Present Imperfect

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Two truisms have been lost in the tangle of Christmas tinsel: "It is better to give than to receive" and "It's the thought that counts."

Miss Manners suspects that they were thrown out on purpose. The smallest child can compare getting new stuff with having to get things for others and tell you which he likes better. And pious exhortations do not erase the disappointment when the take has fallen short of expectations.

Society imagines that it has fixed these problems by bringing them frankly out in the open. That was the all-purpose solution that did so much for marriage in the '70s. When the all-business-all-the-time attitude of the '80s was added, it revolutionized the ancient custom of exchanging presents.

By coming up with the cash gift, the gift certificate and the gift registry, it said, in effect, "Fine, get your own %#$@ presents." All the work of giving was eliminated, leaving only the expense. The possibility of disappointment was eliminated entirely, barring a rebellion on the part of the targeted donors, who so far seem to be meekly complying with demands.

The perfect system, many believe. Apparently they failed to notice that something else that got eliminated: the entire point of exchanging presents.

Unless you believe people should pay friends and relations to get through life, a sort of automatic $200 from the other players for passing Go, it doesn't make sense to sponsor or do other people's shopping. Why do we have such a ridiculous custom? There are two answers to that.

First, that while the joy of getting seems to be instinctive, it is part of the civilizing process to learn the joy of giving. That used to be the sneaky educational reason behind the orchestration of children's birthday parties -- that the guests would learn to choose and to let go of presents without expecting any immediate return. But that came to be considered too harsh a lesson for children to absorb, and has been sabotaged by the advent of substantial favors and goody bags.

Too bad. There is a reason to go through the painful process of developing genuine pleasure in the act of giving to others: Oddly enough, it finally works. People who think about others paradoxically turn out to be personally happier than those who only brood about themselves.

Second, and even more unbelievably, there can be a deeper joy in receiving than in just getting the goods. That is where thought comes in. Sure, it is great to receive something you have always wanted. But to receive something that someone guessed that you always wanted is a double thrill. Knowing that someone has studied you carefully enough to know what will please you is a priceless present in itself. Even the near guesses and wrong guesses are endearing if they show thought.

Thought doesn't just count -- it is the point of the custom. There is no other excuse for the bizarre routine of doing one another's shopping.

Dear Miss Manners:

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