Gift giving is perhaps as old as mankind. Perhaps the devil offering an apple to Eve was the beginning of this widespread practice. The splendid gifts of the Magi to the Infant Christ seem right in step with arrival of someone named the “newborn King of the Jews.” Well-to-do people in ancient times could indeed proffer gifts like gold, frankincense and myrrh. In later centuries it was indeed the wealthy who could afford to import fine ceramic statuary from the Orient and bestow the treasured item on some honored friend. But for most of history, gifts were not purchased from importers or traders or entrepreneurs. Our ancestors, until fairly recently, gave prized items that they already owned or that they made themselves as gifts to their family and friends. A woman might embroider a handkerchief or select a piece of her own jewelry or bake a classic fruit cake as a presentation for a relative or dear friend. A man might whittle a new pipe or hand on a valued book, or maybe a useable deck of cards might be offered to any of his colleagues.
The practice of going to a store to purchase gift items is fairly new in mankind’s long history. First of all there were no stores for most of history. Markets, yes; and apothecaries, yes; and blacksmiths, yes. But clothes and toys and food and crafts were all made at home. Perhaps the late eighteenth century witnessed the first arrival of tradespeople and shop keepers who could offer select items appropriate for gifts. For example, Josiah Wedgwood at Stoke-on-Kent began to mass produce items of fine china suitable for presenting to a friend or relative. Clothing items could now be more easily turned out from improved spinning jennies. Imported items also became quite popular.
Store bought or catalogue ordered gifts are indeed convenient, diverse and certainly appreciated. But for most of history a gift was an actual sharing of oneself, an imparting of one’s own treasure, a donation of one’s own cherished bounty. A ring that had been in the family for generations, or a bonnet that had been painstakingly stitched by hand, or a ship model crafted over months were indeed very significant tokens of friendship, affection and camaraderie. An off-the-shelf present does not have the same significance or the same seriousness as a gift that the donor carefully crafted or previously treasured. A book ordered from Amazon or a shirt mailed from L.L. Bean or a bottle of Tanqueray purchased at the tax-free counter on a recent trip do not have exactly the same significance as handing over the silver candlesticks that belonged to one’s grandmother or the souvenir baseball that granddad caught as a youth at Fenway Park. Lowell’s poetry still has merit: “Not what we give, but what we share, For the gift without the giver is bare.”
Yes, genuine gifts come from the heart, not from a catalogue. But let’s be frank. Times change. Many would say thankfully so. All of us would be greatly disappointed if the gifts and presents under the family tree this year resembled an estate sale. Nowadays, a gift certificate to the Capital Grille is bound to be more appreciated than a family heirloom. The new silver cufflinks from Brooks Brothers will draw a much broader smile today than a Hummel figurine that has been on a cousin’s shelf for years. Still, making a store-bought present the equivalent of a heartfelt gift is quite a challenge. So what determines a gift’s worth? Does brand name or fashion or price or novelty decide the merit of a gift? The advertising industry would certainly want donors to think so. On the other hand, the old cliché still offers an enduring insight on the meaning of gift giving: it’s the thought that counts. Carefully considering the beneficiary’s interests or certainly his or her needs is primary. Perhaps the brother who is a coin collector would appreciate a new issuance from the U.S. Mint. Maybe the aunt who is in assisted living would indeed appreciate that fruit basket.
In this coming Sunday’s Gospel, the last before Christmas, the Blessed Virgin Mary offers her cousin Elizabeth a precious gift: the pleasure of her company in time of need. After her extensive journey from Nazareth, Mary probably appeared at Elizabeth’s door “with one arm long as the other.” Most likely Mary’s only present to her older cousin was the sound of a pleasant greeting. But Mary’s bit of cheer made the infant in Elizabeth’s womb leap for joy, so welcome was Mary’s presence, and her favor, and her assistance. “For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.” Gift giving has become extremely commercial. Ponder the chaos of black Friday. Yet considerate, personal gifts, like Mary’s arrival, can still gladden the heart and deepen affection. This Christmas, let the thought count!