Deliver delight this year. Look to the Magi to inspire new gift-giving practices this holiday season.
December usually finds me shopping-til’-I-drop. Yet, pandemic restrictions give me pause … and a bunch of holiday quandaries. Do I need to mail my officemates gifts, or can I just skip that this year? Is it impersonal to ship directly to my family—or do I ship to myself, wrap, and reship? That certainly doesn’t feel like an eco-friendly option. What do I do with the grief I feel about lost traditions—like filling holiday stockings for a visiting family member or delivering cookies to my elderly neighbors?
As I racked my brain, a little voice whispered, “Don’t see the losses. See the gifts.”
And I was back to shopping. Or was I? Since my family chose to holiday in place, I realized it was a perfect time to re-evaluate the link between shopping and gift-giving. I immediately thought of the Magi from the nativity stories of Christianity, my birth religion. Confusingly, there are a variety of suggestions for the meaning of the three gifts, since no meanings are explicitly provided in the text of the New Testament. A common interpretation suggests that gold represented royalty, frankincense signified divinity, and myrrh was a necessity for death.
While I’m fresh out of gold bars, I took some time to think about what is valuable in our present context. A recent study revealed that over 30 percent of people reported symptoms of anxiety or depression in response to pandemic life and 13 percent admitted using various substances to cope. This gave me pause about gifting alcohol or food to friends and family.
Instead, I wondered, what might make them smile? What could delight them? What might unexpectedly bring a moment of joy? At the same time, I wanted to make sure that whatever I picked was cruelty-free, planet-friendly, and useful.
The gift needed to be not only of value but also inspired by values.
Auspiciously, the answer came out of the blue (so to speak) in my Instagram feed as I spotted an adorable puffy bird with inquisitive yellow eyes and bright blue feet. The caption noted, “In the world of the blue-footed booby, bluer is better. The male courts the female by trotting around with excessive strides. Then they walk around each other for hours, showing off their feet in a slow ballet.” The post went on to explain the organization had raised $130,000 for booby research. I giggled at these last two words, then checked myself and continued reading
The Blue Feet Foundation was started by two young boys after they learned about the declining population of the bird. Will and Matty now raise money for research by selling bright blue socks (the same color as the blue-footed booby's feet!) with a cute bird doing a bit of a happy jig on the calf area. I immediately ordered a dozen pairs.
Over the past few years, there has been a trend among some of my friends to forego gift-giving, to the point of disdain, citing capitalism and consumerism and other critiques. “You can see how pervasive gift refusal is in our culture. … Much of what goes by the name of modesty or humility is actually a refusal of ties, a distancing from others, a refusal to receive. We are as afraid to receive as we are to give,” observes author Charles Eisenstein in Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition.
“We may imagine ourselves as selfless and virtuous for being more willing to give than to receive, but this state is just as miserly as its reverse, for without receiving, the wellspring of our own gifts dries up.” Eisenstein suggests that to refuse to receive is also arrogant, a suggestion that we can be self-reliant, independent, and self-contained. (Read about nondual wisdom in “Glimpsing the Divine.”)
Refusing a gift given in goodwill is to say, “I don’t need anything from you.”
What if we looked beyond the actual gift? What is this person trying to communicate about our relationship by giving to me? The second gift of the Magi was not a gift for the child per se, but a gift for the family to offer to something greater than themselves. To receive generously is to acknowledge the value of a gift may be the connection it creates. Check yourself before suggesting “I don’t need it.” Are you sending a message of “I don’t need you”?
Admittedly, there are times when we might receive a gift that clashes with our ethical values. This happens to me when I open a box to find wine or something leather. As a recovering alcoholic and an animal lover, gifts like these can make me gasp. Yet, in the spirit of connection, they are an opportunity to gently share more about myself with the gift giver. Although this can be awkward, it usually deepens the authenticity of the relationship.
While I’m unlikely to offer my friends and family embalming oils this year, there’s no denying that 2020 has been a year of death. And so, I’m resisting suggesting anyone have “Happy Holidays!” Because I have no idea how people are feeling right now. Personally, I zigzag from joyful to annoyed to profoundly sad.
According to the nativity story, the Magi, after giving their gifts, simply left for their own country by another road. Perhaps the greatest gifts we can offer people this year are sensitivity and space. By dialing back cheery holiday music, limiting zoom gatherings, and avoiding in-person events, we can provide much-needed time for all of us to rest and recover from our long journeys through this past year.
Keep reading: “Longings and Belongings: Gift-Giving Reflections.”