Bringing Back the Art of Giving main image

Is there anything so fraught with complexity as giving a gift?(No doubt there is – world poverty and brain surgery come to mind – but for the benefit of this article and a punchy intro, let’s agree that there isn’t!)

Whether it’s Christmas, a child’s birthday party, dinner at a friend’s house or a thank you to a business associate, that thorny question surfaces: What do I buy?

Social etiquette around gift giving isn’t as black and white as it once was. Gone are the days when we can ask Mrs Beeton whether a box of Favourites is an appropriate gift to the host of a dinner party. With Hallmark-esque sentiment, a pinching budget and just 23 minutes until we have to pick the kids up from school, we scoot through the shopping mall before shoving something (anything!) into our Green Bag muttering, “That’ll do!” 

Perhaps it’s time we scrutinised why it is we wrap items in pretty paper and proffer them to loved ones at set days on the calendar.

Why do we give gifts?

Obligation plays a part. Invitations to birthday parties, house-warmings and baby showers include a line penned at the bottom in invisible ink: “Gifts are not optional!” Even those annoying invitations that state, “No presents, just your presence” (smiley face) enter a whole new level of complexity. Do they really mean that? Will I arrive to find I’m the only guest who diligently followed the instruction and thought the gift of my company was sufficiently delightful? The shame!

Tradition also elbows in on the act.  Family is usually tied to this reason for giving, and phrases like “We’ve always done it this way…” prompt us to, yet again, buy 32 meaningless trinkets from the $2-shop for distant relatives and their offspring each Christmas.

Then there’s the competitive sorts who find it hard to get past the economic tussle in gift giving. They will give in equal proportion, matching dollar for dollar, or they will strive to better them in value. Jane bought you a Swarovski crystal necklace for your birthday. You’ll just have to buy her a diamond pendant for her’s. Yep, this is the one-up logic.

There are many other fractured motivations and techniques of gift giving (re-gifting being one, and the one-size-fits-all gift voucher another).

But aren’t we missing something?

In this mundane gift switcheroo dictated by the calendar and things like obligation, tradition, competition and convenience, the very nature and meaning of giving dissipates.

I got home from a manic outing that included gym, groceries and juggling hungry children one day to find a bunch of hot pink carnations, wrapped in brown paper, sitting on my doorstep. I mentally scanned my diary to check that there wasn’t a significant occasion in our family, a birthday or anniversary I had forgotten… thinking… thinking… nope! This happy spray of flowers seemed to be on my doorstep for no apparent reason. How delightful!

I sent a text to the friend I suspected with a tentative “Thank you!” (Could’ve been awkward if they weren’t from her!), and her response was: “Just thought they may cheer your day!”

Spontaneous, unprompted and designed to simply bring joy to my day.

When’s the last time you gave a gift for no apparent reason?

I put the flowers in a vase on my dining table and they reminded me not only of the kindness of my friend, but to keep a soft heart myself and look for ways to bring joy into the lives of others.

Another gift that I will not easily forget came from my husband shortly after we discovered we were pregnant with our first child. He bought me a ‘harmony bell’ – a round bell pendant that jangled on the end of a long silver chain with the idea being that bub can hear it in utero and, when born, the sound is familiar and calming.

I can’t vouch for the credibility of the idea, but I was touched by the sentiment behind the gift. He had researched it, thought it through and given me something laden with meaning.

When’s the last time you gave a gift you knew would hold special meaning?

I know I wasn’t the only one blown away by the generosity demonstrated when an Indian orphanage gave to alleviate the suffering of their neighbours in Nepal.

Last month an orphanage in Banbasa responded to the earthquakes in Nepal by pooling resources and putting together 500 relief packages. A small team from The Good Shepherd Agricultural Mission then transported the packages 800km into the volatile reaches of Kathmandu. An online campaign saw the US$6,000 project funded in less than two days, but these people put their time, resources and safety on the line – to give.

When’s the last time you gave in response to need?

I have a little perpetual calendar hanging inside my pantry listing all the gift giving occasions I must remember. Admittedly, I treat it like a shopping list. There’s another in my phone. Another in my head – a little voice that guilts me into giving.

But I have come to appreciate that there is giving, and there is giving.

Giving spontaneously, thoughtfully, giving in response to need, giving with a generous heart (not necessarily with a generous wallet) – this is true generosity.

Amy Carmichael was a gutsy Irish lass who started an orphanage in India in the late 1800s, serving for 55 years solid and writing many books on her experience. She said this: “You can give without loving, but you cannot love without giving.”

This article written by Claire van Ryn for CoolThings Australia. CoolThings Australia is devoted to bringing back the art of gift giving. Search the extensive website for gift ideas that are meaningful, quirky and individual, knowing too that your purchase will support the work of organisations doing “cool things”, including The Good Shepherd Agricultural Mission in Banbasa, India.

More Posts: