I hear the annual rumble coming from my Senior friends about what to get the grandkids for Christmas. “They have so much stuff, I can’t find anything they don’t already have.” Grandma and I have the same dilemma which we partly solve by giving gift cards. It’s not as personal, but it gets me off the hook, and it still says, “We haven’t stopped loving you.”
I’m okay with gift cards, but they obscure the original purpose of gifting. (I’ll set aside the old rituals of the potlatch, ego and material bragging for a later time.) Nowadays, a gift usually just means I love you, and I want you to know that. But in my earlier rural, poorer days, gifts were a practical way to help people acquire the things needed for everyday living. It was a communal thing to help strengthen the family, or the families of friends.
Wedding gifts helped young couples set up housekeeping. The women in the family and the friends of the bride and groom would ask the bride’s mother, “Do they have pots and pans?” Or, “Do they need bedding?” “How about a kitchen table and chairs?” “Do they need dinnerware?”
The men would gather and ask the father of the groom serious questions like, “What tools does he have?” “Does he need a rifle?” If the groom needed an anvil it would show up at the wedding…wrapped in burlap perhaps, but wrapped nonetheless.
The gifts for the bride and groom were specific and prosaic…useful, practical stuff for living a life. Heirlooms might be handed down from grandmother to granddaughter…a treasured decorative bowl perhaps, or a nice handmade quilt from an earlier generation, or a hardwood rocker, but the focus was on the practical, not the beautiful.
Christmas gifts followed the same pattern. “What does (fill in the blank) need?” Mama says, “Socks,” or “a sweater,” or “gloves,” ordinary stuff. Come Christmas, the family would sit in a circle in the living room and open gifts. Dad tied fishing flies for the men, and mother made aprons and pot holders for the women. Us kids…I know it should be “we kids,” but I like “us” better…would get socks, sweaters, gloves, sometimes a bag of marbles and always ten-cent balsa wood gliders. (Dad said kids had to have something to play with.)
It was a rare thing to receive a really special toy. Thanks to Grandma Ida and Grandpa Charlie, I still remember the Roy Rogers cap guns set from a Christmas sixty-nine years ago. All memory of the other practical stuff is obscured by time, but not the memory of the cap guns. Those were really special.
Do I think we should stop gift giving? Not at all, but the reasons may have changed. Prosaic practicality may have to be replaced by simple reminders of love.
Maybe I should just adopt a family that still needs the necessaries of life. (Gift cards, anyone?)