As I've been shopping for the season, however, I've thought more about it. Gift-giving is also in the category of more general care-giving, in my book. Some gifts you give just to make someone smile in the short term, but some you give because the person's life might really be improved by it. I might buy a fancy top, or earings that are a perfect match for a favorite outfit for someone, thinking of how she doesn't get out much and how this might look great on her and help enable her to do something she loves, which is be out with other people, and thus be better connected in her close community. When my mom gave me a dishwasher while I was getting my master's degree, it was specifically to make my life better and help take care of me in a way she otherwise couldn't because we lived far apart. Sometimes, in this way, gift-giving provides a way of being there for your friend or loved one even when you're not there in person. The object is there, and also they might gain confidence or joy from the association of that object with you and your caring when they use, wear, or otherwise experience it later.
This is especially strong, for me, with gifts that were handmade by another person. That's not just the really comfy throw on the couch, it's the warm comfy throw knitted by Aunt Murph specifically for Bill. Or the blanket made for me by Caro. Those objects have a warmth of caring knitted into them over long hours.
My mom once sent me a whole birthday outfit, with jewelry and everything - not just a store-bought dress, but a carefully constructed entire ensemble that was perfect for the occassion where my birthday coincided with winter waltz and I had a date flying in from Philadelphia to share the night with me. Some parts of the ensemble were actually only on loan - but she gave me the experience, which was the important part, along with her loving attention and her trust. Trust can be a gift.
Still, I don't generally feel invested in whether or not someone remembers that something was from me. It's a nice bonus to gift-giving, but I've gotten enough gifts that I couldn't later remember the source of that I feel really forgiving of that pattern in others. I guess with the culture-sharing gifts, it's especially nice if people do remember, since it strengthens a connection you may have of shared interests. And, if there's a story associated with it, of shared history.
Sometimes we give gifts in such a way that it reinforces the status or other aspects of our relationship, in a (hopefully) positive way. My sister didn't give her first bronze sculpture to just anyone, she gave it to me. And I appreciate it in a way probably not everyone would, either, partly because it's a little gargoyle whose face is somehow reminiscent of the cat we had through almost my whole young life (from when I was 2 to when I was 24, I think).
I would rather get a single gift that is for me, personally, in this way, than a hundred that are rote gifts stimulated by a hallmark holiday. Gifts that are purchased throughout the year and are saved for a holiday I can relate to. Gifts that were bought because there was a felt obligation to give a certain ammount or type of thing... well, they can be as inspired and creative as any other, or they can not. I like spontaneous generousity, but saving up surprises can be fun too. When I went to Russia I bought gifts that lasted me for almost a year of birthdays and holidays; revealing them slowly was part of the fun.
I think the connecting part of gift-giving is why an email or card or newsletter, especially one with a personal note in it, is still a valuable and cherished gift. The value of the gift isn't the amount you paid for it, it's the message: "I think of you and I wish you well." Sometimes a gift goes along with the card that will help the recipient achieve that well-being, but underneath it all, it really is the thought that counts.
So that was a bit of an essay from my perspective. What does gift-giving mean to you? what are some of the favorite gifts you have given or received?