“I didn’t realize this would be a therapy session,” she said, laughing. “Me either,” I chuckled while dabbing my eyes. “It’s alright, the bill’s in the mail,” she said, and everyone laughed.
This little exchange took place last month during what I had expected to be a fairly innocuous discussion at my Tuesday morning Grandparents ECFE class. I asked “tell me about your favorite holiday traditions” and listened while each participant shared fond memories from their own childhood as well as from gatherings with their children and grandchildren. Each of them lit up as they shared, especially as they talked about how they like to make holidays, especially Christmas, special for their grandchildren.
By the time we had rounded the circle and it was my turn to share, I was in tears. And, sadly, they weren’t happy tears. For as wonderful as my childhood was, there are a few memories that stand out for the wrong reasons, and opening gifts with my grandparents happens to be one of those less than joyful memories.
Each year, my immediate family would celebrate Christmas Eve with my extended family on my dad’s side. Our family was pretty small, and so the group consisted of my family of five, my aunt’s family of five, my unmarried uncle and our grandparents, who are since deceased. I do have fond memories of playing with certain items that were unique to grandma and grandpa’s house, but, when it comes to my memories of opening presents, the memories turn sour.
Let me be clear: my siblings and I never lacked anything during our childhood. We grew up very comfortably and were blessed to always have our basic wants and needs covered. So, we didn’t count on gifts from grandparents to provide our basic necessities. Like most children, we were simply excited to be able to open presents and receive something fun.
Unfortunately, my grandmother’s odd style of gift-giving left a lot to be desired. Subsequently, since that Tuesday morning class a few weeks ago where so much was stirred up internally, I have reflected on my feelings surrounding giving and receiving gifts. I have come to realize that my views on gift-giving have been unconsciously shaped by those early experiences at my grandparent’s house.
1. Gifts you give reflect your effort and also how much you value the recipient.
The main thing I wish I could go back and tell my grandma is that although she felt good about finding a deal on an item that she thought was fun, I honestly don’t believe she ever put herself in our shoes and considered “what might 8-year-old Lauren like to receive?” Her gifts were often flea market finds, dated, or simply inappropriate. It wasn’t that she didn’t have money to spend, she did. She just consistently bought us what would have made perfect white elephant gifts. While I’ve lost track (or simply blocked) many of the items my siblings and I received throughout the years, a few that stand out are a ceramic teddy bear my brother received at some point during his teenage years and a pink polyester nightgown I received when I was 21—the kind of nightgown a woman might wear if she were 81.
Now, my intention here is not to throw my grandma under the bus as she is no longer here to defend herself. And, truthfully, we are able to laugh now, mostly, about the gifts we received over the years. But, after decades of receiving strange gifts from her, I can confidently say that I don’t believe she honestly tried to really know us: individuals who had personal likes and hobbies. Even if she didn’t want to get us t-shirts or cassette tapes from our favorite sports teams or bands at the time, there were always the safe standby gifts such as basketballs, markers, earrings, or books. Instead, my siblings and I received turquoise belt buckles. While I’m sure there are 10-year-olds who might enjoy receiving turquoise belt buckles, we weren’t them.
Instead of her gifts communicating “I saw this, and it made me think of what I know about you and what I know you enjoy,” her gifts had the opposite effect by communicating “I think this is pretty nice and think you should like it. Ultimately, I don’t really care to get to know what you might actually want.” I realize that probably sounds harsh. But, trust me when I say that twenty plus years of receiving ridiculous presents doesn’t leave you with the warmest and fuzziest memories, frankly. An oddball gift here and there is to be expected—what we experienced was something else.
So, gift-giving 101: give a gift that makes someone feel known, or at least not hurt and offended. If your daughter loves to bake, something as simple as a new muffin pan could be a hit. If your cousin likes to hike, maybe some new wool-blend socks. If you know your 11-year-old niece likes horses, do a little research on something cool and horse-related that she might like. As long as you keep the individual recipient in mind and put in even a little energy, they will see your effort and feel appreciated.
2. What if I don’t know the recipient?
Even if you don’t know someone well, it isn’t impossible to give them a good gift. Let’s say you draw names at your office or book club and you end up with the individual you know the least. In our day and age, frankly, there is little you can’t find out about a person via the Internet. Even if you’re not friends with them on Facebook, glance at their profile. Unless it is on complete lock-down, there will be things to observe from even just one photo. For example, is she wearing earrings? Is he on the golf course? Are they eating at a restaurant? Or, think to the limited interactions you’ve had with them in person. Does she drink coffee or wine when you’ve been in her company? Does he follow a certain sports team as indicated by his screen saver? Sometimes by simply turning up and tuning into our powers of observation, we can notice a lot about someone and come up with great ideas of things they would enjoy.
3. If someone makes a list of things they want/need, listen to it.
I get that it might not feel as fun to buy something that has been written on a list. Sure, it takes some of the surprise and creativity away, right? I get that. But I also get that sometimes, people write down things that they just really need.
Back when I got married, we registered for normal household items for the kitchen, bathroom, etc. We were blessed to receive many items from our registry, but I’ll never forget that when all was said and done, we only received three sets of silverware. Now, I get it—silverware isn’t a super sexy gift. But, it is also one of the few household items that you use on a daily basis! I was able to use some gift cards and coupons to purchase the remaining sets, but the lesson stuck with me. Gifts don’t always need to be flashy. Sometimes, simple forks and spoons are the best gifts you can give. So, if you are presented with a Christmas list, or Registry, this year, use it—take advantage of the fact that someone has already done much of the thinking for you! (And, know that if you invite me to your wedding someday and I see silverware on the list, it is likely I will get it for you).
4. When in doubt, cash it is.
As I mentioned above, my family is relatively small and so I have never needed to buy dozens of gifts at one time. For those with larger families, I can appreciate that it can be stressful and time-consuming to purchase thoughtful gifts for your entire list, even if you have followed my little list of gift-buying tips! If you’re still stuck, know that cash never gets old. Unlike a turquoise belt buckle, giving a $5, $10 or $20 bill with a note to your nephew, daughter or godson saying “thought you could use this toward your next Xbox game, baseball bat, or novel” will never go out of style. I can’t tell you how much cash would have been appreciated over many of the strange items I received year after year.
Ultimately, I do somewhat wish we could have a do-over with my grandparents and the gifts we received from them as clearly, years later, the memories still hurt. But, at the same time, I’m grateful for the experience because it has heightened my awareness of how to give good gifts. It isn’t rocket science—just a little bit of effort and intentionality go a long way to create happy memories.