by Henry Timrod
I thank you, kind and best belov’ed friend,
With the same thanks one murmurs to a sister,
When, for some gentle favor, he hath kissed her,
Less for the gifts than for the love you send,
Less for the flowers than what the flowers convey,
If I, indeed, divine their meaning truly,
And not unto myself ascribe, unduly,
Things which you neither meant nor wished to say,
Oh! tell me, is the hope then all misplaced?
And am I flattered by my own affection?
But in your beauteous gift, methought I traced
Something above a short-lived predilection,
And which, for that I know no dearer name,
I designate as love, without love’s flame.
It’s Christmas Eve day, always a busy one, cleaning, wrapping, cooking and hosting the family celebration. There is an art to gift giving and an even greater art in gift receiving. It’s rare that one person has both qualities refined. My Mother was one such person. Every year I always have one gift, I can’t wait to give and when my Mother was alive, it more often than not, was the gift to her. From the first time I can remember Christmas, the ritual of making gifts and giving them was connected to my sense of Christmas. They started out small, a craft or ornament made at church, or nursery school or cub scouts or with my Dad or with my Mom. Many times those things overlapped. It never mattered how crude or odd the creation, my Mother genuinely treasured it. Her delight was never faked, and she used whatever myself or my sisters had made for years to come. As I got older, and my skills expanded, I strove to make as many gifts as I could each year. During my years as a glass blower, I gave away vases. When I was making stain glass windows I gave away windows and glass ornaments. When I was knitting, I gave away hats, scarves, sweaters, mittens. As a broke students my wife and I made pickles, cookies, and hand made cook books. I have continued that tradition and now I give the gift of words, poetry.
I am a better gift giver than receiver. I never lack for ideas on gifts. Mostly because I buy things when I see them throughout the year that I think someone would like and squirrel them away in my top dresser drawer. More than once I have gotten to Christmas and completely forgotten things I had bought many months earlier and realized I have too many items and something has to wait for a birthday instead.
The art of gift giving has several principles that I learned from my Mother.
Give the unexpected gift, even to the point of extravagance once in a while. Give the gift that will truly inspire and delight. Beauty lasts. Art lasts. Practicality can be well received, but rarely has lasting power. What appliance, tool or gadget do you still own 20 years later? What piece of jewelry, piece of art or memento do you own that has been passed down generations because it has been treasured, taken care of and now put into your care? What have you bought and given recently that will become an heirloom? Or even better, what heirloom have you gifted on to the next generation that was given to you one Christmas long ago? Before my Mother died she carefully began gifting away her treasured jewelry and family items, selecting who to give them to and telling the story behind it. Too often people pass, making the mistake of holding on to all their precious objects, only for them to become a source of squabbles after their death. Take things off your shelves, out of your jewelry box and off your walls and give them away once in a while. The things you treasure that you think enough to give to the next person, will mean more when you are alive than when you are dead.
Be playful. No one is ever too old for toys, games and puzzles. Toys don”t have to become more expensive as we get older. My Mother told the story of the year she was informed by her parents she was too old to get a doll for Christmas. Her Aunt had the wisdom to defy that proclamation and delivered on Christmas day a doll that became more beloved than all the rest for its precious lesson.
Buy yourself the gift you really want. Don’t stew that no one knows your heart’s desire. Your loved ones aren’t supposed to be mind readers. Save a little of your resources for yourself and buy it. This year I framed a piece of art I bought in 2018, always putting off the expense of framing it. In November I took it to the frame shop and it hangs on my wall today.
Give with grace. Don’t worry about the recipients response or thankfulness. Sometimes gifts are not gifts for many years until after they are received. I have made and given gifts that I thought had disappointed or the other person outright disliked, only to find out years or even decades later, the person not only still had it, but has enjoyed it all those years. I also know I have given gifts that were shortly discarded. Both are appropriate responses. Its a gift. Once the giver gives, it is the other person who gets to decide what they bring into their life and what they don’t. None of us bat .1000 in the art of gift giving.
Receive with the same delight with which you give. Be genuine in your thanks and praise. Any gift, no matter what it is, is a vessel for the other person’s well wishes and good thoughts for you. There is no such thing as a thoughtless gift. The thoughtless gift is never given, because you never entered their thoughts.
I’ll finish with a John Berryman poem or prayer I came across in the forward to Henry’s Fate, a short book of his poems published posthumously. I read it at my family’s Thanksgiving dinner this year and it got the appropriate response at the end.
A Morning Prayer
by John Berryman
According to Thy Will. Thank you for everything that was good in me yesterday, and forgive everything that was not. Thank you for the great rescues of my life & for the marvellous good luck that has mostly attended me. Enlighten me as to the nature of Christ. Strengthen my gratitude & awe into confident reliance & love of Thee. Increase my humility & patience. Reconcile me to my sufferings. Make tranquil my nerves. Bring Kate & me to a fuller understanding & a deeper love. Keep me active today, & grant me accuracy & insight in my work. Preserve me today from the desire for a drink & if it comes enable me to lay it aside unsatisfied. Enlighten me on the problem of personal immortality. Bless everybody in the world, especially some of them, Thou knowest whom. Amen.