When rich people do something nice for you, you give them a pot of jam. Six Degrees of Separation
The idea of presenting a well-to-do hostess with a pot of jam may seem preposterous–why would a person who has everything want a jar of strawberry preserves? The truth is, you may not know this person very well and, even if you did, you probably couldn’t afford to give her anything she doesn’t already have. A pot of jam is a time-tested safety net for the gift-giving challenged. Why? Everyone likes jam.
Another truth? Everyone likes gifts. If you picked up an odd-shaped leaf on the sidewalk on your way to visit me, and gave it to me with the words, “This made me think of you,” a part of my heart would go zing. Presenting an object with flair (and sincerity) can make anything a gift.
I love receiving gifs so much, in fact, that when I order something for myself online, I check the gift box. When it arrives, wrapped, I feel like I’ve received a gift (having that beautiful box to open helps, of course). I do the same at brick-and-mortar stores. “Could you please slip that into a gift box for me?” I’ll ask nonchalantly.
I’m also a firm believer in bearing gifts when visiting someone’s house. In addition to presenting your most amiable and entertaining self, you should always present a small gift to your host or hostess, whether this is your first visit or your fiftieth. If you don’t have time before you leave, or you would rather wait to shop while you’re there, this is fine, but gift you must when enjoying someone’s hospitality. It’s particularly nice to give your hostess something that suits her style and tastes. If you’re visiting a married couple, you bring one gift meant for the house. The safest gift is always a bottle of wine or spirits, particularly if you don’t know the house or your hosts’ style of entertaining–but a gift sent after a visit should certainly respect their style and temperament. Think about it. Open your eyes. Notice the things that make people sing.
I once gave my mother a box of individually-wrapped little presents for her birthday. I took a shoebox and decorated that thing like a sleep-away camp craft project. She has no idea where all the little gifts inside ended up, but after many, many years, she still has that gift box. It’s the idea of giving, you see–the presentation, the thought, the action, the art. There are a million reasons to give. There are birthday gifts, holiday gifts, baby gifts, engagement gifts, wedding gifts, Mother’s/Father’s Day gifts, house-warming gifts and welcome home gifts. We like to give! And, by the same token, we all like to receive.
But there’s a definite art to gift-giving. The key is personalization–and by this, I don’t necessarily mean running out and monogramming anything that sits still (although I will admit to being a monogram fanatic, and am always impressed by the forethought that goes into having something made up with my initials). No, I’m talking about the personalization that comes from thinking about a person you care about, and selecting something you know they’ll appreciate. The art of giving comes alive when you match a friend’s inner workings with a tangible something they can hold in the hand, head or heart–when you see a smile or a tear of joy and know your aim has hit its mark. Well-chosen gifts literally seem to unfurl as the box is opened. That box, by the way, need not contain a million dollar ring. It could just as easily hold a bottle of good scotch (ahem); a framed photograph of the person at a special event; a box of favorite pens; or a candle that reminds you of the vacation you shared. Eau de St. Barts, anyone? If it doesn’t exist, it should.
On the other hand, when I moved into my first apartment in college, my step-father gave me a set of black dishes as a house-warming present. Me! Mister button-downs and bow ties. I don’t own anything black, let alone clothing (apart from my tuxedo). Yes, it was thoughtful–the boy needs dishes if he’s going to eat, he reasoned–but not very. And I returned them the next day. That’s my point. You want someone to appreciate your gift and at least enjoy its presence, if not its use. Running willy-nilly to the corner drugstore an hour before you present a gift is an absolute last resort, and one that you may use only once or twice in your entire life (like a Get Out of Jail Free card). Whereupon your quota of wham-bam gifts will be spent, and you’ll be forced to actually think about the next gift you give your hair stylist, dog walker or child’s teacher. Take a little time. Go inside the mind of the recipient. Imagine what it is he or she would do, want, desire, enjoy. Then start shopping.
And for Pete’s sake, don’t get hung up on price. Every friend knows your limitations (or extravagances) and would be suspicious if you suddenly gifted against type. Stick within your budget and your lifestyle. I would be thrilled to receive a simple keychain from my 17-year-old niece. But my highfalutin brother? He’d better cough up a cashmere sweater at the very least. I mean, honestly, bro. Don’t make me call our mama.
For that matter, why do we have to wait for mandated holidays to give people gifts? The best gifts are those that appear out of nowhere, catching us off guard and taking one’s breath away. I know a wonderful hostess who leaves a tiny gift at each person’s place during a dinner party, which I think is one of the most generous things I’ve ever witnessed. This is a lady who’s already gone to considerable trouble to arrange a beautiful dinner table for her guests, and then she goes a step further and adds a little amuse bouche of a gift. It’s a charming surprise. And isn’t that what gifting should be? A charming surprise?
At this time of year, everyone wants “easy” gift-giving suggestions: Help me! they cry. But if you’re thoughtful, you already know what to do. Shut out the noise and the panic. Think about the person, and visualize how he or she spends her day. Now, find a way to make that day a little more pleasant. Perhaps you’ll discover an out-of-print book you know she’ll love. Perhaps it’s a sliver of silver jewelry. Perhaps it’s a donation to charity, a freshly-baked loaf of bread, or a really good bottle of scotch (ahem). Or even a pot of jam.
This was written for and first appeared in Wantful Magazine.
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