The holidays have been a tough time for me historically, and I’ve long struggled to get and stay in the spirit of the season. Thinking back, this probably began with the confusion that came when I was seven years old and my father remarried. That’s when we began to celebrate Christmas as well as Chanukah.
There’s a notion that the best gifts are exchanged by those who know each other well enough to select something truly meaningful. Since this was hardly possible for my new stepmother – she’d known me for less than a year when she married my dad – I don’t recall receiving many memorable presents as a kid.
When it comes to my father and gift giving, the lesson was simple: “Green never goes out of fashion” he was fond of saying. Dad made his gifting simple by giving cash. Now I’m not complaining, as it always comes in handy, but no amount of money ever made me feel all that special. Rather, gifts of cash may induce more of a sense of gratitude without much meaning. Needless to say, I clearly never had very good gifting role models, and as a result I never got very good at giving presents.
I remember the time my step-mother sent me to the mall with money to get a bat mitzvah gift for one of my closest friends. I came home with a colorful, oversized lollipop, and got a pretty strong scolding as I was dragged back to the store to get something more suitable.
More recently, for our first holiday season as a married couple, I went BIG – Colorado-style – and bought Maggie a full cross-country ski set-up. It’s a useful gift here in the winter and she loved it – still uses those skis to this day. Mind you, my wife is not someone who wants gold jewelry or diamond bracelets. But in those early days of modest cash flow, my practical partner made it clear that expensive surprises were not her preference, even for obligatory gift-giving celebrations.
So, by the time Jordy was born, it had become our tradition to do little or no gifting at typical times of the calendar. Instead, we took to a sort of rolling celebration of consumption, getting what we wanted whenever we wanted, not as a surprise but together, in order to fully enjoy the purchase process, and ensure we got just the right item.
As soon as Jordy was old enough to reason we offered him a choice: he could expect gifts on two occasions each year – in December and on his birthday – or in the same, ongoing fashion that his parents had adopted, just by asking for what he wants. And that’s where we landed. No big build-up before birthdays, no exaggerated anticipation prior to Chanukah or Christmas. Rather, it’s a rolling, year-round celebration that actually costs less than the massive holiday buying barrage.
And I’m here to tell you – odd as it may sound – that this is not a bad system, and works very well for our little family of three. Jordy does not pine for things, and neither do his parents, as none of us are even close to being shopaholics or crazy consumers, which is good for our bottom line.
Our extended family, however, have taken a while to adapt to our unusual approach, and many continue to expect something every December at the very least. To deal with this, we make it a practice to give ‘gifts of conscience,’ charitable contributions in the name of loved ones, or shares of a goat, chicken, or duck through Heifer International. (Check them out if you’re unfamiliar with the organization and how that works.)
While all of this seems to work well in my little world, it has become a little troubling for me when I make the connection between gifts and gratitude. I recognize that gifting is traditionally one of the best ways to express grateful feelings, and that I am neither practiced nor programmed to do so. I’ve certainly missed countless opportunities to show my gratitude through gifts since I don’t typically think about doing it.
One recent story stands out: As I’ve mentioned and celebrated, it’s been a very good year for my consulting business, and I am truly grateful for my good fortune. In recognition of this, it somehow occurred to me give a ‘thank you’ gift to my biggest client of the year, a very nice, hard-working HR manager for a local city who hired me every month in 2012. With some advice from Maggie, I selected a fancy candle in a jar, put it in a gift bag with some festive tissue paper and a card, and presented the gift to my client last week at our final meeting of the year.
You should have seen her face light up with surprise and pleasure when I gave her the package. That spontaneous delight is something I seldom see, and I am kind of sorry for that.
I’ve come to view gifts as my gratitude gap, the place where I disconnect from my commitment to being grateful by not recognizing others through giving. Even as gratitude has led me to greater peace and prosperity, I am missing one central way to show it and spread it. And this could not have been more clear when I saw the all-too-unfamiliar look on my client’s face when she realized I surprised her with something special.
This season of peace, joy, and light, I’ll be looking for ways to bridge the gap between gratitude and practical traditions by giving some gifts that might delight those to whom I am most grateful.
…and that’s the full-circle fatherhood report for this week.