A Meditation On Gift-Giving

Or, “Putting the Myrrh in Mirth.”

Every year around the third week of December, I set my alarm for an indecently early hour on a Saturday morning. I put on an outfit that says, “Let’s do work.” This consists of a sweatshirt-like garment that might pass for a distant relative of Old Navy’s classic Performance Fleece, boots that have seen the rain one too many times, and — lest someone refer to me as “sir” — earrings. Then I gather my supplies: two bottles of water, hand sanitizer, Band-Aids, tissues, Advil, and a small (okay, smallish) bag of Christmas cookies that I refer to as “5-Hour Energy” as a way of rationalizing its presence in my bag. I zip up my fleece. I take a deep breath. I go to the mall.

Despite the fact that Burl Ives is playing on three radio stations simultaneously on the drive there, I am a big ball of nerves. My concern, though, has little to do with the traditional, predictable headaches of holiday shopping, namely, fights for parking spots, long lines wrapping around store perimeters, food court gridlock caused by strollers and Segways, and aggressive moms with seven shopping bags in each hand. No, I’m worried that I will return home empty-handed or, worse, with hands full of all the wrong things. This apprehension stems from my fear of being a “bad” gift-giver, which I have been told is one of the most repugnant holiday offenses after fruitcake, Dominick the Donkey, unironic reindeer sweaters, ironic reindeer sweaters, and orange blinking lights. (“Someone should tell them that Halloween was two months ago. Am I right? Am I right?” – Mom)

It’s not that I’m bad at picking out gifts, it’s just that I’m not very good at it. Some people are gifted gift-givers (boom!), and these people are both admirable and annoying. For me, buying presents has been a source of anxiety dating back to around the time “#1 Grandpa” mugs and “World’s Best Dad” key chains ceased to be acceptable Christmas offerings. In the years since then, I have spent December weekends fretfully wandering stores waiting to be inspired, waiting for that “A-ha!” moment when some object would beckon me, and I would buy it knowing that it was going to make me a lucky someone’s Christmas angel.

At times, I have made reasonable and ultimately successful gift decisions. At other times, I have missed the mark. Take, for instance, the year I bought a good friend Anderson Cooper’s then just-published Dispatches from the Edge, a gripping memoir of his travels as a journalist. In retrospect, I guess there was a certain randomness and maybe even creepiness to it, especially since this was before Anderson had his daytime talk show, hosted a single New Year’s Eve special, or regularly appeared on Live! With Regis and Kelly. But my friend and I were relatively socially aware and discussed things that socially aware people like Anderson Cooper discussed. Plus, I was pretty sure she had mentioned at one point that she liked Anderson Cooper, didn’t she? At any rate, I was positive that I had knocked it out of the park.

But her face told quite a different story. I’d like to think that the fact that we have fallen out of touch has nothing to do with that uncomfortable moment in time, but to be honest, I don’t know.

It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that the problem of holiday gift-giving today is much bigger than me. I can’t be the only person neurotically circling Target or picking up and putting down and picking up and putting down sweaters at the Gap. I like to think that this slightly unhinged state comes from a good place, the part of me (and you, if you feel me) that isn’t lazy, or underachieving, or apathetic, or cynical. The part that wants to bring something a little extra special to the table for the people whom we enjoy on our best days, can sort of tolerate on our worst, but love all the time.

Consequently, December is a pressure cooker.

Today I was struggling to come up with gift ideas for my dad, a man who, as a rule, never wants anything except undershirts and those extra-large bags (“Contains 800 Servings!”) of Dunkin Donuts coffee. I was reluctant to take the tie route, the socks route, or the six-pack-of-flash-drives route. Don’t settle, went my weird inner monologue. You gotta go for the gold.

And then it dawned on me: Gold! Of course!

No, I’m not giving my dad gold. I’m talking about the famous Three Kings, who are also called the Three Wise Men, thereby making their actual identities ambiguous and confusing. Nevertheless, they play a central role in the Biblical Christmas story, and their significance isn’t strictly religious. In fact, I think these three kings — the original holiday gift-givers, technically speaking — teach us a very practical lesson about the act of giving gifts.

As the story goes, they give the baby Jesus (but really his parents, only that’s never stated) three presents: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. No one can argue with gold — that’s the no brainer, the iPad of the ancient world. And while frankincense isn’t as impressive, it was apparently a must-have item back then and, besides, its name makes up for what it lacks in bling. Bringing up the rear, though, was myrrh, which sounds less like a gift and more like a sound you might make when you get a gift you don’t want. Myrrh, although apparently highly valuable in those days (courtesy Wikipedia), was the most utilitarian gift given by the three kings, as well as the least flashy. It was the practical cardigan, the steak knife set, the American Express gift card. I imagine it being the type of gift that you might second-guess and deliberate over while standing in the middle of a crowded store aisle. Do you think he’ll use the myrrh, though? Is this myrrh better than that myrrh? I don’t know what to do. Mer.

However — spoiler alert — myrrh does get a shout-out about fifty pages later. So despite its quietness and modesty, in the end, myrrh proves to be lasting and meaningful. A homerun for King #3.

But the point is, gifts — whether perfect, practical, or kind of pitiful, whether gold, frankincense, or myrrh — are ultimately just things, so what does it matter if they go over with a bang or not? Because if the holiday season reminds us of anything, it’s that sometimes the things we like the best about our lives and the moments we enjoy the most aren’t filled with whoops and hollers, but simply quiet myrrh-murs. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

image – Alan Cleaver

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