Gift Giving Woes

February 13, 2011

I ran into some trouble with the experiment this past week—at work, of all places. My colleagues were planning a birthday celebration for our boss, and as is customary in our department, in addition to buying the birthday boy lunch, they wanted to decorate his cubical and give him a gift card. Clearly the gift card posed a problem for me.

In general, gift giving will not be difficult during these six months. I’m a big believer in giving homemade gifts and have a sizable stash of fabric scraps and pattern books. And for those who wouldn’t be pleased with a new apron, handbag, curtain, pillow cover, or set of place mats, I have the option of giving experiences. Over the last few years, I have become a fan of experience gifts, especially for people like my dad, who can never manage to write a Christmas list of more than five items (two of which are inevitably underwear and socks). I’ve taken people to Shakespeare plays downtown, to jazz concerts in the National Gallery of Art’s sculpture garden, and on tours of the National Arboretum. I’ve given tickets to concerts, baseball games, and beer fests, and gift certificates for cooking classes. And I’ve made dinners, picnics, and birthday cakes galore.

When Helene and Jim went the year without buying anything new, they organized a homemade gift exchange for their family in lieu of their usual Christmas extravaganza. Helene made use of the stash of yarn in her closet and knitted a scarf. One person made a birdhouse; others made jewelry; several baked cookies and cakes; one gave a painting; and one gave plant cuttings from the garden. I’ve heard Helene talk about the exchange a number of times; it was one of the most memorable experiences of that year. And it just goes to show that the possibilities for gifts abound outside of the shopping mall.

This week, though, I failed to come up with any viable alternatives. My boss is moving into a new house, and he’s in the process of cleaning, painting, repairing, and buying appliances. My colleagues wanted to give him a gift card to Home Depot, and the suggestions I offered—movie theater tickets, restaurant gift card, gift card to the driving range or batting cages—weren’t nearly as thoughtful or practical given the circumstances. So, I gave in. They bought the Home Depot gift card, and rather than contributing to that purchase, I put in extra toward lunch. (I also baked three kinds of chocolate chip cookies for the in-office celebration—yum!)

I’m pretty bummed about how this turned out. The birthday festivities ultimately went off without a hitch, but I compromised my principles and I feel like a total scrooge. The thing is I love birthdays, I love excuses to celebrate, and I love giving and receiving gifts. The experiment isn’t an exercise in stinginess or ungratefulness. If anything it is meant to teach us to be more considerate of and generous with the people in our lives—who in nearly every case bring us greater happiness and fulfillment than the stuff we own does. But although I can rationalize the Home Depot gift card purchase (as I did above) by saying it was the thoughtful, considerate choice in this scenario, the excuse still doesn’t sit right with me.

Clarification (2/14/11): Ultimately, I did not contribute to the gift card. This morning my colleagues and I totaled what was spent on the birthday celebration, including the costs of the lunch, the gift card, and (to my surprise) the cookies. I paid my share of the expenses out of pocket for cookie supplies and, in fact, will be partially reimbursed. This technicality makes me feel a little better—at least I have a clear conscience about sticking to the pledge. But it sure would’ve been nice if I had been able to come up with a good moving-related alternative to the big box store gift card.


One Response to “Gift Giving Woes”

  1. Jim Dieter Says:

    Glad to hear it’s not all easy. Not so much learned from easy, in my experience. Understanding the limitations, coming to realizations, having to give something a lot more thought – most worthwhile. Love your blog!!!

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