Face it. Most of us have too much stuff and way too many catalogues. We have too many sweaters and shirts. We've got too many books, read and unread.
Children are helped to know the great gift of Christ's coming to redeem us not only by the Christmas pageantry, but by gifts. If done right, the celebration of Christ's birth and warm feeling of receiving presents help children bond.
Gift giving among adults is an entirely different matter. Face it. Most of us have too much stuff and way too many catalogues. We have too many sweaters and shirts. We've got too many books, read and unread. Not only do men have too many neckties, but neckties are being worn less and less.
On the giving end or the receiving end, the Christmas question, "What do you want for Christmas?" is a pain. Of course, we want to receive presents, but not another sweater. Not another blouse!
The heart of giving is in knowing what will please the other. Sure, but it's not as simple as that! First, there is the problem of gauging what is appropriate to request. "I want a new iPhone, but can she afford it?" "I'd like that new kiwi and coconut scented shampoo that goes for $6.98, but will he be insulted?"
Then there are all the stress-inducing questions on the giving end: "Does he really only want a new floor mat for his car?" "Will my gift match up with the one I'm getting in return?" "Was he just kidding when he said he wanted new sweat socks?"
And then there are the problems with giving presents to kids. One of us had a beloved godmother, who was fun-loving and very with-it. Nevertheless, every Christmas he received a book, always on the order of "Ancient Roman Fortresses." The worst part was writing the "thank you" notes for a present that was hated and would never be read. "Dear Aunt Angela: You can't imagine how thrilled I was to receive the illustrated 'Ancient....'"
Books as Christmas gifts do have certain advantages. They tend to be small, easily wrapped and mailed. They complement the receiver, indicating that you think he or she is a reader, a thoughtful person of ideas. Jean Harlow, the famous and wild 1930s movie star, may have discovered the best solution to the book-as-present problem.
As Jean Harlow's birthday approached, all her co-workers on the MGM lot were scurrying around and trying desperately to come up with a gift appropriate to the star's luminosity. Finally, after every suggestion was shot down, they decided to go to the star and just outright ask her what she wanted. "Oh, give me anything. Just don't give me a book. I already got a book."
On the other hand, a friend of ours, Bob Anthony, has come up with a creative solution to the Christmas gift-giving issue, particularly the book problem. Tired of gifts he didn't need or want, he told his relatives and inquirers that instead of a gift, send him the title and author of their favorite book. He reported that he received a stimulating list and spent several months of enjoyable reading.
Then there are the non-material gifts. We have a recent entry into our family by way of marriage. Joel is a wonderful young man with a rich assortment of skills and a generous heart. His Christmas gift to one of his new sisters-in-law is to paint her room.
His gift could open up a huge vista of gifts. What can you do? You're a whiz with your iPhone. You could give an hour to help your tech challenged aunt. Or you play tennis and could give two hours of tennis lessons. Or teach your sister to knit. Or learn pinochle to play with your lonely uncle. What are you good at that you can share? These "Joel-gifts" do, however, require you to follow through and complete the task.
In this same category are the "do-some-task-he-or-she-hates" gifts. "He loathes weeding -- I'm on it!" "She's so bored and tired of paying the bills -- I'll take it over for a year."
The non-material gift appeals to those of us that are up-to-here with books and sweaters and funny cups. On the other hand, we all still respond when under the tree we discover our secret heart's desire... that scent I've have been craving, or a bottle of single malt scotch or a box of caramel centered chocolates big enough to last until Lent!
Give well. But, by all means, give.
KEVIN AND MARILYN RYAN, EDITORS OF "WHY I'M STILL A CATHOLIC," WORSHIP AT ST. LAWRENCE CHURCH IN BROOKLINE.
Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline, Mass.