The Present Conundrum: Giving the gift of graceful receiving

Andrew McQuiddy, Features Editor

Gifts, by definition, should be given freely with no strings attached…except maybe some ribbon.

Unfortunately, in this season of giving, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the strictures of etiquette. Untie yourself from such binds and you will not only reduce holiday stress, but save money, too.

The tradition of presenting presents to others harkens back at least to the Roman Empire with their multiple festivals at harvest’s and year’s end: Saturnalia, Juvenalia and Mithras. Early Christians invented the Feast of the Nativity to claim their own event in the face of the Roman party onslaught. Gifting thus dovetailed with brotherly love.

Through the centuries, the act of returning the favor upon getting a present has grown into custom and tradition until today, where guilt drives people to reciprocate no matter what. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard the lament, “Damn, I hate so-and-so, but she gave me that bottle of wine and now I have to get her something!”

No “brotherly love” there…
My own brother Steve once shared some wisdom on this very subject. I was piss-poor come Christmas and only attended a rare family reunion due to my siblings covering the air fare. I had no money for even a single gift. Practically in tears, I told him how rotten I felt that I couldn’t afford to buy any presents, especially as I knew I would be receiving some, myself. Steve thought for a moment, then said something I’ve adopted as my own gift- giving credo.

“Well, I figure if someone gives me a present, they want to,” he said. “Not because they expect something in return. That’s what I do, anyway – I only give gifts out of a desire to make someone happy. And I know that simply accepting a gift usually makes the giver happy, too.”

I took those words to heart. I recalled actually creating presents by hand as a kid (I had no money then, either). So, that’s what I did. I spent the next two days making presents instead of buying them.

That’s my approach to this day. Over the years, I’ve created drawings and cartoons for presents. I’ve created bouquets from wild, flowering plants (many of which are “weeds”; they still look great). I’ve made Rube Goldberg-style toys for the kids. The sky’s the limit and I’m my own private Santa Claus sailing through it, dropping presents and good cheer along the way.

Still, I have received far more gifts than I’ve given over my lifetime. And I always keep in mind that just accepting a present can be a gift to the giver.

In the words of artist Real Musgrave (with a nod to Sir Walter Scott), “Oh, what tangled web we weave when first we give instead of receive!”