What makes a gift meaningful?
One of the most meaningful gifts I have ever received was not expensive. It was not brand new, and it was not made especially for me. It was not wrapped fancy or tied with a bow, and it was not given to me in honor of any special occasion.
The gift came in a brown paper sack, the kind that you might use for packing a little kid’s field trip lunch. Inside, a more than twenty year-old school craft project: a couple of mulberry-colored pieces of imitation velvet crudely stitched to look like a rabbit. It's ear was flopped over creased, and dried glue marked the place of a missing googly eye. But that rabbit had been pieced together by the then-childish hands of the man who is now my husband. When I pulled it from the plain paper sack, I immediately became teary-eyed.
The gift spoke loudly of a passage that was incredibly dear to us, some words Margery Williams wrote in the Velveteen Rabbit:
“Real isn't how you are made,' said the Skin Horse. 'It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.'
'Does it hurt?' asked the Rabbit.
'Sometimes,' said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. 'When you are Real you don't mind being hurt.'
'Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,' he asked, 'or bit by bit?'
'It doesn't happen all at once,' said the Skin Horse. 'You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand.”
As the holiday season approaches, we are bombarded by reminders that gifts are how we show affection and care for the people around us. While this can be true, they don’t have to be expensive. In fact, gifts don’t have to be physical object at all. The most meaningful gifts are sometimes things that cannot be purchased or even touched. There have been times when a thoughtful text message made me feel relevant and loved. Once when life had become more than I could handle, a friend gave me a huge invisible gift: When I returned from grocery shopping but simply could not do another thing, they made a thirty-minute drive, unloaded my car, and put away the groceries that needed to be refrigerated so that I could go straight to bed.
The secret to the best gifts is how they make us feel seen and understood. They let us know we are loved, and they make us feel more closely connected to the giver. The toil invested in a handmade gift is time and energy that comes directly from a loved one’s life into ours. A card with exactly the words we hoped to hear touches us deeply. Time spent together without distractions lets us reconnect and remember how much our relationships matter. An act of caring can make us feel pampered and replenish our reserves. In fact, research has shown that simple acts of everyday kindness can do more to replenish our relationships than anything we could pick up in a jewelry store on Christmas Eve.
Gift giving does not come naturally to all of us, but like most things we can get better with some practice. Here are two tools for better gift giving:
- Plan ahead
Keep an ear out for what your loved ones might want or need when you're with them (and write it down!) or start combing thrift stores early to find the perfect pieces for DIY gifts.
- Customize it
Dr. Gary Chapman explains that we all have different preferences for communicating our affections in his book the 5 Love Languages (you can take a free online quiz to find yours!). The defines the love languages as words of affirmation, acts of service, traditional gifts, quality time, and physical touch. By paying attention to what love language that our child/friend/partner prefers, we can give in a way matters most to them. A friend who prefers quality time might be more moved by an offer to share a meal together than by a traditional gift. You could offer babysitting or car detailing to your sibling whose love language is acts of service or massage coupons to your significant other who thrives on physical touch.
Despite what advertisements tell us, the gift economy operates on the currency of care. The most meaningful gifts rely more on deep thoughtfulness than dollars. They can come in a brown paper bag or be invisible to the eye. They can happen hundreds of times a day in the most ordinary moments.