be hard to buy for people when you don’t have access to their bookshelf or CD collection. I also use them to get a snapshot of my friends’ tastes. My friend Damon’s wish list shows him interested in twentieth-century Catholic novelists. Based on that, I bought him something related, but not on the list. Amazon can even do some of the work for you. Visitors to my wish list are given the suggestion of purchasing Christopher Hitchens’ book on Orwell. It’s not on my list, but Amazon has figured out this is something I would likely want to read.

Then there is the urge to buy culturally uplifting gifts. I find this impulse comes most often when shopping for children. Your nephew may want the latest and greatest Buzz Lightyear toy. But wouldn’t it be better to buy him a classic book? This conflict can be resolved. As my cousin Samantha gets older, I will likely buy her the books I loved at her age. But I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t honestly think she would enjoy them. I don’t buy my cousins books merely because I think reading is good for them. There must be an expectation that the gift will bring delight. I think everyone should be listening to classical music, but I’m not going to buy my teenaged cousin Bartok’s String Quartets. You don’t buy people gifts you think they should have. That’s self-centered and not what Christmas is about.

But perhaps I’m wrong on this last point. The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article on “me-gifting.” Retailers, always looking for new ways to get us to spend, are encouraging Christmas shoppers to buy gifts for themselves. The Journal also notes the trend toward wish lists. Sometimes it seems that nobody likes what he gets. So now people buy for themselves and tell their loved ones exactly what they want.

I have a wish list. I’d be happy indeed to get anything on it. I’d also be happy to get something not on it. What delights me most about Christmas is the feeling that others care about me. No matter what they spent, when friends give me something, I know they were thinking of me. It is a cliché, but in some ways, it is the thought that counts.

That’s why I enjoy the holiday season so much. It’s a chance to make others feel loved. And I don’t think I can make my friends and family feel loved if I don’t put serious thought into their gifts. This is why you should beware of generic gifts–chocolates, bath items, etc. Sometimes they work, but sometimes they just say, “I don’t know or care who you are.”

But don’t overthink this. Gift-giving is an art. But maybe gratitude is, too. The next time you get a gift that’s not quite what you wanted–perhaps the latest Michael Moore masterpiece?–chuckle silently to yourself but say out loud, “Thanks for thinking of me.” And mean it.

Kelly Jane Torrance is arts and culture editor of Brainwash and a senior analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom. Her Web site is