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Color of Money

The Proper Spirit Of Getting

By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, December 26, 2004; Page F01

By the time you read this, you've probably already opened your holiday gifts. And I'm willing to bet many of you were disappointed or bitter about what you received.

If so, you need to read Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Gifts." (You can go online and find the essay easily enough.)

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In it, Emerson writes, "He is a good man, who can receive a gift well."

That's a well-known quote, but there's a follow-up that is often left out and is the reason for much discord during the holidays.

Emerson goes on to say: "We are either glad or sorry at a gift, and both emotions are unbecoming. Some violence, I think, is done, some degradation borne, when I rejoice or grieve at a gift. I am sorry when . . . a gift comes from such as do not know my spirit, and so the act is not supported; and if the gift pleases me overmuch, then I should be ashamed that the donor should read my heart, and see that I love his commodity, and not him."

Someone somewhere opened a present this holiday and internally (or even openly) said: "I can't believe so-and-so gave me this ugly sweater / soap gift basket / terrible tie / awful perfume" or whatever it was that the recipient thought so unsatisfactory.

And it may be that someone wanted a visit by certain relatives during the holidays because of the gifts they would bear. (This also happens quite a bit when it comes to deciding whom to invite to a wedding.)

Why has giving become so difficult, to the point that some of us get knots in our stomachs worrying whether we will give the right thing or whether our gift cost enough to reflect our true affections?

Because Emerson is right when he says gifts can become "a kind of symbolical sin-offering, or payment of blackmail."

The message we are telling people is: You had better give the right present if you don't want me to become upset.

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