As a kid I was a bookworm, and was positively ga-ga for science fiction and fantasy (still am, really). A character in one of the books I read had a catchphrase, a word of wisdom from his people (giants): “In accepting a gift, one honors the giver.” The book it came from was problematic in a lot of ways for a lot of reasons that do not need recounting here, but this one phrase stuck with me, and it became a teacher in my life.
The first thing it highlighted for me was that the act of receiving a gift is not about you, nor about the actual thing being given, it is about honoring the giver’s act of generosity. While some might say that this is merely a reinvention of the tired old saw, “it’s the thought that counts!” in truth it represents way more than that.
A gift is more than just the thought of giving itself. Because a gift is also a tangible benefit that is being received, and being offered from the giver. And the line and shape of that benefit has implications for both giver and recipient. Consider for a moment that giving a “big” gift — one that is expensive in some way, costing the person giving it money or time or exertion — often makes people uncomfortable. There’s a nagging feeling on the part of the recipient that the gift is in fact about purchasing goodwill, rather than just a pure expression of generosity.
In old Norse tradition, gifts created obligation to bestow a gift in kind. The Havamal, one of the more famous advice-giving poems frequently referenced by pagans on Norse paths, counsels more than once that a man should “gift for gift bestow.” Gifts are in fact, social currency, and therefore the thought to give a gift is not necessarily more important than the actual content of the gift itself. In fact, the content of the gift is an essential component because of the sense of reciprocity.
And when a recipient of a gift finds it disappointing in some way, that also has implications. There are passive aggressive gifts, like the mother who gives her overweight daughter fancy new clothes, but deliberately buys them in sizes that are too small so she’ll “be inspired” to lose weight, or the husband who gives his wife kitchen appliances she hasn’t expressed an interest in having. And there are things we are given that purport to be benefits that actually aren’t, like when your favorite uncle gives you his old car, which will require more money to repair than it would cost to buy a car that actually runs.
So it is more than just the thought that counts. But to reduce gift-giving to a pure transaction is to ignore the most important aspect of honoring the giver — the acknowledgement of the generosity inherent the act of giving.
Generosity is an important trait that has become undervalued in our society. We are so suspicious of motives and our leaders are so transactional in their thinking, that we have forgotten that there is a deep nobility and even joy in offering something valuable to someone else not because they have asked for it, and often not even because they need it, but because you have the ability to give it to them. Being able to turn to your fellow man and say, “here, have this,” without expectation that the thing be returned too you, or that something else in kind be offered in return is an expansive act. Sharing what you have with another makes you bigger, makes your bonds stronger, and pays homage to the spirit of abundance, the notion that even if you give things away, you will still have enough to meet your own needs. Giving of gifts is an expression of confidence, in yourself, in your resources and in your relationships. And receiving that gift should feel as effortless as the offering of it.
But that’s not all. On the flip side, “In accepting a gift, one honors the giver” also teaches givers something about the act of gifting. If the moment at which you are honored is when a gift is accepted, perhaps one’s focus should be on making sure your gift is actually “acceptable” to the person receiving it.
Gift-giving in our society is often knee-jerk and impersonal, born more out of social obligation than genuine generosity. We give holiday gifts to our family, birthday gifts to our friends, anniversary gifts to our spouses, hostess gifts when we show up at a party. We often do these things with little to no thinking behind the actual gift, purchasing at the last minute and with as little effort as we can muster. It’s practically a trope that busy executive types often send assistants to buy gifts for people instead of doing it themselves, and in fact there are entire businesses that have been built on the principle of helping hapless gift-givers figure out what the object of their generosity will receive.
The honest truth of it is, most of us can tell when a giver has put thought into a gift and when they have not. Some gifts are beautiful and expensive, but it is clear from their generic identity that the gift could have been to anyone who fits your general description — like giving a briefcase to a college graduate or a pair of diamond studded earrings to your girlfriend. But there is that moment when you open a gift and realize that the person has put genuine thought into it, and gifted you with something that could only be relevant to you, and you suddenly feel loved and seen in a way you didn’t before. Maybe the bottle of wine comes from a vineyard you know the other person loves. Maybe the stone in the necklace is one you know the recipient especially likes, or maybe the tickets are to a concert by their favorite band.
That little extra thought, that desire to gift with specificity, is what makes even the smallest gifts extraordinary and valuable. And a giver, focusing on the moment of acceptance, and working to make that moment as special as possible, increases the value of their gift. One of my favorite birthday gifts I have EVER received came from a co-worker, who gave me a Star Wars tiki tumbler. She had noticed both my affinity for the space saga AND my love of tiki bar culture and found something that acknowledged those things. It wasn’t expensive. It was given to me because she saw it and she felt it needed to be in my possession. My birthday was actually an excuse. But it made me feel seen and acknowledged, and because of that, it made me feel cared for in a way that a more expensive gift in a more orchestrated setting would not have. It sits proudly on my desk, and every time I look at it I smile.
When you give a gift, the point should be to make the recipient smile. Not just when they open the package, but every time afterwards when they see or even think about your gift.
But there is one final lesson that one can take from the phrase, “In accepting a gift, one honors the giver.” And that is the right to say no to a gift.
We don’t like to think about the offering of unwanted gifts, but it happens more frequently than we might imagine. Usually that is because the giver is using the gift as a way to obtain reciprocity, to assert at some later time that their gift is owed some “gift” in return. If we honor a giver by accepting their gift, then we dishonor them by not accepting it.
At first glance that might suggest that we ALWAYS should accept gifts, lest we dishonor a giver. But honor is not an entitlement. In fact, a gift that is offered as a bribe or as a means to gain leverage SHOULD be held in dishonor, as should the giver of the gift.
Maybe your distant cousin is looking to re-establish contact because he heard you won the lottery, so he sends you a birthday present. Maybe your abusive boyfriend sends you a Christmas present as an attempt to pull you back into his orbit and control. But sometimes the “gifts” are even smaller than that — the text from the toxic friend wishing you a happy holiday, hoping she can encourage you to re-establish your one-sided friendship where she told you all her troubles but never had time for yours.
As the recipient of a proffered “gift,” you get to decide whether it, and the person offering it, are honorable in intent. While it may be uncomfortable, you can choose not to accept it, and you are completely within your rights if you do so. If your acceptance of the gift is an honor to the giver, then if you do not wish to honor the giver, you should not accept their gifts. It’s about as concise a definition of setting good boundaries with people as you can find.
We are entering a time when a lot of the world’s religions celebrate holidays with the giving of gifts, Christians will put theirs under a tree. Jews will distribute them over 8 nights, and many pagans will light the Yule log and gather with their loved ones. For the next few weeks we’re going to be bombarded with advertisements that offer suggestions of what to give the people we love, that offer us opportunities to give to causes, and that purport to give us gifts to encourage us to buy things. We’ll even be encouraged to give gifts to ourselves. (A practice that isn’t out of line — honoring oneself is an important part of being a whole human being.) It’s a stressful time of the year. The pressure to do it all and do it well is very intense.
We can choose to sleepwalk through it all, buying what we think we should and offering it with the spirit of obligation and insecurity that this season unfortunately promotes. (After all, doesn’t EVERYONE put a shiny new car in the driveway on Christmas Day with a big bow on the hood like you see in the commercials?) Or we can be more conscious of what we are giving, to whom, and for what purpose. What do we want out of our giving experience? How will we honor those who give us gifts? How will we make sure our gifts are worthy of acceptance? And most importantly, are we really thinking through who we’re giving and receiving from in the first place? If we stop engaging in a mindless and unnecessary exchange of obligation, and instead seek to create giving and receiving experiences in which we are accepting gifts and honoring givers, how much more joyful might our holiday season be?
I leave it to you to decide. I’ve been living with this lesson for a long time, and now I offer it — my gift to you this holiday season.