The Real Gift Guide

Roughly nine years ago, I wrote gift guides for a living. I’d title them with sly, witty link bait like, ’10 Genius Gifts For Your Co-Ed Nephew Who Swears His Alarm Clock Is Broken But We’ve Seen The Timestamp On His Twitter Feed.’

I don’t do gift guides anymore.

Once, years ago, I scoured a Portland bookstore for a limited edition book on pirates. I found a quirky illustrated treasure map guide with dozens of original pirate rules (Stand by your hearties!), signed by Blackbeard “himself.” Its’ publishing date was 1890 and the spine was perfectly worn, its edges yellowed and paper-thin.

I thought it perfect for my 6-year-old nephew.

But my 6-year-old nephew knew only of Jack Sparrow and not of Blackbeard, knew only of the movies and not of the literature. I’d missed the mark.

He didn’t want the real deal.
He wanted his real deal.

I do this all the time – with pirate books, with love, with expectations. I want to gift what is a reflection of me, what feels creative and true and special in my heart. I want to gift my real deal.

But sometimes, people just want a little Jack Sparrow.

These days, my gift-giving isn’t special in the Blackbeard way. It looks a lot like how I’d imagine your process begins, with a text to your sister-in-law or your best friend or your favorite colleague a few weeks before Christmas: Any recs for the kids?

You might head to Amazon and order a Minions puzzle, a WWF action figure, a Lego set with two day shipping, Prime style. You might stock up on iTunes gift cards for the older kids, maybe cash, and you might head to Bath & Body Works because your niece is so completely head over heels for their winter candy apple hand sanitizer.

(Editor’s Note: Dear niece, you will know my love for you when you will find that I, in all actuality, visited THE MALL to procure said sanitizer.)

And then you wrap it all in white butcher paper and let your toddler scribble on it, and the next time you hop online, you sift through one million gift guides toting chemistry sets and customizeable sneakers, singing the praises of wooden alphabet blocks and cured bacon subscriptions.

You might look at your pile of cheap plastic toys and gift card envelopes and feel regret, but I hope you don’t.

It’s been years since the Blackbeard Disappointment In My Nephew’s Subconscious, but it left a mark. I don’t gift my real deal anymore. I don’t expect the gifts I give to be a reflection of my taste as much as I don’t expect the gifts I receive to be a reflection of my taste. They are gifts, best left unsullied with any expectations at all.

My grandmother was notoriously terrible at gift-giving. Once, when she began losing her marbles entirely, she took the spice rack from her kitchen wall and presented it to me, unwrapped, as a wedding gift. It still smells of thyme, of oregano, of crazy. I love it, but only from afar.

And I don’t know, but perhaps that’s the best way to love all of it. From afar. Hold loosely the gift-giving, the gift-receiving, the exchanging of cards and cash and edible gifts that say ‘I love you but have no idea what makes you tick.’

Yesterday, I came home from the grocery store with the ugliest light-up dinosaur you will ever spend a dollar on. It’s made of goo (the technical term, I’m sure) and spiky plastic pieces and there is a legit epilepsy-inducing ball inside that flashes when bounced. It was all too obviously perfect for Bee.

It’s the last thing I’d love in my house, and the first thing she would.
It’s the Jack Sparrow to my Blackbeard.

But it’s a gift, and she’s a gift.

And I suppose the rest we can love from afar.

  • THE best. Ever. I am so with you and could never have put it so eloquently. Merry, merry, joy, joy.

  • “I do this all the time – with pirate books, with love, with expectations. I want to gift what is a reflection of me, what feels creative and true and special in my heart. I want to gift my real deal.

    But sometimes, people just want a little Jack Sparrow.”

    This is so perfect. I do this ALL THE TIME! and in more ways than just gift giving. Thank you for your gifts of sharing your words and insight with us. I feel like I’m learning more about myself from reading your words/wisdom. And that is a gift, I think maybe even the Blackbeard kind:)

  • This post I needed a month ago, when I started to go into holiday paralysis because I couldn’t find (my idea of) *the perfect* gift for anyone. It’s time consuming and joy robbing and so useless. Thanks for putting words to this so I could recognize it in myself.

  • Oh Erin, this helps me so much today. I’ve been praying for a way to navigate a broken relationship and your words just solidified a plan that brings joy and relief to my heart. Thank you friend.

  • Bath and Body Works notwithstanding…she will never question your love for her. ❤

  • I feel you! Sometimes I get caught up on the perfect gift, and sometimes it’s a flop, but sometimes it’s just right. This year I caught myself several times – nope, that’s me, not them. My best gift giving (because I love to do it!) usually happens when I get out of the way. = )

    Merry Christmas!

    • ha, i totally hear you!!! bee is getting crayons and ken’s getting a wooden bug box to build with bee so she can capture ladybugs. i think they’ll be thrilled!

  • I can’t tell you how much I resonate with this post. I had a close family member who simply could not do this.This person could not ever give you what you wanted, but only what they wanted you to have. Even when told in a very direct but polite way–No I don’t want that…year after year I opened up the very gifts I had told this person I didn’t want. As a kid this was actually damaging to me. As an adult I get this person’s perspective a little more (this person wasn’t trying to hurt me)–but I always remember the frustration and anger little me felt over this kind of “gift” giving. Additionally, this person still has a hard time giving a gift and letting go. They always want to know about it–do you wear, do you like it, what did everyone else say, will you send a picture? It’s exhausting. I don’t always get it right and yes sometimes I’m probably more excited about a gift than the receiver is,, but last week I ordered giant, plastic Mickey Mouse toy for my almost 2 year old and all I know is that her Mickey-loving heart is going to explode with joy. Thanks for writing and for refusing to participate in the gift guide craze. (Although, sometimes those can be great sources of inspiration! Ha!)

  • Perfectly put! As someone who has held much too tightly to the ideals around gift-receiving, you struck a chord and helped me realize I don’t have to fakely love everything I get, but appreciate it for the effort that someone put forth. Thank you for sharing your thoughts…

  • “They are gifts, best left unsullied with any expectations at all”
    “It’s the last thing I’d love in my house, and the first thing she would.”

    I am binge reading your beautiful blog with tear and goosebumps. You are an amazing writer with so much wisdom to impart! Thank you.

  • This sums up the way I am adapting my gift-giving ways and feelings. I am a natural gift giver (in the love languages) and at the same time, I also hold a lot of resentment in this area … unappreciated thoughtfulness, unreciprocated love, overspending, unused/re-gifted/returned/ gifts, etc. This year, I decided to “give small” and stop striving for love with gifts. I gave less at Christmas, but I gave more freely, without expectation. Surprisingly, this approach also changed how I received (I have resentment there too). Thanks for capturing my soul and progress so well.

    • oh i love this so so so much, abilu!! resentment is an easy trap for sure – i so appreciate your authenticity in this arena! big hugs for you!

  • Maybe I read this a little too late for the holidays? But I guess this is–in a way–timeless. Receiving and giving gifts is one of my highest “love language” (as per Gary Chapman’s test) and just like you I’ve been always meticulous with the gifts I give. But lately, I told my friend that I should lay it down and leave it behind. It’s getting tiring. And maybe we should just celebrate more, and think less. :)

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