The holiday “giving” season is finally, blissfully, playing itself out. The moment brings with it a sense of relief, smugness, and finally, some time to reflect – over a festive negroni, please – on how to improve it. Because [spoiler alert] the gifting season isn’t just a season.

Think back. Ever give anyone a gift because you just had found them something that meant something to the two of you, something personal, something that acknowledged that you’d heard them or knew them? Remember how it felt? Remember how your givee smiled and laughed and maybe even had a tear in their eye? That’s what giving should feel like. So why doesn’t it?

Now you might be one of those people (you know who you are) for whom holiday “gifting” involves going to one of the mass luxury stores, picking out a bunch of tchotchkes, getting them wrapped (making sure the logo on the box is clear) and passing them out. Or you might be like my ex-husband who used to go from random store to random store on whatever street he’s on at 3 pm on Christmas eve, buy stuff, then ask me to wrap it. If you are in either of these categories, stop reading now. This post is not for you.

But if somewhere, in the far recesses of your brain, there rattles the notion that giving should be a lot more pleasurable for both you and your recipient alike, put your feet up and read on.

The problem with gifting is that it feels forced and like most things in life, that’s a pleasure killer. Stand in even the most wonderful store in December, and you can just feel the anxiety rise: what to get, how much to spend, and are you too late to get it all there in time. Then your partner’s there in the corner, tapping his toes, somewhere a toddler begins to scream, and you see the parking enforcement sharks circle.  (The experience is the same online, but the parking enforcement types are work emails or FB notifications.) You grab some lowest common denominator object, get in line, whip out that card and mark something off the list: the high point of the experience. Sad.

Then you go home. You wrap the gift in whatever’s handy, you go to the party, hand over the gift, and feel relief. Then, you look at what you received, smile, give thanks, and wonder what they were thinking. Going home, it hits you … perhaps they’re thinking the same way? Sadder yet.

It’s time for a rethink. Giving well is giving pleasure with pleasure. Life’s too short otherwise.

I do come by this kind of insight through years of giving badly. I had my:

Phase 1. DIY demon / Martha Stewart maven. Fine if you have talent, or the temperament/time to develop that talent. I have neither.

Phase 2. Give ’em choice.  I went through a phase where I gave gift certificates to cool online stores or for courses, or the promise of time (play dates, promises to help with laundry more, a special dinner at home, etc.) Makes perfect sense:  it allows people to make their own choices, is more eco, blah blah. what I’ve found about these is that they actually put too much pressure on the recipient to change their routines (even for free massages), find time, find what they want, or improve themselves, etc. They end up not using them then but then come across them again in June, curse you, curse themselves, then feel guilty. Not the point, obviously.

Phase 3. Give ’em choice 2. Then there was the gift card phase, which was fine, but just so unsatisfying. Again, it appeals to the practical, but it doesn’t give that surge of joy and pleasure we’re going for.  Maybe if it’s for  a place where people always shop or have wanted to shop (I do remember a rather sumptuous Sur la Table gift certificate that kept on giving over the course of a year.) But really, this is a step up from giving cash, which isn’t really all that bad, but doesn’t really feel pleasurable, to me at least.

Phase 4. Give ’em a clear conscience. I also went through a period where I gave gifts to charity. (Non profit marketers have figured this one out. A couple of years ago, I received an email encouraging me to give Chemo for Christmas to some deserving person in Africa. Oh boy. )Yes, I felt smug and virtuous. And while it tickled the intellect, it didn’t really satisfy. And you would sit across from someone who said, “How cool” rather cooly.

So, some ideas on giving really well.

Cull the herd (apologies for the additional reference from animal husbandry. Completely unintended). Only give to those you really want to give to. The definition of giving is to “present voluntarily”, after all.  But yes, there are obligations (clients, teachers, random people whose parties you’re invited to) and it’s a bit churlish not to provide a little something. So I buy a case of good wine or two of wine for the holidays, and hand out the bottles out as required. Bonus: you can drink the wine if you don’t give it all out. Not a drinker? Then candles, not the scented type (unless you’re really sure about the scent) but a set of beautiful white handmade tapers, all tied up beautifully.

Graze for gifts. You can’t give well if you only start in November, or God Forbid, on December 24.  You have to take time for this: in fact, it’s a year long process.

Avoid gift guides. Here is how those gift guides come to be.  Round about August, companies submit what they most want to flog.  Then underpaid editors who would rather be on summer vacation choose grudgingly, or something from some company their publisher has told them to feature. Or, even more likely, it’s about whatever the photo editor thinks looks good in that corner of that page that has a blue (or orange or pink) theme. Or it’s based on what products the completely unpaid photo intern can get high enough resolution images of in order to meet the deadline. True originality is not going to come of this.

Go for quality and rarity. As if I have to say this, but it bears saying: something beautifully made by hand trumps anything mass produced and shoddy. And if you think this is casting pearls before swine, perhaps it’s time to stop hanging out with swine.

If you have to choose, go for beauty and meaning over function. In general, I’d go for something beautiful or meaningful over functional any day, though all three is obviously the best. (Of all the gifts I’ve given my partner, I think his favorite is still the rather space age fuzzy logic induction rice cooker I gave him years ago.) It may have been just an appliance but it was beautiful, functional, and created lovely comfort food for him.

Think in terms of story. At some point in life, gifts aren’t about what you need or about the bright shiny object you covet, but about something deeper, more creative. They need to spark the imagination. What makes you think of them? What makes them laugh out loud? (Think shared stories, experiences, dreams and fetishes. Or go for their personal fantasies, interests and aesthetics (the more unique or eccentric the better). This year, I received a bottle of scotch and some delectable cured sausage from a co-worker who had heard me say that one of my favorite single girl meals centered on that unlikely combination. (Like I said, the more eccentric the better. ) That was brilliant and it points to why this kind of thing takes more than just the holiday season to get right.)

Tell that story. I once received a gift of a little Sung Dynasty bowl from a distant friend, a collector of Chinese art. Truth be told, it was not a terribly beautiful object, but I knew it was ancient, and probably remarkable. But I never got the story along with the gift, and over time, I felt more and more embarrassed about asking for the story. So it sits in its lovely box, holding up a bowl by a humble Japanese country potter whose story I do know. I intellectually recognize its value but don’t feel the pleasure.

So, since in most cases, it’s the story we are running in our heads about something that gives us the real pleasure, you need to tell the story, connect the dots. And add a little about the object too. (This is why the handmade is so compelling: there’s always a good back story.)

Wrap it up baby. I used to think of wrapping as a complete waste of time, paper and in particular, money, so for years, I was part of the “paper bag with tissue paper/kraft paper+red twine look” brigade. But then, perhaps reverting to my roots or listening to what I always talked about in branding, I embraced the notion that the wrapping was an integral part of the gift. Inspired in particular by my friend Megumi Inouye, who is a professional wrapper (yes, they exist,) I began to pay a bit more attention to wrapping. Wrapping is a sign of respect for both the recipient and the thing you’re giving. Crap wrapping says so much, none of it good.

Megumi, for example, has elevated the art of wrapping to another level, using cloth, recycled materials, and found objects to create wrapping that’s as much a part of the gift as whatever is being wrapped. As she says, thoughtful, graceful wrapping elevates the every day, and in her hands, three simple meyer lemons become something really special. Taking the time to learn how to wrap (not a skill many of us have) is a meditative and creative, something I for one can use at this time of the year, especially if you combine it with your own ceremony, and glass or two of wine.

Now that the official season of giving is over, it’s time to let the real giving begin.

Megumi Inouyes wrapped lemons

Megumi Inouye’s wrapped lemons


Featured image courtesy of Mandy Aftel. Final image courtesy of Megumi Inouye.