The Fine Art of Exchanging Gifts


Since time immemorial gifts have been a part and parcel of human life. At all times in all cultures, presents served to express thanks, to demonstrate wealth, to show submission, or simply to give someone pleasure. Gifts are exchanged on umpteen occasions – birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine’s Day, Christmas, Diwali. New Year and so on.

History is replete with famous instances of gift giving. When Jesus Christ was born the Wise men carried costly gifts for him. In ancient Rome gifts from rulers to their subjects were part of the political system. They served to display power and to keep the masses quiet. In India also the Kings and Emperors are known to have given gifts of land, jewelry and cash to their loyal subjects and guests.

In his essay “The Gift”, the French sociologist Marcel Mauss tells of the rites of the Kwakiutl Indians of Northwest America. There it was the custom for the chiefs to invite members of other tribes and give them presents. It was also part of the ceremony to willfully destroy piles of goods, offerings and presents before the eyes of guests as a sign of wealth and affluence.

In Europe during the Middle Ages gift giving remained the prerogative of the upper class. Political negotiation was replace by the exchange of gifts; an attempt to attain goals not by argument but by presents. Underlings were excluded. Even in the 17th century, Christmas and New Year gifts were officially banned in parts of Germany. It was only industrialization and the rise of the middle classes that the private exchange of gifts developed as a social institution.

All of us right from the young to the elderly likes to receive gifts, big or small. I still remember the pleasure with which I would open my birthday gifts after the party was over. A little bit of thought before buying a gift speaks volumes about the sentiments of the sender.

Choosing a gift with care shows that you care for the recipient. Most of us have darted into a gift shop on the way to a wedding reception and picked up the first thing that caught our fancy (and was within our budget). The result? The poor newly weds are swamped with four identical lemonade shades, three sets of ice cream bowls and five lamp shades!

If your friend is an avid lover of ghazals, probably the best birthday gift you can give her is the latest ghazal album of her favorite singer. If your cousin is fond of reading, a collection of short stories or the latest Harry Potter novel, and not a toy car, would appeal to him. Such gifts clearly show that a certain amount of thought and time have gone into choosing the gift and makes it even more dear.

We get some cue from the care with which Queen Mary of England chose a gift for her great grandson, Prince Charles, on the occasion of his christening in 1948. She noted in her diary, ”I gave the baby a silver gilt cup and cover which George III had given to a godson in 1780. So I gave a present from my great grandfather to my great grandson, 168 years later”. Queen Mary stole the show with her rare gift.

People often drop a hint about things they would like to have. We may overhear many of these desires. If we take note of casual desires expressed by relatives and friends we may be successful in winning them over with the right gifts.
Handmade gifts of course far outweigh readymade ones. I have an aunt who gifts knitted sweaters to her nieces and nephews. A hand crafted wooden knick knack, a painting, a handicraft item or a freshly baked cake are wonderful gifts. Of the shelf gifts are sometimes too impersonal, while a handmade one lends a personal touch. A relative of mine uses her spare time to make small hand made items like embroidered hankies, crochet doilies, cross stitch mats, appliqué motifs and other unusual items, which she stores in a box and uses as gifts for her friends and family. Needless to say her gifts are treasured by one and all.

Talking of gifts one need not always be a material thing. Even spending time with a lonely person is a valuable gift.

Here is a lovely quotation:

The Best Gift

To a friend :              Love
To an enemy :          Forgiveness
To an opponent :      Endurance
To a child :                A good example
To an elder :             Reverence
To yourself :              Deference
To all beings :           Charity

Here is a tip from an US President. Lyndon Johnson often used to gift electric toothbrushes engraved with the presidential seal to friends. This was a calculated move. Asked to explain the reason LBJ, as the President was known, said, “I give these toothbrushes to my friends, for them, I know, that from now till the end of their days, they will think of me, first thing in the morning and last thing at night.”

One should not give a gift hoping for returns. We often hear people saying, ”I have done so much for him, but he doesn’t care for me” or “I have given him the best years of my life and look what I get in return”. If you bestow a gift or a favor and expect a return, it is not a gift but a trade.

Americans have devised some unique ways of gift giving. A bridal registry system is one such way. A list is opened with a particular shop and covers bed linen, flatware, utensils, china, crystal, electric appliances and other such items that a newly wed couple would need to set up a house. From this list givers can choose something to fit their pockets and is quite a practical idea though on an impersonal note.

The latest trend in the US for a bridal couple is to have their own website on the internet to which their guests are directed. Apart from other details also included is a bridal registry from which guests can buy their gifts on line. The result is far more practical suggestions for gifts! These could range from mortgage payments to foreign trips. Moreover enterprising retailers have begun to offer incentives to the couple registering on a website. So much for the ultra modern hi tech style of gifting!

Talking of material gifts handed over in person what makes them more special is the garb in which they come: wrapped in shiny paper or embellished with silk or satin ribbons and bows. Gift wrapping is an art and lends a personal touch to a gift. During the festive season or marriages people often hire professionals to do the job. But with a little imagination and creativity one can wrap gifts imaginatively using the wide range of papers, ribbons and decorative accessories available in the market. Bamboo, wire and cane baskets are being increasingly used to contain gifts. Used in combination with tissue or brocade, embellished with zari, flowers, ribbons, threads, beads, sequins etc, they look stunning.

Thus gifts have become a part and parcel of our lives since time immemorial. Let us strive to make our gifts meaningful so that the recipients look forward to receiving them. Perhaps the last word on gifts is best left to the 4th century BC Chinese philosopher Lao Tee- “Goodness in words creates trust”, he said, “Goodness in thinking creates depth, goodness in giving creates love”.

Image (c)


More by :  Dr. Anjana Maitra

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