The Lost Art of Gift Giving

This photo shows gift tags for Christmas

The old adage says it’s better to give than receive, but current behaviors suggest otherwise.

A few years back, NPR reported on Amazon innovations in regard to gift returns: In short, you set up a list of parameters (e.g., no T-shirts, books by 18th-century authors, CD, etc.). If someone orders a gift for you that doesn’t match with your preferences, you then get either an Amazon credit for the gift-item amount or an item of equal value off your wish list. The giver gets a pre-generated thank you note for the original (never received/swapped-out) item or a “thanks for the thought, but I exchanged x for y” “gratitude” message.

Both options seemed, to me, appalling.  And yet, I was among the minority of NPR’s listeners in thinking this was hopelessly tacky (most listeners, to the tune of 65 percent, thought it was “awesome.”)

While this practice may have been modified since its launch (Amazon’s return center will take your gift return and exchange it for a gift card, without alerting the giver), the prevailing attitude still exists. In today’s me-centered culture, where the letter “I” adorns phones and computers, I wonder if I shouldn’t be surprised that we can’t handle the uncontrolled nature of truly receiving a gift.

The true definition of a gift has been lost – the generous donation of time and careful thought, made manifest in a purchase or a handmade item. A true gift reveals an element of surprise, shows that someone knows you and has paid attention to you. It can be practical or sentimental, useful or frivolous. But it says, in short, I see you. I know you.

I understand, as well, that wish lists partially exist to stave off the disappointment of an unwanted gift. But to deny ourselves of these presents, to refuse the possibility of the unexpected, is also to deny a great story.

For a recent birthday, an old friend gave me a grab bag of fun trinkets. Among its contents were tweezers, Silly Putty, a book of matches, and an unidentified chain mesh of sparkly beads, held together in a mystifying pattern. It became a game of sorts – a Rorschach test for friends and neighbors as we tried to determine just what exactly it was. My sister suggested it was a lamp shade decoration. Another friend proposed an oversized brooch, missing its pin. At last, one ingenious friend suggested it might be a wine cozy, and indeed it was. It’s sparkly and evokes the burlesque, making every wine bottle look like Gypsy Rose Lee – and we now bring it out for many get-togethers. It always sparks a conversation and shared stories about other off-the-wall gifts. We’ve all gotten them, and we may even have given some ourselves.

And that’s my main concern, my sadness, at the eager embrace of wish lists, covert return options, and similar tools of convenience and pre-selection. At their core, they diminish our community, as well as the knowledge of which relationships may need some more attention. They put the recipient front and center, at a time of year when togetherness and selflessness is celebrated.

In an age where we’re more connected than ever—via social media, email, smartphones, face chat, and more—we’ve somehow lost the means of really listening to each other. For what is a good gift giver but a good listener? We all have demanding jobs and lengthy commutes, and live in a multi-tasking culture with precious little downtime to actually connect. As such, we may find ourselves drawn to these easy, pre-determined gift-giving methods. But with such ease and convenience, and less idle time to spend together, we ultimately know less about each other.

Photo courtesy Sarah Parrott via Flickr Creative Commons


(Video copyright 3 Arts Entertainment, Pig Newton Inc., FX Productions)

To be blunt, the holidays are a stressful time. I was thinking the other day that December, as a month, as a time of year, gets completely overshadowed by holiday prep. What is December without the commercial rush-rush-rush? Something completely foreign, that’s what. Does December even have a “feel”, an identity of its own, without the holidays? If it does, it’s been lost to closing that year-end sale, getting out of the red and into the black.

That’s why I dearly love the opening sequence to “Louie”‘s final episode of its third season. In just under four minutes, he takes the viewer to places of extreme frustration, and pushes the envelope in showing the extreme lengths a parent will go to in order to create his kid’s happy Christmas memory. The fact that the parent won’t even get the credit for this undertaking is an unspoken, additional grievance — despite all of Louie’s efforts, at this Christmas, it’ll be Santa who gets the glory. So many Hollywood productions would present the frustration in a more genteel way, replete with a final thought that addressed a moral lesson or saccharine sentimentality: If the traditional script conventions are to be believed, despite the Herculean feats, despite all the aggravation along the way, the appreciative kid will make the whole ordeal worthwhile.

Not so with Louie. Look at his face at the 10-second mark, and again at the close of the clip. His kid loves the doll he’s deconstructed and restored, but at this point, it hardly matters. He’s exhausted. The commercial holiday has chewed him up and spat him out. He’s done the role required of him, as a father, as a consumer. He’s got nothing left. He can barely muster up a smile.

Also, may I say that I truly love the deranged humor in this scene. Once in awhile a performer puts himself out there, going to a dark place and then taking the viewer even further into the shadows. The fact that the audience laughs while Louie takes them there–and through the twists and turns of an otherwise seemingly mundane sequence of trying to save a broken gift–is a testament to CK’s brilliant writing and fearless comedic performance.

CK’s creative control over his show has been well documented, and I couldn’t help but think that this arrangement is the only reason this scene saw the light of day. I can’t imagine a producer or third-party manager giving the OK to this episode. Christmas and negativity? Innocent dolls and handsaws and power drills? Sacrilege! So while the performance in itself deserves kudos, I also want to call out CK’s foresight in demanding artistic control for his work, for this episode in particular. More than most, this episode comes across as a singular vision, of a testament to what an artist willing to take a risk can do. In just witnessing the seamlessness of this sequence, and in laughing at its flawless presentation, the audience knows Louie’s risk has paid off.

This post first appeared on the Good Taste and a Sense of Humor blog.


(Video copyright Republic Pictures/Artisan Entertainment)

Succumb — to give way to superior force; yield (

In my opinion, the above scene is the best depiction of the agony that comes with acknowledging that one is in love, and in doing so, relinquishing one’s independent life.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” is all about how the best intentions (such as a five-year plan, a career goal, etc.) can be pure folly. Prior to this scene, Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey, has been living a life of compromise and delayed gratification. He takes on responsibilities for the family business, among other obligations to friends and neighbors in his hometown of Bedford Falls, New York. His true desire is to leave, to explore the larger world and see all that it holds.

And yet, he cannot deny his love for Mary, Donna Reed’s character. His desire for her — and all she represents — is in direct opposition to his lifelong drive to be someone, to voyage out, to be an adventurer.

Watch Jimmy Stewart’s physical performance in this scene. The conflict starts just as George gets within close proximity to Mary. With some distance, George can deny or stifle his attraction, but once he’s in her orbit he is in an all-out struggle of mind over matter, of logic over lust. Note how he can’t help but sniff her hair, how his grip on the telephone receiver alternately loosens and tightens, how his eyes both narrow and relax. The two actors are as close as can be within the frame, their two bodies huddled together around the telephone, and yet George seems to draw impossibly closer to Mary with each breath, as though she were pulling him in with a magnetic force. His facial expressions flutter between determined resistance and inescapable desire. The moment holds two very different versions of George’s future, and his choice will do no less than cement the ultimate course of his life: world explorer bachelor or devoted small-town husband.

The above clip has been edited to eliminate George’s fiery outburst when he makes his decision, but I think we’ve all seen it on countless reruns (and, if you haven’t, the full movie is available here). When his passion erupts and he chooses Mary, it’s such a thrilling display of emotion and physicality — a direct contrast to his struggle to repress his feelings in the scene’s previous few minutes. George will let his initial dream go, but not without a fight. It’s the best depiction I’ve seen of the moment one realizes they’re hopelessly in love, and that they’re about to inhabit a new self, one that may have been previously unrecognizable. It’s the moment one realizes they’ve found their partner, and the acknowledgment of what one is willing to sacrifice in order to stay in that same orbit as their loved one. For George, the decision is huge, life-altering, identity-changing. He succumbs in the true sense of the word — giving way to love, a superior force — and is willing to see who he is (and who he will become) on the other side.

This post first appeared on the Good Taste and a Sense of Humor blog.