As Christmas approaches, even those of us whose love language is gift giving can start to feel a little prickle of panic when we think about our bank balance and ever-extending “to do” list. The truth is, though, the art of giving meaningful gifts doesn’t necessarily involve spending a lot of money — in fact, it can be quite the opposite — but it does involve a little more time and thought.
Ironically, the best present I’ve ever received was, at first, a big disappointment. I was 8 years old and it was Christmas, and I had spent weeks dropping hints about wanting a diary with a lock. When Christmas eve came around and presents started to appear under the tree, I quickly spotted a parcel with my name on it that I judged to be about the right size and shape.
The next day when my family was all gathered around unwrapping presents together, I saved that one until last, but as I tore the paper off, I discovered it wasn’t what I had expected at all. Instead of the diary with a lock, it was a small notebook filled with prayers and Bible verses that my dad had chosen specially for me and copied out by hand.
“Dear Sophie, this is to help you become a Saint. With forever love from Daddy,” the inscription read.
That moment will always be clearly imprinted on my memory. I felt my dad’s eyes on my face as I fought back tears. The knowledge of the time, effort, and love that he had poured into making this gift for me was at war with the huge wave of disappointment that washed over me as I sat staring down at the little book in my hands.
As I made an effort to smile and thank my dad with a hug, I knew I’d just experienced a few years’ worth of emotional development within the space of minutes. While I still felt the sting of childish disappointment, and the urge was still strong to stamp my foot and cry about the fact that I hadn’t received what I wanted, I also knew on another level that this gift would be something I would treasure for the rest of my life, long after the desire for a diary with a lock passed — and I was right.
More than 20 years later, this little book of hand-written prayers is my most treasured possession, the one thing I’d want to save in a fire.
When I think about other meaningful gifts that have had a lasting impact on my life, they all have certain things in common with my dad’s present. There’s the surprise trip my mum took me on to see the house where one of my favorite books was set as a child — a trip that touched me so much because it showed me how important my interests and passions were to her.
Then there’s the Instagram-worthy gold-colored cutlery set that a friend gave me during a period of time when I didn’t have a home of my own and longed to set down roots somewhere, to nest, to create a beautiful space to host friends for dinner parties. Her gift was an affirmation that the beautiful little things in life do matter and I wasn’t frivolous for desiring them, as well as a reassurance that I would have my own home soon.
A few years after I completed a masters program in magazine journalism, a friend gave me a year’s subscription to a different independent magazine each month. She knew how much I love print magazines and that I was insecure about falling out of the loop of the magazine industry once I left London and had a baby.
Another time a friend gave me her own dress, knowing that I had admired it and enjoyed borrowing it from her wardrobe in the past. She also knew that I needed to feel beautiful at that time because I was struggling with my style and body image after having a baby.
Each and every one of these special, meaningful gifts came as a delightful surprise — the care and thoughtfulness with which they were given were deeply touching. Gifts like these make a lasting impact because they make us feel seen, loved, and cared for. They are often things we could never have thought of asking for on our own; they’re things the giver thinks of because they love us and have been watching us, listening to us, thinking about our needs. These gifts reveal that our loved ones know us and what we want even better than we do ourselves.
Appreciating this kind of gift is often something that develops over time as we come back to it again and again with a deepening sense of gratitude and wonder — which is actually a great metaphor for prayer. We don’t always get exactly what we pray for, but we get something that’s even better in the long run. God knows and honors the deepest desires of our hearts, even when we don’t fully know or understand our desires and needs ourselves.
Giving gifts of this kind takes a lot of time and thought, which means it’s hard to do in a rush, and it’s virtually impossible to do for everyone on a typical modern Christmas list. But perhaps rather than ditch this style of meaningful gift giving in favor of quick-and-easy buys from Amazon and Target, we should ask ourselves if we really need to give everyone gifts, or whether we could look for something smaller but more thoughtful this year.
Think about experiences you might be able to give and memories you might be able to make together (tickets to a concert, a voucher to dinner with you), and services you might be able to offer (babysitting or job that you know they need help with or hate doing). Next time you’re near a second-hand bookstore have a look for a book you think they’d enjoy, and write a thoughtful inscription inside before giving it to them.
When you think about the gifts you have received throughout your life, you might be surprised how quickly most presents are forgotten, but how deeply those few, special gifts can touch someone. We don’t tend to remember when someone doesn’t give us a gift, but we do remember when someone gives us something particularly special. This Christmas, let’s embrace a spirit of meaningful gift giving and seek out ways to show our loved ones how much we care about them for years to come.