Gift-Giving Through the Ages

Photo credit: Daniel Oines, CC BY 2.0.

My love language is gift-giving. I like remembering little details about people and using those details to zero in on the perfect gift. I like finding weird items that not many people even know exist but will make one of my friends’ lives easier or more enjoyable. When I hear a family member bemoaning a lost opportunity to buy something they loved, I make a note to give it to them on a special occasion.

I love giving gifts and I like to think I’m pretty good at it, but it took me a while to figure out the art of gift-giving as an adult. You have to budget for presents along with bills, food, and rent, and you have to navigate the politics of gift-giving: when to exchange gifts (and when not to), what is an appropriate amount to spend, who makes the cut for holiday cards, etc.

This year, I’m feeling especially overwhelmed by the thought of navigating the holiday season—and it made me think of how I’d handled gift-giving when I was a child, and had to come up with presents under a set of specific constraints.

When you’re a kid—and even when you’re a teenager—the biggest drawback to holiday shopping is also something that simultaneously works in your favor: you are limited in your abilities to procure the perfect gift. You have limited mobility without a car. You have limited funds, especially if you’re not yet in the workforce, and even then you’re probably not earning a lot of money. You’re not old enough to buy alcohol, and you probably don’t have easy access to a credit or debit card to buy things online. In short, you have a lot of things working against you.

When you’re very young, it’s usually the thought that counts more than the gift itself. One year, when my age was still in the single digits, I bought all my family members’ gifts at Longs (Hawaii’s local drugstore chain). My grandmother took me to the Longs at the mall, and I knocked out all my presents in one swoop: boxes of cherry cordials for some of the women in my family and Slim Jims for my dad, which is usually the only thing he ever asked for. Nothing cost more than $2, which was a pretty impressive accomplishment.

My drugstore presents were not actually the cheapest gifts I gave as a child. One year, I gave my aunt and grandma perfume samples I had torn out of my mom’s old fashion magazines. I even found a few cologne samples for my grandpa. I don’t remember how my relatives responded to receiving this pungent bounty, but I am sure they were appreciative.

As you get older and have slightly more disposable income (and taste), your gift-giving can improve. One of the best gifts I ever got my mom was a vibrating jewelry cleaner, which was something she had requested. It was completely affordable—around $15—and it was something that she actually used. I always felt a bit of pride when I saw her wedding ring in there, after the little round device became a staple in my parents’ bathroom.

But my favorite gift I got my parents was not something they had ever expressed any interest in. I had always loved waterfalls, and I often told my parents they should get a tabletop fountain to display around the house. One year, I decided that I would just gift them the fountain I was so eager to have in our living room, so I saved my pennies and bought them one. The experience was slightly soured by the fact that my friend and I, when we went to purchase it, were accused by an employee of acting shady/possibly stealing. (I was standing in a corner counting change to make sure I could afford the $30 price tag.) Still, the fountain ran on our mantle for a few years, and at one point was our family bunny’s favorite watering hole.

My younger sisters, on the other hand, were harder to please. I remember scanning the aisles of KB Toys or Toys “R” Us looking for something that spoke to their interests. I was almost always limited, selection-wise, by what was available at the nearby mall—and I was definitely limited by cost. There was a little wooden toy car I remember buying from an educational toy store that stuck around for a little while when my youngest sister was a toddler. Once I had gotten one of my sisters a pretty cool Harry Potter-themed Magic 8 Ball, only to be met with a confused stare when she unwrapped it. Apparently she was not the Potterhead I thought she was.

As a teenager, my MO was to buy people things I liked that they might also like. That way, if they didn’t want the present, I could always swoop in and take it. My middle sister reminded me of a gift I gave her when I was in high school—a pink sweater—that she didn’t care for because the color was too girly for her. Apparently I took it off her hands, no problem.

I asked my other family members if they remembered any of my presents given to them over the years, and they could barely recall anything specific (aside from my dad and his Slim Jims). Over years and years of exchanging presents, it’s hard to keep track, which I suppose is sort of comforting as I find myself now struggling sometimes to check all my family members off my gift list. 

So I could tell myself not to worry; that it really is the thought that counts, whether you’re a small child or a grown adult. I could stop worrying so much about this upcoming Christmas and give everyone inexpensive, easy-to-please items like boxes of candy. I don’t have to spend this much time and energy thinking about my holiday shopping.

But, as someone who loves giving gifts, I strive for the tabletop water fountains, the jewelry cleaners, and—yes—the Slim Jims, the small gestures of giving that might stand the test of time, at least for a few years. That is what, to me, makes a good gift great.

Kimberly Lew is a proud concert-mom and writer living in Brooklyn.

This piece is part of The Billfold’s Holidays and Money series.

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