Rules for Gift Giving

Before we get too far away from Christmas, I wanted to jot down some thoughts I had about gift giving this year. I think there’s a universal anxiety surrounding the presentation of presents. Did I spend enough money? Did I spend too much money? Does he care about the monetary value? Will she use it? Will he like it? Does she need it? Does he already have it? Is someone else getting it for her? Is it proportionate to my affection or esteem for him? What will she think I’m saying? What am I trying to say? What does this gift say about me?

I’ve faced each of these beasts in my recurring quest for THE PERFECT GIFT. I don’t know if there’s any better advice than what ghost Babe Ruth said to Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez, “Follow your heart, kid, and you’ll never go wrong.” Still, I’m all for practical advice where it can be found, so I’ve developed some guidelines for gifting.

Google Doc Lists

There’s a reason Santa likes to get wishlist letters from kids. For those who don’t believe in Santa Claus, there’s Google Docs. Edit, share, view, add, and coordinate with other loved ones so that duplicate gifts are never given. It feels a bit odd assembling a wishlist as an adult, but having been on the other side, I’m relieved when I have the option of gifting from a list. Negative stress brings down the whole gift experience. As a receiver, I don’t enjoy the thought of people stressing about finding me a gift.

“But Aaron, isn’t it the thought that counts? If I really know and love the person, shouldn’t I be able to think of a present on my own?” Sure. If you can think of a present without consulting a list, bully for you. Sometimes it’s just dumb luck that you stumble upon THE PERFECT GIFT. Rachel and I experienced that this Christmas while shopping for our brother-in-law. We were introduced to humour noir via The Gashlycrumb Tinies on Halloween, and happened to remember the book at Christmas when we learned that he wanted the dark comedy card game, Gloom. Nailed it.

More often, however, we feel much like Norman Maclean in A River Runs Through It, “It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.” That doesn’t mean that we don’t love those to whom we are giving or that we don’t know them. We show our love and knowledge in the daily affairs of life—the kisses goodbye and goodnight, picking up a favorite cereal at the grocery store, the well-timed “How are you doing?” text during the workday. Gifts are sufficient for showing love, not necessary.


Nostalgia gifts are great. Give something that brings back a cherished memory. For example, when I was younger I used to play a board game called Rail Baron with my dad and brothers. We spent hours familiarizing ourselves with American rail lines and poring over pay schedules. While on my mission in the Midwest—an area considerably more dense in railroads—I would recognize the names and logos of various lines and think back to the warm afternoon games with the men of my family.

Rail Baron went out of production some time in the 1990s. I worried that those memories would remain simply memories, and worse, that the game—the tradition—would be lost to my children.

This Christmas, though, Rachel gave me Boxcars—that is, Rail Baron, released under a new name by a different company. That’s an awesome gift. She gave me memories and future memories.

Indefensible Gifts

Give something that your giftee can’t justify getting for himself. Maybe he doesn’t feel like his level of need or want meets the asking price. Maybe he thinks it could be useful or fun, but doesn’t *know* that it is and therefore doesn’t want to risk wasting money. Guess what—risk is an element of gifting! Take the risk for your loved one, and give him what he wouldn’t get himself.

The example here is a gift I gave to Rachel—an electric ebelskiver maker. For those of you who don’t know, an ebelskiver is a Nordic pancake. Rachel enjoys them, but they’re a specialty dish. There are a lot of other kitchen gadgets that she should get before getting an ebelskiver maker. She won’t be using it every day, or even every week. She doesn’t need it. She wants it, but she’s not dying to get it. The ebelskiver maker could very well slide down the list every birthday and Christmas in deference to more practical gifts, and Rachel would never realize her Danish culinary dreams. I wasn’t about to let that happen. And so we happily ate ebelskivers Christmas morning.


Give a story. Send your giftee on an adventure. Horseback riding, balloon trip, photography class, dance lesson, museum tickets, shooting range, movie vouchers—whatever floats your fancy. This one takes a little more thought, but it’s awesome to create a memory.

Tag Team

When all else fails, ride on the coattails of someone else’s gift. For example, Rachel’s mom was giving Rachel’s sister a nice Kitchen-Aid ice cream maker attachment. Knowing this, Rachel then gave her sister an awesome ice cream cookbook (freezebook?). The only note I’d make on this one is that you have to monitor the order in which the presents are opened.

We’d all like to be the one to crush the ball out of the park on Christmas morning, or on Mother’s Day, or on our Anniversary. We all want our gift to be the Holy Grail, as it were, of wants, needs, and surprises. Here’s the thing, though: singles score runs, and plastic cups hold water just as well. You don’t need to find THE PERFECT GIFT. All you need is a good gift, and any gift given with love is a good gift.

I don’t always find the perfect gift, but I frequently give good gifts. The joy of giving a good gift is magnified and made more meaningful when I consider Christ’s words in the Sermon on the Mount:

Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?

Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent?

If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?

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