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Advice from St. Nick himself on how to give better gifts

GIFT,CHRISTMAS
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Santa Claus has a knack for being a good gift-giver, and using these two principles, so can you.

Don’t look now, but Christmas is just around the corner. Some of you may have had your gift shopping done for months now, or some of you may be like me and rush to the mall on Christmas Eve to desperately roam the halls and hope inspiration for the perfect gift will strike.

Eventually, though, I’ll settle on a basket of fancy soaps and lotions and hope for the best. I would love to take more time and choose more meaningful gifts, it’s just that I don’t seem to be very good at choosing that perfect, meaningful item. My wife Amber, on the other hand, is amazing at it. She seems to know just what to get the kids and I can see the delight on their faces as they unwrap their treasures. If it was up to me, they’d probably get some cash and a bag of socks.

We all love the idea of choosing the perfect gift to give. No one wants to be responsible for the lame gift that never gets used, but choosing the perfect present is a mysterious art form. You don’t have to be the Michelangelo of gift-giving to know that you shouldn’t give someone a fruitcake (unless you baked it yourself and it’s super delicious) or some other last-minute, generic item. It takes a lot of thought and the people who are good at it aren’t simply lucky. They put time and effort into it and, I suspect, take a lot of delight in the idea of bringing joy to others.

One of the people who can help us be more thoughtful gift-givers is none other than St. Nick himself.  St. Nicholas was actually a real person who lived in the 4th century in Turkey, and the most famous story of his generosity involves three sisters who had no money for a dowry, meaning they’d never be able to marry, which at the time made for a difficult life for a woman.

When Nicholas learned about their predicament, he climbed on their roof and dropped bags of gold down the chimney – this is where the tradition of putting gold coins in stockings or shoes by the fire on St. Nicholas Day comes from. Talk about a wonderful gift! The sisters were now able to marry, start families, and forge ahead with happy lives of their own.

Imagine if, hearing about the sisters, St. Nick ran to the mall and bought them a gift certificate. It would have been generous in its own way, but perhaps not the best gift in their case. So what two big principles did he follow to choose the gift that would bring the most meaning and joy?

Know the person

Nicholas knew the sisters. He knew they wanted to marry, had no money, and were unhappy about it. He also knew their father was ashamed of his inability to provide for his daughters, so the gift was for him, too. After discovering the gold, the tearful father found Nicholas and said, “If it were not for your goodness… I would have long since consigned my life to ruin and shame.” If he hadn’t taken the time to understand this family and get to know them personally, he would never have known the perfect gift for them.

It’s the same with us when we give gifts — the better we know someone, what their hobbies are, what needs they might have, what kind of restaurant or coffee shop they like, the better our ability to give a good gift. This means that a good gift-giver is a good friend year round and is a good listener who takes an interest when other people express themselves. In a way, most of the joy of giving gifts happens before it is even unwrapped, because it is such a worthwhile experience to get to know another person and discover their unique personality. Seeing their eyes light up when they rip off the wrapping paper is just a bonus.

Give to their needs and dreams

Nicholas gave a gift that would specifically bring joy to those three sisters. He didn’t get them something that he personally would have liked himself. This can be more challenging than it seems.

I think about this with my children. Like all children, they love to peruse toy catalogs that come in the mail and circle every single item they want for Christmas. Daddy isn’t made of money, so they’ll only be getting a fraction of what they hope for. We do tell them to think carefully about what they really want and what they’ll really play with and enjoy for more than a day or two. So, they narrow down the list… and still end up requesting some of the strangest items you can imagine.

My daughter, for instance, once got a mermaid tail that she would put on and laboriously drag herself around the house as she “swam.” My son once got a set of horse-hooves that fit on over his hands. I would come home from work to discover him on all fours in a mud pit in the back yard, neighing for all the world, just like the Black Stallion. If it had been up to me, the kids never would have received these gifts. They’re impractical, fanciful, and as I predicted, did have a somewhat short lifespan.

In the end, though, the kids had a lot of fun with them, probably a lot more fun than if I’d given them the Jane Austen novel that they “should” have wanted (in my opinion). A good gift-giver always gives to the desires of the recipient. In a way, it’s how we say to that person – I love you exactly the way you are.

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