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A Couples’ Guide to Christmas Giving (Hint: He Doesn’t Want that Flatware Set as Much as You Do)


Catherine Ruth Pakaluk - published on 12/02/14

5 tips on how to express your love and gratitude on any budget

Black Friday, Cyber Monday, the net is buzzing with gift guides, discounts, shopping round-ups, and other ways to spend your money because, well, it’s that time of year. The time when we prepare for Christmas in a frenzy of consumerism – assuaged by the idea that we are helping the economy (hey, most retailers aren’t even in the black until black Friday!) and the closely-related idea that we are helping the poor (one online retailer, Everlane, offered to donate all its Black Friday profits to building an outdoor recreation facility for factory workers in China).

Now there are many reasons to criticize this madness – and thankfully my dear friend and colleague Rev. McTeigue has done us this service bravely. Today, instead, in a rare show of love for our culture (!) I wanted to embrace the season of gift giving and by offering a short gift guide for the Advent season tailored to married couples. How can we approach gift giving in marriage in a way that avoids the excesses of the culture, honors our vocation as married persons, and helps us to experience more of the true joy of Christmas? So without further ado, I bring you, my Couples’ Guide to Christmas Giving.

1.  DO give a gift. Over time, many spouses fall away from giving gifts to each other at Christmas – either out of frugality (nothing left after giving all those other gifts!), exhaustion (too tired after buying all those other gifts!) or because it seems like an odd ritual to exchange gifts when working from a single bank account. (To wit, my husband tried to surprise me recently with a really lovely gift, but the surprise was ruined by Chase fraud protection calling me to see if the purchase was genuine.) But difficulties notwithstanding, we should still try to give gifts to our spouse, as appropriate and within our means.

Why? Because gifts between lovers are the stuff of courtship – a sign that we don’t take the other for granted. And this is one of the primary difficulties to overcome in marriage – the taking of the other, who is a gift, for granted. In the nitty-gritty of daily life we find ourselves complaining about the other more often than we reflect on the gift we knew them to be on our wedding day.

Now, giving tangible gifts at Christmastime (or anytime) is a concrete way to remind ourselves not to take the other for granted. Our spouse is still that ‘pearl of great price’ – yes, even if we are in a difficult marriage. If you’ve fallen out of the practice of giving your spouse a gift, or if you never did at all – try to revive the practice in some small way.

2.  DON’T give a gift that is really for you.If the first recommendation was about not taking your spouse for granted – this one is about not using your spouse. There are two ways to go wrong here: first, the gift that is something we really want to receive instead. Such as the 72" HD TV given to your wife on the grounds that it will really brighten up her weekly book club to play a few YouTube videos before the discussion. Right!?!The other way to go wrong here is to give a gift which is part of a ploy to make our loved one into a bit more of our own image – someone we think we’ll like or esteem a little better. Sound remote? It’s not. This is the sad arena of gym memberships given to husbands (or wives!) who haven’t asked for one, stylish clothing picked out for spouses who like what they are wearing well enough, or even, say, golf clubs picked out for the spouse who never golfs. These gifts are gifts that say "try this on, learn to use this, see how you like this – you’ll be a better spouse to me if you do." 

It’s easy to laugh at these stereotyped examples, but it’s likely we’ve all done this once or twice. One year I got my husband some new flatware for his birthday. Now – he really did dislike our old set. But, the idea that new flatware would be a gift for him and not for me is just nuts. Disliking it or not, he didn’t actually care that much about the flatware. So it was actually a pretty thoughtless, self-serving gift in the end. And we can say the same about a husband who gets his wife a piece of sports equipment in the hopes that she’ll become his ideal tennis partner. Or the wife who gets her husband a grill so that he’ll start grilling. Thoughtless gifts – all of them.

3.  DO ask your spouse what he or she would like.This is one way to avoid both of these problems. I’m sure this sounds excruciatingly simplistic. But how many of us begin our gift-getting by asking our loved ones what they would really like, or what they could most use?

For my part, after fifteen years of marriage and quite a few failed gifts, I’ve learned that if I start by asking what he’d like most, the list is usually simple and easy to fulfill: some new socks, a couple of boxes of Titleist ProV1s, and a little note designating some free Saturdays when he can book rounds of golf with no questions asked, and maybe even a smile from me on the way out the door – no guilt trip from the wife!

Here is an irony though: while wrapping up fresh socks in nice paper and booking some free Saturdays doesn’t feel like the gift I most want to give – I am undoubtedly looking for that kind of thoughtfulness in the gifts I receive. How many times I have I received some kind of "practical" gift when I was daydreaming about a totally useless, but beautiful, handbag?

4.  DO make wishes come true.And this brings me to a related point. Is it right to satisfy daydreams and wishes in our gift giving, as adults? This is a tricky one. Certainly there is real danger in compounding our desires into never-ending streams of disordered attachments. On the other hand, God created the good things of this earth and wanted us to enjoy them. Daydreams and wishes – even for material things – are not bad in themselves. They are the stuff of childhood, and to stop dreaming is to lose something important we are meant to retain.

The problem, I think, is not the dreams or the wishes – the problem is when we assume the posture of fulfilling them for ourselves – masters of our own universes. As in, now I book my time at the spa. Now I pick out my favorite fashions. Now I grab a new set of headphones. Now I head to the golf course because I deserve this after all.

Children, you will note, can’t get good things for themselves. They dream and wish in a posture of dependency – waiting expectedly for others to fulfill their dreams.

So a good rule of thumb for a Christian spouse might be: try to deny yourself as much as possible in the satisfaction of your own material wishes – not seizing good things for yourself but waiting for them to be given in God’s providence and through those who have care of you; at the same time, try to give every good thing to your spouse, fulfilling his or her wishes within reasonable bounds of Christian poverty appropriate to your state in life.

After all, the message of the Christ child is not that dreams are for children. The message is that the dreams of our childhood really do come true. There is a Savior. Monsters will be vanquished. Wrongs will be put to right. All girls are princesses. And our father is a King.

Which brings me to the final point of my Couples’ Guide to Christmas Giving.

5.  DON’T try to act like an adult. Try to act more like a child – in your giving, in your receiving, and in your embrace of spiritual simplicity. Ask for all things, and prepare to receive only – and all – what God in His goodness gives you. If you succeed at this, you’ll find more joy in Christmas than you have in a very long time – possibly even since the days when you worked up your Christmas list weeks in advance, and wanted to sleep under the tree to watch for St. Nicholas. And this, in turn, is one of the greatest gifts you can bring to your spouse – a youthful spirit of joy arising from spiritual confidence in God your Father.

Catherine Ruth Pakaluk
is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Ave Maria University, a Faculty Research Fellow at the Stein Center for Social Research, and a Senior Fellow in Economics at the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. Her research is focused in the areas of demography, gender, family studies, and the economics of education and religion. She also works on the interpretation and history of Catholic social thought. Dr. Pakaluk earned her doctorate in economics at Harvard University (2010). She lives in Ave Maria, Florida with her husband Michael and seven children.

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