Gift Giving With Meaning

(this is an article I wrote recently for a holiday blog series for the Couples Institute)

giftWith the holiday season around the corner, the necessity of gift giving is on most of our minds. Many of us feel pressured to provide and ‘prove’ our love for others in a strictly material way. But gift-giving is much more than just spending. If done thoughtfully, it can provide a wonderful emotional, social & spiritual effect on you and your loved ones. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The History of Gift Giving

The history of gift giving stems back a long time in human history, and across most cultures. According to the journal “History Today”, the giving of presents at the midwinter feast almost certainly began as a magical more than as merely a social custom. There were two great pagan festivals at this time of year. The week-long Saturnalia, a Roman winter solstice festival, which began on December 17th. It included feasting, goodwill, generosity to the poor, the exchange of gifts and the decoration of trees. The Kalends, which started on January 1st, greeted the New Year. During Kalends, gifts were ritually exchanged by being tied to the boughs of greenery that decorated houses during the festivities. Most Native cultures have been practicing the social value of gift-giving for thousands of years. Their ‘potlatch’ ceremonies are an example of giving in the extreme. The more you gave, the more you were respected. The respect was due to your generosity, a highly valued spiritual attribute, rather than to the cost of material items given.

The Definition of “Gift”

The actual definition of a ‘gift’ is the transfer of something without the expectation of payment. Although gift-giving might involve an expectation of reciprocity, a gift is meant to be free. The term gift can refer to anything that makes the other happier or less sad, especially as a favor, including forgiveness and kindness.

Acts of Kindness or Big Business?

Somewhere along the way, we lost the true meaning and measure of giving. Gift-giving has become big business in North America. There is social, emotional and financial pressure to ‘get the right gift’ and according to the Centre for a New American Dream, which promotes responsible consumption, four out of five Americans think the holidays are too materialistic (New York Times, 2007).

Breaking Old Patterns

When I was growing up I learned that giving gifts was a quintessential way to show how much you loved someone, with the caveat that the bigger and better the gift, the more you loved. The gift was expected to be both expensive and the exact thing that would thrill the receiver. No pressure at all! I would try desperately to figure out what others were buying so I wouldn’t look like a ‘cheapskate’. Limiting my spending or forgoing gift giving would never have been considered. Going in debt during the holiday season, on the other hand, was a given. I’ve spoken with lots of folks who have similar experiences, some of whom have decided to put their heads in the sand and come up for air once the holiday season is all over.

However, buying out of ‘obligation’ is a trap you can get yourself out of. It does little to enhance the quality of life of you or the other. People who feel obligated to buy, most often get it all wrong. According to a British survey some of the gifts men buy for women that are ‘all wrong’ include: incorrectly fitting underwear, exercise DVD’s, kitchen utensils, cheap jewelry, chocolates, shoes or slippers. The gifts women buy for men that are ‘all wrong’ include: unwanted clothes, gadgets, man bags, jewelry and framed photos. I’m sure most of us have been guilty of this ‘quick fix’ approach at one time or another. Being on the receiving end you may have wondered why on earth they even bothered – you’re never going to use it! In a time of increasing social and global consciousness, this practice is simply wasteful.

Gift-Giving With Meaning

Pull out of the cultural hype of bigger = better and use this gift-giving season to make a meaningful connection to someone who matters while staying within your values and your budget. Give to define your relationships and strengthen your ties to family and friends. Measure your gift-giving in terms of the amount of joy you can spread.

Start by setting a budget. Make a list of the people you want to give gifts to and how much you would like to spend. Keep the list close to you at all times (for easy reference), and do your best to stick to it.

Here are a few ideas for creating wonderful and affordable gifts:

  • If you know a family that struggles with finding the time to do things together, get them a family pass to an activity or place that everyone can enjoy.
  • Sign up for a yoga or relaxation class with a friend and use this gift as an opportunity to spend time together.
  • Get family members to exchange names and agree to homemade gifts with a spending limit. You can sew, paint, carve, build or bake something for each other that won’t set you back financially and will get you thinking about what your family member might enjoy from you. This gift will have special meaning because it came from you.
  • Take a family vacation in lieu of expensive gifts.
  • Send the same book to a group of friends and start a virtual book club that will keep you connected throughout the year.
  • Invite someone you know who has no family to your home for a festive meal.
  • Organize a charity drive among people you know to help those less fortune – those that may live close by but are struggling during hard financial times.
  • Buy co-operative games for children and spend time playing with them. When I play these games with my grandson we laugh and help each other throughout the game. This is a far cry from the standard competitive games, that often leave him frustrated, sad and feeling like he’s ‘losing’.
  • Make “coupons” for your time. Offer your babysitting services for a couple who have small children so they can go out and enjoy time together.
  • For Couples – you can design a date that you feel will really make your partner feel special. It doesn’t have to cost a lot, it’s more the fact that you have thought of them and put in the time to do it, that means the most. For example, you can plan a ‘winter picnic’. Get a basket, fill it with food and drink, get a table cloth, some candles and soft music. Spread the table cloth in front of your fireplace or on the living room rug. Hang out together enjoying a romantic and affordable time.


The Rewards are Plenty

Remember that mindful gift-giving has a positive psychological and emotional effect on us. It reinforces our feelings for another person and allows us to communicate that we care. It helps us to share something unique about ourselves and our relationship to others and by doing so, creates a sense of belonging and safety. Whenever we feel safe, our nervous systems can relax and we ‘feel better‘. It’s a scientific fact. As Oprah says, “What delights me most about the holiday season is that people are more open to giving and sharing. And actively thinking about how to spread more joy. There is no better feeling, for sure”. (

So go ahead, spread more joy, incur less debt and enjoy your holiday gift-giving.

Until next time, I wish you all the best on your journey through life.

Sue Diamond Potts, M.A.

Registered Clinical Counsellor


This newsletter is meant to provide you with information and tips for improving yourself. It is not meant as a substitute for therapy or counselling. Please feel free to forward a copy of Emotional Sobriety Matters (in its’ entirety) to others who may be interested in personal development.

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