Wednesday, December 17, 2008

On Graciousness and Gift Receipts

Food writer Monica Bhide wrote a post on the Renegade Writer Blog this week about the art of being gracious.

I love this post because it highlights the process of gift-giving and receiving, not the gift itself. It echoes what we've said in previous posts here about being a courteous recipient, note writing, and the way in which goods gifts demonstrate to recipients that they are truly known.

If I disagree with one thing in Monica's post, it's her position on gift receipts. She feels that including a receipt introduces a level of practicality that does damage to graciousness. While I see her point, I actually believe including a gift receipt can take graciousness to a whole different level. It communicates an acknowledgment that, although your intention is to give something that is truly valued and needed, the recipient may have a more pressing need that could be addressed. Especially in these economic times, I think it's great to communicate to your recipient that you care about her needs and wants enough that your feelings won't be hurt if the gift is returned.

The inclusion of the gift receipt does not, however, absolve you of the need to be thoughtful and well-intentioned in your choice of a gift. It is not acceptable to say, oh well, I can give any old thing, and if he doesn't like it, he'll return it.

What are your thoughts? Do you include gift receipts? Why or why not?

Friday, December 12, 2008

When Gift Certificates Are a Good Idea

In a previous post, we suggested the Target gift card as a good gift for a third tier person (i.e., someone you don't know particularly well but are obligated to give a gift to). But this is not the only gift exchange situation for which a gift card is a good option.

Given the state of our economy at present, people are cutting back on all kinds of discretionary spending. Consider the fact that giving a gift card to someone under financial stress means giving him the ability to buy something he needs or wants for himself. 

The freedom of being able to shop for oneself can be a real shot in the arm.  This may be the perfect year for gift card giving.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

I am stating the obvious when I say that we are in difficult economic times... and how we manage Christmas giving this year will inevitably be affected.

This does not need to be a bad thing; in fact, we should greet this as an excuse to throw old patterns of pointless excess and boredom in our gift-giving out, and start new traditions. When you have less money to work with, it forces you to become more inventive and adaptive in where you spend your money and time. For anyone who's ever watched Top Chef or Project Runway, you know what I'm talking about - inevitably, when given the challenge to create a dish/garment with severe limitations on time, ingredients/materials and expense, contestants have come up with some of their most artistic and ground-breaking ideas. On the opposite side of that, when they are given free rein on their commodities, time, and range of scope, they all too often are hamstrung by the excess of choice and produce weak or simply bad results.

When I lost my job three years ago, it resulted in a specific theme: Re-gifting and Recycling Roulette. Almost everything I gave was either regifted, recycled, or free. It ended up being one of the most enjoyable and satisfying gift-giving seasons I have ever had. This year, it has thematically become a Homemade Holiday. Almost everything I am giving is homemade - crocheted amigurumi critters for children and girlfriends who enjoy cute things, homemade vanilla extract, which is an expensive commodity when purchased at a grocery store, but cheap to make in bulk, and eminently useful.
  • Take a mental inventory of your skills - are you good at making something useful or artistic? Consider how you can translate that into gifts.
  • Try to learn a new skill to make something useful or in demand. I found the recipe for vanilla online quite by accident, and decided to learn how to make amigurumi so I could always make a little something if I couldn't afford to buy a present for baby showers.
  • Think of what your family and friends can genuinely use or appreciate - don't just present them with a wooden doghouse if they live in a heavily populated downtown high-rise! Make them something they can easily make room for.
I'm not saying to make wooden toys for your grandkids who have no appreciation for anything that isn't a Wii; be smart and realistic in how you translate your talents into presents. You'll enjoy it a lot more, you'll receive more compliments (!) and respect for being Green and more personally involved.

I learned how to make really good cookies years ago so I could take them to events to please and impress people so they would like me. It usually works, which is why I am still making things to this day. ;)

Sunday, December 7, 2008

How to Write a Note

There is one incredibly simple, inexpensive way to make any gift much more meaningful: include a note. 

A well-written, heartfelt note is the difference between a so-so gift and a touching, memorable one. There are a number of approaches you can take. 

1. Tell the recipient why you chose the gift.

There's a scene in the holiday classic It's a Wonderful Life where Mary stands on the steps of a new house, hands the new owners a loaf of bread, and says, "Bread, that this house may never know hunger." 

A simple note of explanation turns an ordinary gift into a meaningfully symbolic one. Even if your gift isn't symbolic, a note can go a long way. Start your note with:

I wanted you to have this because..., or
This reminded me of you because....

2. Tell a story.

Everyone has a different perspective on even the most well-remembered events. Write a note that tells a story involving the recipient from your point of view. This is the perfect type of note to include with a photo gift, especially when the photo depicts an important family event or rite of passage like a wedding or graduation. 

2. Use an Oprah writing prompt.

Recently Oprah Winfrey did an entire show on thrifty holiday practices, with note-writing was a central feature. Oprah suggests starting notes with:

What I love about you is...
Thank you for..., or, 
My holiday wish for you is....

Notes like these can accompany a gift, or they can be the gift. 

Image by Zsuzsanna Kili├ín

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


Aerin's Cranberry Blog has a great post on the subject of obligation.

Aerin raises good questions: Are you obligated to give a gift to someone who gives a gift to you? Are you obligated to give them a gift that is as expensive as the one you received?

I really like Aerin's take on this subject (and not just because she gives this blog a shout out).

I'd like to hear readers' thoughts on this. How do you deal with the question of obligation in gift exchanges?

Monday, December 1, 2008

An Object Lesson

I have begun to crochet what are known as amigurumi, which is Japanese for "knitted stuffed toy." Most amigurumi nowadays are crocheted instead of knitted. I wanted to develop a skill that would allow me to make little home-made presents that would be unusual and fun.

One of my first amigurumi gifts was a little pair of fishes to my friend Jen for her cats. She was delighted with them, and sent me the following thank-you note:

Dear Aunt Susan,

Thank you very much for our new kitty toys. We especially appreciate them because you made them by hand.
We have tried to kill the toys by batting them, biting them, kicking them, and scratching them. We have not succeeded in destroying them. Today, while Jennifer is at work, we plan to dunk the goldfish in our water bowl. Maybe we can drown them!
Thanks again,

Jesco and Ellie the Kitties

A simple handmade toy, and a delightful thank-you note. All gift exchanges should end so well!