GIVING

My last several blogs have focused on some pretty negative topics, from disposing of bodies to cannibalism to Friday the 13th. So it’s time for something a little more upbeat. A week ago was Giving Tuesday. And of course, December is a season of giving. So let’s consider gifts.

Ideally, a gift has no strings attached: there is no expectation of payment or anything in return—with the exception of thank-you notes. But we all know that ideal doesn’t always apply. For one thing, there is often an expectation of reciprocity. In addition, there are numerous customary “gift giving occasions” when the expectation of a gift makes it awkward or rude not to give something.  The list of such occasions seems to grow yearly.  Gift giving is a great plot/character device—the feelings of the giver and receiver, the gift chosen, the circumstances.  What follows is an exemplary, not exhaustive list.

  • Birthday
  • Potlatch (Pacific Northwest tribes)
  • Feast of St. Nicholas
  • Easter
  • Feast of St. Basil (Greek Orthodox Christians)
  • Eid al-Fitr (Muslims)
  • Hanukkah (American Jews)
  • Diwali and Pongal (Hinus)
  • Vesak (Buddhists)
  • Kwanzaa (African Americans)
  • Weddings
  • Wedding anniversaries
  • Funerals
  • Births
  • Adoptions
  • Baptisms and Christenings
  • Graduation or passing an examination
  • Father’s Day
  • Mother’s Day
  • Siblings Day
  • Gift exchange between host and guest
  • Retirement
  • Congratulations
  • Engagements
  • Housewarming
  • Baby showers
  • St. Valentine’s Day
  • And, of course, Christmas

If the above list doesn’t meet your gift-giving inclinations, you can always observe any number of National [Insert Holiday Here] Day dates throughout the year.

  • National Be Kind to Lawyers Day (2nd Tuesday in April)
  • World Veterinary Day (last Saturday in April)
  • Teacher’s Day (May 6)
  • Grandparent’s Day (first Sunday after Labor Day)
  • Mother-in-Law Day (October 26)
  • Halloween
  • 4th of July
  • Administrative Professionals Day (last week in April)
  • National Video Game Day (September 12th)
  • International Nurses’ Day (May 12th)
  • National Siblings Day (April 10th)
  • Cousins’ Day (July 24th)

Although in the U.S. we think of gifts as coming packaged, with a ribbon, and probably a card, consider alternatives. Can a phone call be a gift? How about a service, such as weeding the flower bed? Transportation to an appointment? Offering to edit a colleague’s document?  What constitutes a gift of the heart?

Promotional gifts are given to customers, clients, or employees. Mostly they serve provide advertising and/or goodwill purposes. AND they are tax deductible as business expenses. 

Writers, consider dangerous gifts

Are there legal issues for gifts?  Of course there are. Legally, a gift must be given as a gift (no expectation of reciprocation) and delivered to the recipient. In the U.S. (along with some other countries) gifts beyond a certain monetary amount are subject to a gift tax. In the U.S., that monetary value is $15,000 from one person to one person in a given year. Anything above that value means that tax issues must be considered, if only in terms of paperwork.

There is no limit on number of such gift can be given per year. But there is a lifetime exclusion (meaning all gifts to all people) of $11.58 million as of 2020. If this matters to you, “Congratulations!”

 But, writers, consider your characters!

And consider when a gift can be considered a bribe. If there is an explicit or implicit understanding between the giver and the recipient that the recipient will do something—often illegal or against company guidelines—because of the “gift,” we’re talking bribery, even if it isn’t actionable. Government agencies and some businesses have strict rules concerning gift giving/receiving. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of avoiding the appearance of impropriety.

Unwanted gifts can occur in any category, for any occasion. Such gifts are often regifted, donated to charity, or thrown away. An unwanted gift that is a burden to the recipient in terms of care, maintenance, storage, or disposal costs is a a white elephant. 

Sometimes unwanted gifts are returned or exchanged. The day after Christmas is the busiest day for this. And estimated $3.4 billion was spent on unwanted Christmas gifts in the United States in 2017.  Surprisingly, the value of unused gift cards purchased in the U.S. each year is estimated to total about a billion dollars.  Why?  How could a gift card be unwanted? 

Writers: what about your plot or your character would lead to unused gift cards? Could it be a clue? A character note?

As the biggest gift-giving occasion of the year, Christmas gives us (and us writers) the opportunity to consider myriad possibilities for the POV character, whether giver or recipient.

Gift Giving Then and Now, Here and There

Gift Giving

This post is part of a series that might be characterized as Darwin’s Christmas. I will be taking a number of our current traditions and tracing their evolution.

The earliest gift-bringer I read about was Odin, a Pagan Germanic god who is thought to have influenced concepts of Father Christmas in numerous ways, including long white beard and riding through the night sky.

blue Santa Claus figurines related to Odin
Odin’s influence is seen in blue Santas

Odin wore a blue-hooded cloak and rode through the midwinter sky on an eight-footed horse named Sleipnir, visiting his people with gifts. According to pre-Christian Norse tradition, he entered through chimneys or fire holes on the solstice.

In 16th century England (during the reign of Henry VIII), Father Christmas was pictured as a large man in green or scarlet robes lined with fur. He was associated more with good cheer, peace, joy, good food and wine, and revelry.

Father Christmas merged with St. Nicholas (Sinterklaas), which morphed into Santa Claus. Suffice it to say that most people around the world have a tradition of a Christmas gift-bringer: Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, Father Christmas, Christkind, the Wise Men, an old gift-giving witch called Befana (in Italy). In Scandinavia a jolly elf named Jultomten delivered gifts in a sleigh drawn by goats. And in Russia, an elderly woman named Babouschka (grandmother) leaves gifts by children’s bedsides on January 5th.

figurines of Santas around the world
Representations of Santas around the world, L-R: Hungary, 1884; Austria, 1904; Russia, 1903; Canada, 1930; U.S.A., 1935; Mexico, 1923; U.S.A., 1925; Holland, 1920.

Presents are left in different places. In much of Europe, presents are left in shoes or boots put out by the children. In Italy, the UK, and the USA presents are left in stockings—and, of course, under the Christmas tree.

Presents are opened on different days as well. Children in Holland often receive the earliest presents, on December 5th for St. Nicholas’ Eve. On St. Nicholas’ Day (6th of December), children in Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic, and some other European countries open some of their presents. Christmas Day (25th of December) is the most popular gift day for the UK, USA, Japan, and many other countries. The last presents are opened on Epiphany, January 6th, especially in Catholic countries such as Spain and Mexico.

gift-giving-santa-figurine-with-stack-of-gifts

Who gets presents has shifted dramatically over the centuries. Odin gave presents to “his people.” St. Nicholas gave to the poor. According to the Christian Science Monitor, in early modern Europe, gift giving also had roots in Christmas begging, when bands of young men, often rowdy, would wassail from house to house, demanding handouts from the gentry. It wasn’t till the mid-1800s that gift-giving shifted from the poorer classes to children.

On the other hand, giving gifts to heads of state, kings and queens, emperors, etc, pre-dates the birth of Jesus.

Today, it seems everybody gives gifts to everybody—an impression strongly supported by advertising and merchant specials! Christmas begging from charities is rampant. Salvation Army kettles (which first appeared in 1891) are on sidewalks all over the world.  Employers often give actual gift baskets or holiday bonuses. Co-workers, neighbors, and friends exchange gifts. Parents give gifts to children, but people also give gifts to parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings and step siblings, and second cousins twice removed.

wrapped gifts

By now, all the glittery wrappings are probably torn asunder, the gifts put away, exchanged, maybe saved for re-gifting, and the leavings look more like this.

gifts unwrapped

And I’m left wondering, how many Christmas presents are gifts and how many are perceived obligations.