It's the time of the year when we talk about how horrible the practice of expensive Christmas presents is, wail about the consumer society, and criticize the material pleasure of receiving a gift. I can't agree less. I love getting and giving presents, and the fact that some of my family have explicitly said they don't want presents makes me sad, over and over again, through the year.
First, I love giving gifts. When I am traveling or just walking around in stores, I often see something, remember a conversation with a person I love, and get it for them. They are close to my mind and heart, and if I see something I think will make them happy, I really want to contribute to that. This is of course limited by my wallet. I don't have unlimited funds, and I don't want to give gifts that make me angry or disappointed after giving them away and getting nothing in return. It has to be a gift I can easily give. Sometimes I knit, sometimes I buy, sometimes I go through my own stuff and hand on something I know will do better service with the other person. That's the way one of my fancier winter coats just left me - I used it very rarely, the person who got it was both delighted and in need of something warm and nice. When somebody doesn't want my gift, it feels like a rejection, one I am reminded of every time I see something I know they would love. I pick up a pin, a cap, a bottle of something nice, and I know the person I would get that for just doesn't want this, and I put it back.
Second, I love getting gifts. To that end I am pretty good at making my wishes clear to the ones I expect gifts from. But it doesn't matter if I wanted it or not. My mother would reliably give me cotton panties of the most sensible type imaginable, knitted socks, or occasionally a wool undershirt. When she was too sick to do her own shopping, she'd send me out with shopping lists of socks and shirts and mittens, and I'd pack up the many different objects for her to label, so I wouldn't know what was for me. In my whole life my parents gave me two special presents, the kind that made me feel like I had received something expensive and incredible. The first was a pair of red skis, when I was perhaps 6 or 7. No pair of skis since have been that nice. The second was a washing machine, just before my first child was born. We were extremely broke students washing everything at a fairly remote laundromat. My father would have none of that, so a washing machine I got. I really needed that thing, and it survived three moves. (It was however at the end replaced by the only machine to get her own name: "Bella", spoken with reverence through the 15 years she just kept doing what had to be done.) But I am quite aware that presents like those come only a few times in a lifetime. For the rest of the time it's all about thinking of each other. And if that thought happened to come in September, while there was a sale on sensible cotton underwear, so be it.
With our kids, we got into the habit of giving them items for their hobbies, sport and school for Christmas. That's when they got the special things that supported their activities. And then there were the books and games. Having a stack of books to read through Christmas has always been the very best gift of all. We all read fast, a lot and over a wide range of topics. When we're done with our own stack, it's time to raid that of the others...
Now that we all pretty much have our own incomes, what we give each other when we want to be really fancy are experiences. One year the grown up children gave us a dinner at a very special restaurant. That was a fantastic gift; a precious memory and a wonderful experience. We exchange tickets for shows, or pay each others' fees for streaming services. But we know that every present has been picked based on what we know of each other, and what we think about at a given moment. Even when we just give them money to shop for and the promise to go with them, or look after their children while they shop, it's a gift of consideration.
This is, of course, not a magical extravaganza of gifts, where we drown in the surplus. The only ones experiencing that are the grandchildren. But it's an exchange of tokens proving we have been thinking about each other. And the occasional stack of warm socks.