Good gifts fit the people that they are given to. They correspond to a quality in their natures or a bit of their personalities. And a bit of yours.
Gift-giving is matchmaking.
Part of the beauty of a gift is that it establishes a link between people. But often it's true that we already felt linked, and that's why we decided to give a gift—or accept one. Gifts can help us honor the bonds of family and friendship and camaraderie.
The care we take in choosing gifts for people is often part of the pleasure of giving.
I don't know what happens behind the scenes of an Amazon Wishlist.
My way of matchmaking might be rather old-fashioned. I look and touch and read and listen and sniff and taste to find a present for a person. But the goal of gift-giving—however it's handled—seems pretty universal:
"Here's something that I think you will like."
"Here, friend, is an object that I think you should have."
"May this add joy to your days or ease a worry."
The fundamental thing about giving is that it begins in optimism. The idea is always that this gift will make this person happy.
What's the personality of each person on your gift list? Who's whimsical? Who's sporty? Who's supremely good at caretaking? Who's shy or quiet?
What are their interests? What are their hobbies? What're their roles—what's your role?—in the shared adventure of life?
The answers to those questions might lead you to your goal.
I grew up with a rhyme for year-end gifts: "Something to eat, something to read, something to play with, something you need." That rhyme still guides me. Food and books and toys and tools are some of my favorite go-to's. I'm happy to take an expansive view of each category, and I'm happy when something I'm considering giving fits into more than one category.
Thoughtful gift suggestions, like those here, are great. They bring new ideas to us as options, and they help us sort and match the huge number of possible gifts to the select people on our lists. They prepare our minds and our hearts (and our bookkeeping) for the festive moments to come.
Great gifts are ones that let us know that we are seen, listened to, and valued. Sometimes, this is blazingly true.
When a gift sets off fireworks, you can see the show in the eyes of the recipient. You can see the show in all the neighboring valleys and across the region's hillsides and, for a period of time after the gift has been opened, there's a scent that remains in the air—the smell of the spark that launched the big display of delight.
That scent may linger longest, I think, when the gifts are gifts for children.
The toy or book or felted animal that relates to the comment made on a fall afternoon; the tassel-less blanket or hunter’s cap that corresponds to the thing seen once on the bed of the cool babysitter or on the head of a slightly older and also cool neighbor kid; the paint set or DIY garden project that they didn't know they needed: Gifts like that are a grant of permission and a LOUD acceptance of their appetites and interests.
When you're the family friend or god-parent, the choice of gift can be that simple.
The catch, here, is timing. The world of appetite spins freely. What pleased a month ago might already be seen as a lifetime away. I was tutored on this point recently, in 2020, by someone under ten. The gift I offered was accepted gracefully. The words spoken were clear and polite. But the sputtering effect of my gift flickered on the face of the well-mannered recipient. There was corroborating evidence in the angle of the neck and torso. When I probed a bit—in private, later—I was told that the gift "was kinda last October." And so, beware: Not every child's interests are fixed in place for eternity.
If you're the parent or step-parent of the child, then gift-giving can feel a bit trickier. When the weight of parenthood lies heavy on your shoulders, here's a consolation: Things may even out because you're giving lots of gifts over the course of each year.
Each present can appeal to a different side of the young person. You can quietly reward the aspects that you favor while still acknowledging the sides you find less appealing. Gift-giving is a practice of bringing pleasure to someone, rather than judging.
That's the sweet center of giving; it strengthens our skill at selflessness.