Last week, as Steve was thinking about how to budget for the holidays, our conversation quickly turned toward what we think gift-giving is really all about. Why do we give gifts? I think of gifts as an expression of love, but if that’s true, why is there so much worry and stress over giving and receiving gifts?
In my family, we’ve talked about what it means for us to give and receive gifts about 20 times in the last 21 years — and come up with just as many answers. As a large and growing family, what it has meant for us to give and receive gifts has changed over time. We’ve done small gifts, large gifts, alternative gifts, and even no gifts, all in search of a way for us to keep the love in our gifts, without getting lost in a pile of more stuff that no one needs.
Growing up I was the youngest of four kids, and the six of us (Mom, Dad, three brothers, and me) all bought or made gifts for each other. With over 30 gifts between us, we had a blast opening gifts on Christmas morning. We’d all get dressed up, Dad would turn on the video camera, and we’d give and open presents one gift at a time. Lots of hugs, laughter, love, and celebration filled those mornings. Being able to give and receive gifts was a way for us to love one another, and we did.
As we got older we started to feel that exchanging so many gifts each Christmas might be too much. We still loved each other, but somehow the practice of giving and receiving gifts had changed from a joy to a burden. As our needs were filled, our gifts started to drift toward excess and we started to wonder if maybe *not* giving each other more than we needed could be an expression of love as well.
At one point we tried requiring alternative gifts, like a goat to a rural family in another country, to go alongside our regular gifts. That certainly helped us connect with needs people have in other places, but the weakness of requiring alternative gifts was that it meant they weren’t really *alternatives* to gifts we would give each other, they were just *extra gifts* we were giving on the side.
Not wanting to lose sight of the love amidst all the gifts, we instituted a system where each person only gave, and received, one gift. This certainly cut down on all the gifting, but it still didn’t feel quite right. One drawback was that only one of us had an opportunity to welcome a new family member with a gift each year. So even though my sister-in-law Erica joined our family in June of 1997, I had to wait 5 years before it was my turn to give her a Christmas gift. For a family that considered gift-giving as an expression of love, it felt like I had to wait 5 years to tell her I loved her.
This was even more true for my parents. Despite now having 8 kids and kids-in-law, they were only officially allowed to give gifts to one of their children each year. Looking back, it’s comical how silly this was. What were we thinking, telling our parents that they could only give gifts to one of their children at a time?
As the years go by, our gift-giving system keeps changing, and every time we talk about how to give gifts to one another, it helps us grow in understanding what it means to love one another this way. I’m sure that we’ll soon be talking about how the growing gaggle of grandkids can be more engaged in giving gifts to each other so that they can participate more fully in loving each other too.