My brother was in kindergarten, and my father perhaps should have noticed that a Transformer was a little beyond his age range. But I suppose he could see the excitement on my face as I ran down the aisle with the toy I’d chosen. He bought it, we went home and wrapped it, and I wrote my brother’s name on the tag.
On Christmas morning, I was so eager for my brother to open the Transformer. Once the gifts were opened and my parents and grandparents retreated to the kitchen for breakfast, I took my brother’s Transformer to play with it. He didn’t notice; he was more engulfed in the other age-appropriate toys he’d opened.
I can remember transforming it back and forth, firing the spring-loaded missiles, walking it across the bookshelves in my grandparents’ living room. After some time of engrossing play, my father came into the room and asked me why I was playing with my brother’s toy.
“He’s playing with other toys,” I answered.
“That’s his gift. You picked it out for him.”
“But he doesn’t even want it!” I insisted.
My father knelt beside me, gently taking the Transformer out of my hand as he realized what was happening. “Son,” he said, “we don’t give things to people because we want it for ourselves. That’s not a gift. A gift is something we want the other person to have.” The Transformer went back to my brother’s pile of toys, and from then on sat in his closet collecting dust.
I once had a girlfriend who was a terrible gift-giver. One Christmas she bought me several shirts, wrapped them all in a box, and told me to pick the one I liked best so she could return the others. Then for my birthday, she just took me to a store and told me to pick out something I liked and she’d pay for it. I’m not a gauzy romantic, but I know when a special occasion is being treated like a financial obligation.
But then there was the time she brought me back a gift from vacation. There was no occasion, she just saw it and thought of me and decided she had to give it to me. She was practically bubbling with enthusiasm in giving it to me, so I worked as hard as I could to fake excitement in receiving it. It was terrible; it was hideous, completely useless, and obviously unbelievably expensive. It was also the nicest gift she ever gave me. I held on to it long after we broke up because I didn’t have the heart to part with the one gift she truly wanted to give me. I think I really tried to want that gift; to find a way to appreciate it. I could feel the love behind her excitement for giving me something she wanted me to have. But I also wished she’d known me well enough to realize it wasn’t something I wanted.
In this season of gifts, I get conflicted. There are people in my life for whom gift-giving is an obligation, an expectation of family ties and convention. There are people in my life for whom gift-giving is a joy but a challenge; material things seem unimportant compared with what they mean to me. And then there’s the one person – my child – for whom gift-giving is just fun. She’s easy to please, I know what she likes, and her expectations are still pretty low. In all of these gift-giving opportunities, I wonder: what do I really want these people to have? What is “the joy of giving” that people so blithely talk about at Christmas?
The best gifts are not things. Here’s the part of the Christmas-themed blog where we cue up the whole “reason for the season” tropes. Jesus, salvation, etc. I could do that, but it would be lazy. If a gift is something we want another person to have and that meets them in their particular needs and wants, then a gift is something that comes out of our own self. I like it when people buy me things, but when I think about the gifts I’ve received, they are from people who knew me well enough to know the things I missed in my own life and want me to have them. They might have been things impossible to give me, like peace of mind or relief from grief. They might have been things I wasn’t consciously aware I needed, like kind words or a compassionate touch. Sometimes they were things I didn’t even know existed, like the wisdom my mentors have passed down to me. Sometimes they are exactly things I am looking for and know where to get them, as in the ways my spouse and I have learned to support and affirm one another through our years together. Sometimes I don’t even recognize the gifts I received until years later, like the ways I can see my parents having loved me over my life.
It’s a radical, extravagant claim to say that every good and perfect gift comes from God. That is such a bold thing to say about God’s presence in the world. With all the suffering and violence in this world, there are still so many tiny gifts awaiting us on our paths, little things from someone who wants to give that meet an emptiness in our life. Often as small as a warm meal or even a passing smile, these gifts are everywhere around us: kindness, compassion, grace, and forgiveness. When we see others missing these things and we want them to have them, we give a gift. When we listen to one another, to know one another, that is a gift. When we want someone else to have good things, that is a gift.
I am grateful for the people in my life who have shown me the divine spark of good gift-giving. I hope that this season I can meet their example, just a little, and offer love that I want someone else to have.