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The only gift is a portion of thyself.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
when I was a child, Christmas presents were a big deal.
My mother put up a gorgeous Christmas tree every year—a copy of a tree she had seen in a fancy department store in New York City. It was an artificial tree crammed with pink and red and silver balls and bows tied with tinsel. We never decorated the tree together, my mother did it herself. it took her a whole day to put it together and at the end of the season, all the balls and bows went back into flat boxes and then she did the same tree again the following year. I didn't even know then that families decorated the Christmas tree together, or that there were Christmas ornaments that have special meaning.
And under the tree were gifts and gifts and gifts. My brother and I each had twenty or thirty gifts. And they would be opened one by one and each gift passed around for all to see. Yes, it took all morning, and no, I don't come from a wealthy family. My mother just saved up any and everything we needed starting in September or so, so some of the boxes contained underwear or socks or crayons...whatever she would have given us in the course of daily life, she instead waited until Christmas and put it in a box. And she wrapped every single one with beautiful paper and ribbons.
We did our part to keep the industrial economy going every Christmas.
* * * * *
When I first decided to learn about nature and find my way out of industrial life, one of the first things I did was opt-out of gift giving and receiving. It's not that I don't like or want gifts, it was that I had gotten to a point where I didn't want to do required gift exchanges with people I hardly knew just because they gave me something, and I didn't want to obligate others to give to me just because I had given something to them. My best girlfriend since childhood agreed not to require each other to give gifts on birthdays or holidays just to give something, but we could give each other gifts if we found something we knew the other would truly love.
I just didn't want the holidays to be about participating in a consumer extravaganza, just for the sake of having a material thing. My policy became to give gifts that I want to give, when I want to give them—special occasion or not—and not to feel obligated to give a gift in return if someone gives a gift to me.
But then something unexpected happened that changed my mind about gifts.
* * * * *
One night, when I was living alone in Florida, I came home to find a bag of gifts sitting on my back porch. I couldn't imagine who it was from. I was already carrying bags with one hand, so I just picked up the bage with the other hand, brought it inside, and set it down on the dining table with everything else.
I went and checked my emails and phone calls and then peeked into the bag. Who could this be from? To my surprise, it was from my friend Henry.
Slowly I took each gift out of the bag and laid them on my desk. Seven gifts. Each one reflected some aspect of our experience together. Four benefitted my health. One was a book that would help my business. One was gluten-free "shake-and-bake" he had mentioned he particularly liked. And one was light, a soy-based candle with a lead-free wick and scented with sweet orange blossom essential oil. Each one perfectly suited for me, each one perfect for him to give to me.
I was totally surprised, to say the least, because I had told him the year before not to give me Christmas gifts and here now was a whole bag of them!
Here were these gifts sitting on my desk. Each one was perfect. And I knew they had been given freely and without any sense of obligation because I knew this man, and I know he doesn't do anything unless he decides he wants to do it, and he gives and helps where he feels he can be of benefit, with no expectation of return.
I totally loved receiving these gifts.
I wrote Henry an email telling him how much I loved my gifts. And I admitted that even though I had said no gifts, I actually wanted to give him a gift of baking his favorite almond-raspberry-coconut bar cookies, a special recipe I had made just for him in the past. I told him I had been planning to give him a coupon for these cookies when I saw him the previous day, so he could enjoy his cookies at a time when he wasn't surrounded by a multitude of other holiday treats, but life intervened and I didn't get the coupon made.
He wrote back, "I am happy that I forgot to not get some gifts for you! 🙂 glad that u enjoyed. It was fun to put this array of gifts together. I look forward to redeeming my cookies!!"
I could tell it was fun for Henry to put together my gifts. As I opened each one I got the "Debra would like this!" and the joy he experienced giving it to me.
And then I remembered why I had made the decision to not want gifts in the first place. There were several reasons, but there was one reason that actually made me not want gifts. I had three gift experiences where people had given me gifts they thought I would really like and I didn't. And I had to choose between pretending I liked these gifts when I didn't and possibly hurting their feelings. I chose being honest and feelings were hurt. And so I decided no more gifts because I didn't ever again want to be in a position where honesty resulted in hurt feelings.
Gifts for me had become associated with hurt feelings, obligation, expense, hours spent shopping and ending up with gifts I wasn't happy giving but I had to give something, rampant consumerism...And so I just put up a barrier up to ALL gifts.
When I received Henry's gifts, I so got his delight in giving and his intention to make me happy and each and every gift was so perfect for me that it made me want to receive gifts again. What made me so happy actually wasn't the material gift itself, it was the fact that he wanted to give me gifts at all, and not just any gift, but gifts that were obviously special to me. I was so touched that he put the time and attention into choosing these perfect gifts for me, and it made me feel very special and valued and cared about.
But there was more.
* * * * *
I saw that gifts are communication, they have a message. They say "I love you," or "I like you," or "I had to give you this gift because it is so perfect for you" or whatever the giver was thinking or feeling when the gift was chosen and given.
And communication is something that happens between two spiritual beings. True gifts are not about the thing itself, but rather the communication from the giver they hold. And to the degree that the gifts are well chosen and please the recipient, the result can be more affinity between the two. And that's what is important to me. More good feelings, not the object itself.
Henry's gifts pleased me so because they were so perfect for me. They showed me that he really can see me and duplicate me and understand me and he wants to do things that make me happy.
I had never thought of gifts as communication before. And to see that was in and of itself a gift.
* * * * *
The Oxford dictionary definition of the word gift is "a thing given willingly to someone without payment." No gift in return is required. No delight on the part of the recipient is required. The joy is in the giving.
Then I saw how making that decision to not want gifts from others, which seemed like such a small thing at the time, actually applied to gifts of all sorts, both physical and nonphysical, on any day of the year, in any area of life. It affected everything that had to do with having and receiving. I began to see other things that I haven't been receiving, or that I did receive but not in full.
And then I saw that the idea of gifts extended way beyond material things that get wrapped up in a box. That anything I give can either be a gift given freely or a product for which I should get something in return. And I need to know the difference. What do I want to give as a gift, and what services and products do I provide that I can exchange for the goods and services I need to sustain my life? My whole viewpoint about my business changed.
I decided that I want to give and receive gifts again, but in a new way.
* Give only gifts I choose myself to give.
* Give gifts as an expression of love and liking and the joy of giving.
* Be OK with the recipient liking it or not.
* Be honest about my liking of gifts I receive in a way that acknowledges the communication of love or liking and creates more understanding rather than hurt feelings.
What a gift for Christmas morning.
* * * * *
The next year Henry gave me three gifts. Early in December he brought me a poinsettia so I could enjoy it all month, a candle to replace the candle I loved from last year that was now completed burned down, and time. Extra time above and beyond the time we usually spend together doing the various things we do, time to just be together as friends and celebrate the holiday. I loved all my gifts. And he loved receiving samples of every batch of organic, gluten-free, naturally-sweetened cookies I made for the holiday in addition to his favorite cookies I make just for him.
As I write this, I am remembering a gift my father gave me when Larry and I got married. He and his wife had gone to Rumania, which is famous for it's etched glass. He purchased two very long-stemmed glasses for our wedding gift and carried the box containing them on his lap on the plane, all the way from Rumania to California. Then when he got home, he took the box down to a nice department store and had them gift wrap it so the box would be beautiful. While I loved the glasses, it was the time and the care and the attention he put into wanting me to have a very special gift from him on my wedding day that touched my heart.
* * * * *
Over the years I've gone through a whole transformation, from industrial gift-giving that wasn't making me happy, to a style of giving that brings joy to both the giver and the receiver and adds more life all around.
Just yesterday I realized something else about gifts. I recently learned that feelings are closely associated with needs—happiness and other good feelings are the result of one's needs being met, and unhappy and upset feelings are the result of needs not being met. I read this in a book about communication, but I realized that this applies to gifts too. The closer we can come to giving gifts that meet a loved one's needs, the happier they will be with the gift. I certainly saw that with Henry's gifts. Each one was something I could use to bring more well-being into my life. And it works the other way as well. It's OK to ask for gifts that you need, giving friends and family the opportunity to help you get your needs met.
One of the best gifts Larry and I received was a set of four Shaker chairs from both of our families. We had only been together for a few years and had bought a house and needed chairs for our dining table. We wanted Shaker chairs, but they were very expensive—even the kits to build them yourself were $250 at the time, and this was almost thirty years ago. We knew we could build them ourselves, so we asked everyone in both families if they would contribute to the purchase of our Shaker chair kits, and they did! It took everyone and all the birthdays and Christmases for a year, but one by one we were able to purchase our chairs. And they are filled with love of our families.
I love giving and receiving gifts, now that I understand how they can be about love and life.
DEBRA REDALIA, Co-Founder of Lifely, has been researching and writing about lifestlye topics for more than forty years. After her first book on nontoxic consumer products was published in 1984, she went on to be the leader in this field as Debra Lynn Dadd. In June 2019, she retired from writing about toxics and industrial consumer products to establish The Lifely Group with her llifepartner and soulmate Larry Redalia. This next step into life beyond industrialization is the result of a lifetime of research and making lifely changes in her own life that have given her greater health and happiness.