How to Give the Perfect Gift

A Guide for Spreading Holiday Cheer

Sam Bush / 12.21.21

Among all of the pressures the holiday season brings, the challenge to give the perfect gift ranks among the top. There is a misplaced notion that gifts comprise the substance of a relationship, that whatever meaning there is between two people is supposed to be reflected by the gift. When that much pressure is placed on the presents under the tree, good luck getting through Christmas unscathed! That said, gifts do actually matter to many people. So, if you are still desperately scrounging for that impulse-priced present that perfectly captures your love for that special someone, here is a guide to giving the perfect gift this year.

1 — Love is in the Details

If the gift is going to be meaningful, it has to be for a specific person. It may save you some head-space to buy 20 copies of The Meaning of Mariah Carey memoir, but it will be awkward if everyone opens up their presents at the same time. Instead, a gift is something that speaks to a person’s particularities. People have the strangest interests, from rocketry to rock climbing, and it is in these strange places where a person actually lives. The old saying, in fact, is wrong: the devil is not in the details. Love is in the details. When someone knows the ins and outs of the more intimate areas of your own life, you experience love in a way that actually means something.

2 — A Gift Has to be Something a Person Wants

This may sound obvious, but a meaningful gift has to be something a person might actually desire. The gift must fit (or exceed!) the needs of the recipient. Giving someone a present that they do not actually want is like giving a baby a tennis racquet. Or, on the more passive aggressive side, giving your feckless brother a three piece suit for the job interviews he has no interest in taking. Rather than aimlessly shooting in the dark, one effective way to find out what people want is to ask them. Again, if this sounds too obvious, remember that Jesus himself once asked a blind man, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mk. 10:51).

3 — No Strings Attached

Should you ever give a person a book, please expect them to never read it. At the very least, never (ever!) ask them if they’ve “had a chance to read it yet” because the answer is “No.” They haven’t nor will they ever. Of course, this isn’t entirely true. We could argue that a book is actually the best thing you could ever give a person. However, the recipient will not open the book if it is given with an over-eager expectation that it will be read immediately. If there are strings attached — that the dress will be worn, that the book will be read, that the music will be listened to — the gift will be avoided entirely. A good gift is to be given and then simply abandoned. If a book is given in this way, there is still a remote possibility that they will pick it up in a few years and love it (by that time, they will have forgotten how they even got the book in the first place).

4 — The Less Deserved, the Better

The best gift is something a person wants, but didn’t think they would actually ever get. Think of the boy who wants a bike, but doesn’t actually think he’ll get it because it’s too expensive or because it’s been backordered. The odds are high that seeing the bike under the Christmas tree will make a formative and lasting impression on him. The power of the gift is in its undeservedness. A good gift is not a wage given to the deserving but a surprise that outstrips what a person thinks she merits.

5 — The Surprise Factor

“Just so you know, one of the things you ordered online isn’t arriving until January. I won’t check and see what it is. You can still cancel it.” That’s an actual text my wife sent me shortly after I ordered her a Christmas present on her own Amazon account. Not only was the cat out of the bag, but it was holding the receipt in its mouth. Needless to say, I canceled the order right away. It is much better when a person doesn’t know what they’re getting. You may have people in your life where gifts are, in a basic sense, the equivalent of shopping. Rather than giving someone a general direction of your needs and interests — plaid button down shirts or fishing equipment, for instance — you send someone a link to the actual shirt, the color and the size. This is called shopping. A gift, on the other hand, risks failure. Its power is in its unexpected nature. It is something that comes from outside of someone’s point of view.

6 — The Gift Has to Be Received

In order for a gift to be properly delivered, it must be received. Too obvious? The point I’m trying to make is that a present can be entirely unwrapped and then received as judgment. In other words, the way a gift is received depends on how the gift is interpreted. Giving a boy a baseball bat for Christmas may be as good as giving him an SAT Study Guide if baseball represents something that is expected of him. In that sense, the mental and spiritual state of the recipient is just as important as the intentions with which the gift is given. Or, let’s say, you are given a crockpot but you already have one. In fact, the new crockpot is less helpful than the one you already have. You might thank the gift giver, but, in a sense, the gift was never actually received. It might as well still be in the original packaging. Gifts that aren’t received aren’t actually gifts.

I realize that these six rules have probably only added to your anxiety in giving the perfect gift. Rules tend to do that, after all. As we like to say, the law may point to righteousness but good luck getting there on your own. In fact, the only thing that will help ease your anxiety is to remember that every good and perfect gift comes from above (Jas 1:17).

Jesus, you see, is the exemplar of a good gift. He is given with you specifically in mind. He is what you actually want but didn’t think was possible in that he gives you rest, joy, peace and a sense of enoughness. He is given freely without a hint of expectation. And he is a gift that is given whether it is received or rejected. Actually, he is not unlike that book someone gave you a few years ago; the one that you’ve been meaning to read but forgot all about in the shuffle of life; the one that as soon as you open it, you feel like someone is finally speaking directly into your heart.

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