We all know Christmas is about giving. We forget that receiving is another gift. It’s hard to receive. It’s as hard as asking for help. Some people naturally know how to do it: They open the present slowly, shaking the box, pulling off ribbon with delighted attention, mischievously examining the paper, wondering what’s inside . . . followed by a cheer of delight. But others—I know a man who just can’t manage it. As the son of an alcoholic, he was never taught to break into a smile, eyes crinkling with pleasure, much less leap to his feet and give the giver a kiss at receiving “just what I wanted!”
It takes some of the pleasure out of giving. Not everyone is by nature exuberant. But this man is an extreme example. Another person might cast down her eyes in shy embarrassment, or slide the present under a pillow in an effort to take the attention off herself; and still you know she liked the gift. Sometimes a gentle smile, a quiet nod, is enough to tell you that your gift hit home, and moments such as these are treasured as well. On the other hand I know a little girl who, without any training at all, knows everything about the gift of receiving. “Oh!” she cries, her face lighting up. “This is the just the best!” And even if you know it isn’t, that you had to buy a less expensive version than you wanted, her pleasure is so infectious that you feel the warmth lift up your frozen heart.
But giving is hard too, and fraught with perils, like sunken shipwrecks ready to stove us in. Once my former husband gave me a whole set of cooking pots for Christmas. I burst into tears. I wanted something related to my work. A typewriter ribbon would have done. He wanted cooking pots, and since I hadn’t rushed out to Macy’s (to his puzzlement) to buy any, he bought me some. To me, it was a message that he wanted me in the kitchen. I sat on the floor and bawled.
But I’ve done the same to him. I still hear about the Christmas when I gave him Supp-hose for his varicose veins. It was tactless, I agree, but they weren’t cheap. I wanted him to be free of pain, while he interpreted it as drawing attention to an ugy handicap.
It happens all the time, this misreading of the meaning of a gift. What are we saying? What are we hearing? Giving should be an easy exchange. Instead it becomes an ordeal. I know a man who, for several years, refused either to give or receive any presents at Christmas. He thought it was extortion — emotional blackmail. Add to the pressure you’re walking a minefield. With every gift you send a message — but what? You hardly know yourself. And does the recipient use a different code?
One year I was over at my friend Evie’s house. She is fragile, delicate, with wild hair and she wears gorgeous peasant clothes that offers the look of an ethereal Pre-Raphaelite. She turned to me in appeal. “Look what my brother gave me,” she said. “Do you mind if I show you? Tell me. When you see this, do you think of ME?” She pulled out a large and hideous carpetbag, which must have cost a fortune. Tears filled her eyes. “Is that what you think of when you look at me?”
I had to say no. “But he doesn’t know what you want, Evie. He sees you like outrageous clothes. He was trying to please you.”
“Do you think so?” She brightened, though still appalled that the ugly bag might reflect herself.
Sometimes the gift is indeed a reflection of subconscious truth, a tangible Freudian slip. One friend of mine gave an expensive belt to an enormously fat friend, and could have kicked herself! Later, she wondered what it meant when her mother-in-law gave her a stunning gold belt (her worst memories are about belts) in the shape of a viper. She wouldn’t wear it. Eventually it was lost, to her relief.
Part of the difficulty is that . . . each family has different rules for giving gifts, and no one talks about them. I remember when I first married how lost I felt with my new family’s rules. I had to guess them by osmosis, because no one knew they even had rules for giving gifts. So how could they articulate them?
In my family, for instance, the favored present was inexpensive: high praise went to some charming object that cost little. Or was made by yourself.. It was quite acceptable to give a hammer or screwdriver, some necessity, or any item on the Santa list. Books were adored. But it had to reflect the pleasures and interests of the other person
In my husband’s family, the dollar value of a present reflected your opinion of the recipient, and therefore the more expensive it was, the greater your esteem for that person. I was terrified. We didn’t have money. How could I show how much I cared for them? In that family you never gave a necessity, and if the item appeared on the “want” list, you ignored it in favor of the unexpected surprise. This puzzled me. For years I asked for galoshes or Christmas, not understanding why I never received them.
Sometimes we give presents with strings attached — the father whose Christmas present to his daughter is a fat check, though she is struggling to claim her independence and make it on her own; she doesn’t know whether to be grateful for assistance or resentful because she knows (subconsciously they both know), that on cashing the check she accepts his dominance, and is again reduced to “his little girl.”
Sometimes we give what we want ourselves, like cooking pots, and I will never forget the longing look in the eyes of little Sammy Smith, as he handed me marbles at my fifth birthday party, and how touched I was by his gift.
Sometimes we just feel inadequate.
When my brother was just a little boy, about four or even three, he had just learnt that people gave presents on Christmas (imagine!) as well as Santa. He was enchanted. He decided to buy a present for our sister, Anne. He had one nickel. He went to the dime store (in those days you could still buy things for five cents), and after grave deliberation he chose a gigantic ball of rubber bands. It cost five cents.
On Christmas morning, he slipped the rubber bands into his dressing gown pocket and went excitedly downstairs. The living room door was thrown open—to a dazzling scene of lights, tree, ornaments, stockings, boxes in piles . . . .
Later that morning he took the ball of rubber bands upstairs and returned them to his top bureau drawer, where they stayed until he went away to college. Our mother found it cleaning out his room. “Whatever do you have rubber bands for?” she asked. “I’ve never seen such a enormous wad.” The gift he’d been ashamed to give.
In my family we give faux-pas for Christmas. They became so common we’d wait all year to see who would give offense this time, and we’d store up the stories, bubbling with laughter, and recounting them like the poems of ancient bards. Outsiders think we’re nuts.
But how else do you learn forgiveness? Love? Once my brother forgot to buy a present for his girlfriend (itself a faux-pas, though he later married her). It was Christmas eve. He went to our mother in dismay. “Don’t worry,” she said helpfully, and threw open her closet door. “Look, I have a half a dozen bottles of perfume. Yo I never wear perfume and people keep giving it to me. Here, take one.” You can guess what his present to Mummy was that year.
We laugh, but sometimes it hurts.
One year we gathered at the house of my 80-year-old aunt. She was very beautiful with social graces that I’ve tried for a lifetime unsuccessfully to emulate. But this time she turned to her sister out of the blue. “Have you seen this magazine on China? We’ve been getting it all year. I can’t imagine why. I have no interest in China. Would you like it?” She tossed the issue back on a table, baffled by the magazine and its appearance in her mailbox every month. My cousin shot out of the room, breaking up with laughter. “It was my present to her last year,” he said, laughing through his hurt, and loving her anyway.
Ah families! Ah, gifts! I am struck by the poignancy of our reaching out to one another, over and over; and over and over missing the connections. If only a gift were a simple exchange, one sheep for two quail. $10 for $10. But then it would be barter, not a gift.
Love is so easily misunderstood. Lewis Hyde in his wonderful book The Gift (fantastically subtitled, “Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property”) describes how we have two economies in our culture: a gift economy and a market economy, and this is why we become confused about the properties of gifts. A gift, he says, is not a commodity. It cannot be bought and sold, or extorted forcibly. It is given in generosity and is as generously given away again. Unlike a market economy, it must circulate. It cannot be locked up. This does not mean you can’t keep the item, or love it as coming from a person whom you love. But something else of value must be passed on, a word, a deed, another object. For the gift is only alive when it circulates.
All ancient people knew this, and we think of the ancient Greeks who heaped gifts on their guests, or the Japanese who still give beautifully wrapped presents on every ceremonial occasion, to hosts, to visitors, even to the guests who come to dinner. We think of the Kwakiutl Indians of the NW Pacific Coast, who at their “potlatches,” or banquets, proudly passed extravagant gifts to guests, who likewise received honor by giving them away again in their own later potlatches.
In the Trobriand Islands, the people give “the Kula,” a gift of an arm shell or necklace, from island to island. The gift is passed in a specific ritual according to family and social relationships. You have a year to pass the shell on to the next in line. If you keep it too long, people begin to talk behind your back. You are considered “slow” or “hard.” For the object cannot be retained, just as love cannot be trapped and cage when you fall in love, but spills out generously onto everything in a kind of overwhelming gratitude.
Perhaps this is the message hidden beneath all the other gifts— your love. “I care about you,” we are saying with our gift. “This is all I have to give, and I give it joyfully.” And had I known this, would I have wept when my husband gave me cooking pots, and would he have been offended at stockings for his varicose veins? Or would we have decoded the secret message beneath the grosser one we heard?