The art of gifting - a pandora's box

Tessa van Staden
Whoever came up with the cliché (or adage) “it’s the thought that counts,” was seriously misguided.

If those are words expressed by a friend or loved one, upon opening your present, you know you’ve missed the mark.

Before having a child I used to agonize over gifts and accompanying notes, worrying whether I’d found something that suited the specific recipient’s needs/interests/life stage etc.

I’m not sure I’m able to explain why that was so important to me at the time. I suppose I felt the gift (and card) said something about me. I love beautiful stationery and interesting pens. I’m intrigued by colourful parcels and bows. I notice intricate patterns and embossed finishes, my eyes and fingers lingering on textured surfaces.

My husband doesn’t have a clue when I describe tartan paper or shimmering cardboard. For him it’s about the gift and – preferably – making the recipient laugh. I vividly remember marvelling at and being somewhat appalled by his casual approach. He tends to spot gifts quite quickly. Not only does he NOT worry about whether or not his present will be appreciated or liked; he definitely doesn’t consider the wrapped package to be an extension of himself or his personality.

I remember staring at him in odd fascination last year, when I realised he was wrapping a gift - for a woman friend - in paper emblazoned with soccer balls. His retort was it was a “humorous” gift and she’d appreciate the joke. I replied (emphatically, I recall) that she wouldn’t. I was convinced a gift had to indicate some time and thought had been invested. But her bubbling laughter proved me wrong.

It’s somewhat embarrassing to admit I spent a good portion of my (so not) gargantuan salary on flowers for my mother on her birthday. This annual exercise cost so much because she lives in the USA. A part of me felt I had to – somehow – show her I was thinking about her on the day and had made an effort to brighten her surroundings. But I stopped in 2011 because I simply couldn’t afford it.

Since having a baby I’ve become less concerned. Frankly, I don’t have the time or energy to obsess about appropriate presents. While wrapping a gift for a friend’s birthday party earlier this year I realised, at the last minute, that I only had wrapping, welcoming the arrival of a new baby. It had to suffice and she ended up laughing about it.

In the run up to the festive season I’m acutely aware of the looming buying of presents.

I’ve told myself the holidays should not be about commercial excess or impulsive purchases. Not that it was about that previously, but the desire to find “the right” gift for a specific person became a dreaded feat I had to (somehow) wade through.

Plus there’s the environment. The site says wrapping paper and shopping bags alone account for about 4 million tons of trash in the US every year. I wonder how much we produce?

My love/hate relationship with the technique of present-spotting and distribution has made me think about what it means to give. Not presents, necessarily, but of oneself … especially when thousands of families don’t have regular meals or a permanent roof over their heads.

Worrying about presents (let alone the way they’re wrapped) is a luxury. Which makes me realise it IS the thought that counts.

Tessa van Staden is EWN's Deputy News Editor in Cape Town.