By Janice Lindsay, Contributing Writer
When I first had the means to acquire Christmas gifts for family and friends, I’d try to discern the heart’s desire of each person on my list. How could I surprise and delight each one, and make him or her truly happy?
Eventually I came to realize that the task was impossible. Gifts can’t make everybody truly happy. That’s not the gift-giver’s role anyway, unless the recipient is your child or your spouse; then it has to do with so much more than presents.
I decided that a gift-giver’s role is to choose a remembrance that the receiver will enjoy and that reinforces the personal connection between giver and receiver, perhaps reflecting shared enthusiasms. In my circle of family and friends, if gifts relate to cats, nature, gardens, books, music, or food (especially chocolate), just about everybody can be pleased.
In the long run, new things don’t generally make us happy anyway. After our basic needs for food and shelter are met, new things might make life more pleasant but they don’t necessarily make us happier. We get a new thing, we’re happy for a while, then we look around for the next new thing.
It’s not our fault. We’re members of the human species. We are not genetically programmed to be content with the way things are; otherwise, we’d never feel inspired to make them better.
So a gift doesn’t have to be the most wonderful something a person has ever received. If it’s a pleasant remembrance, that’s fine enough.
Even so, sometimes someone gives you a gift that’s absolutely right, and it’s often something you never thought of. You wonder how the person knew you wanted something when you didn’t know yourself.
When I was a junior in high school, my grandmother gave me a dictionary. Who gives a teenager a dictionary? I had never asked for one. I was thrilled. I loved words even then, but I had never owned a dictionary. I perused it just to marvel at all the words I didn’t know.
Early in my career as a harried working mother, I expected to handle all the kitchen chores, as I had done when our son was little and before I went back to work. One year, my husband said that, as a Christmas gift, he’d do all the dishes for the next year. I had a moment of panic – oh, no, I was losing control of the kitchen! That silly thought lasted about three seconds. He renewed the gift every year. That gift truly kept on giving, all the more special because I didn’t ask for it.
One Christmas, my parents gave me a blue and white fleece throw. If they had asked if I wanted a throw, I would have said no, we already had some. But this throw is softer, thicker, and warmer than the others. I use it almost every winter day, for watching TV, reading, napping, or comforting me when I don’t feel well. When I’m not curled up in it, it might be occupied by a cat.
When our son and daughter-in-law moved to the southern California coast 30 years ago, they sent us a small green bottle filled with bits of sea glass, shells, and small stones collected from the beach. It has been on my kitchen windowsill ever since.
We can all remember gifts that surprised and delighted us. But I suspect it was not just the things themselves that mattered. Our happiness comes from the connection between giver and receiver that each gift represents. Those connections are the most precious gifts, perhaps the only gifts that can make us truly happy.