Present, Gift Cards or Cash?

As many of you may know, I am a fan of Miss Manners’ column and I read her column almost every day. I usually like how she answers people, gently where it needs it but snarky where snark is called for. Really, some situations in life ought to be self-explanatory and the real purpose of what we call (and try to teach our children) “manners”, is to show consideration of other people’s feeling. While she does occasionally give answers about which fork belongs where and what formal attire is required for which events, a lot of the questions she fields are actually answerable with being thoughtful of other people’s feelings over your own.

But, her column on 12/03/19, entitled, The Gift Card Debate Rages On, made me realize that even she may not always be right. Especially by what the comments said. Normally, I don’t ever read the comments on sites like that. I read the comments on “regular” people’s blogs because they are generally not spam and not trolls. Also, occasionally, by reading the comments, serendipity finds me another blog to follow. I enjoy getting comments here and usually try to respond, but on some sites, especially where the comments are “moderated” by a third party like Disqus, I really never enjoy myself.

First of all, I think we need to step back and take a sincere look at what gift-giving at this time of year, or any time of the year, really, is actually about. I have been told that we give gifts to each other because the wise men came and gave gifts to baby Jesus. Others have said that it is because God gave his only Begotten Son. I don’t know. There are instances in the Bible and in the history of the Jews where they made merry and feasted and celebrated by sending gifts to each other. It seems like whenever we are happy or excited we want to share our joy in some way, with someone else. One of the things we do is throw a party. Everyone brings what they can, even if it’s just themselves.

The debate, apparently, is not in whether gift-giving is appropriate for Christmas or birthdays or any other time, but about the gifts themselves. Gift cards, according to some, are impersonal and thoughtless. Perhaps. I think it depends on the thought put into it, along with other factors. Do you at least know the person well enough to pick out where they might want to shop or eat? There are people who absolutely will not ever step foot in Walmart. Same for Target. Some people hate the whole concept of the Starbucks chain and what they support. I know people that would, as discreetly as they could, would actually return your gift card to you, no matter what the amount. All that being said, however, is it actually that bad to give a gift card?

Giving gift cards can be a nice way of giving gifts to people you don’t know particularly well but for whom you want to do something nice. They can even be good for family or friends that you know quite well, but they don’t seem to need anything you can find or get. Another nice thing about gift cards is that you can buy them in multi-packs at a discounted price and give everyone an equal gift. Or, if you have a lot of parties or exchanges that you need to attend, they can be useful. If you are an employer or have people working for you, they are nice as well. One of my wife’s former employers would give her a gift card to a restaurant every year and it was appreciated greatly.

But are gift cards thoughtful and appropriate? Well, I know that if I were to give a couple of my family members a gift card to Game Stop, they would show the glee and excitement of a four year old. If I gave a four year old the same thing, maybe not so much. And what is an appropriate amount? If you give someone a ten dollar gift card to Starbucks (assuming you have done the above mentioned homework) that is enough to get a nice drink and a pastry. If you give them ten dollars to some restaurants it wouldn’t be enough to cover the cost of an entree or even the tip and going there is not really something they could even do. That’s just kind of a poke in the eye in a way. Ten dollars at Walmart or Target? Hey, ten bucks is ten bucks!

I think what may be the crux of the matter is the amount of thought that goes into the present. Do we know what the person would like? Have we thought about them at all?

Sometimes it is worth everything to see a person’s expression as they open a gift. Age is a factor, too. You haven’t lived if you haven’t seen a child open a present and watched their eyes light up and a smile beam from their face with an almost other-worldly glow. My four year old grandson opens a present in a gift bag by grabbing each piece of tissue paper and flinging it into the air and pulling out the next piece until the gift is revealed. A DINOSAUR‽ That roars‽ That is so cool!!! A small rectangle of plastic at the bottom of the bag would not bring the same result. A gift card in the mail from a distant relative could mean the same, however, with some instruction by a thoughtful, understanding parent.

I guess the idea of “exchanging gifts” sounds silly to me in some ways. “We’re having a gift exchange. Please spend no more than $10 but no less than $5 on the person whose name you’ve drawn.” See, that’s not anything, really. Why don’t the person whose name I’ve got and I just reach into our wallets and trade $10 bills? Like the old Abbott and Costello routine, “Excuse me, do you have two tens for a five?” But, well, okay, there are circumstances where an exchange like that might be appropriate or even helpful if it’s done in the right spirit. Like the ladies in our church who have a Secret Sister thing going on and if it’s done right they can learn a lot about each other and build unity and teamwork.

The best gifts are the ones that you give to someone or someone gives to you from the heart and sometimes one will touch you forever. When the kids were very young we used to read to them all the time. We would read the Bible, of course, but we would read other books as well. We read some of the greats, like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, laughing at the butter-under-the-hat incident until there were tears in our eyes. We read Great Expectations and Oliver Twist and of course we read Hank the Cowdog. The reader (yours truly) laughed so hard I couldn’t stop, which of course the kids thought was the funniest thing they ever saw.

My children are all grown up with kids of their own, so there are a lot of stories of special presents I could use to relate this post too, but this one came to mind first.

One of their favorites was The Complete Winnie The Pooh with the original illustrations by Ernest H. Shepard. We learned that the original Pooh bear was really named Mr. Edward Bear and looked a lot different form the Disney version. The year I am recalling was the year that the “Original Pooh” had captured everyone’s attention and of course the marketing mavens on Mad ave cranked out all sorts of merchandise. One of these was a copy of the original stuffed bear which we purchased for one of our daughters. It is an awe-inspiring thing when a little girl bursts into tears of joy and throws her arms around you and says, “Oh! It’s Edward Bear! Oh! I love him so much! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” It’s that kind of experience that makes me think that picking out a present special for someone is better. No plastic rectangle could do what that teddy bear did.

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