Rachel del Valle | All I want for Christmas

Duly Noted | With time and consideration, gift-giving can be more than just an exercise in consumerism

· December 9, 2013, 4:23 pm   ·  Updated December 9, 2013, 10:52 pm

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Rachel del Valle
Duly Noted

At my elementary school, there was an annual pop-up Christmas shop. I’m not sure where the merchandise came from — it was a mixed bag of dinky, unnecessary stuff. It was kind of like a dollar store, except for the fact that it was crammed into the school’s bathroom-sized library, and everything cost more than a dollar.

The idea was that the bookfair-style event, referred to as “Santa’s Workshop” in school flyers, would give kids a chance to buy their family members Christmas presents without spoiling the surprise.

Every now and then, I come across some of these purchases made by a smaller version of myself. They’re usually clinging to the edges of a drawer — the Looney Tunes magnets I bought for my Dad, the pen that says “World’s Best Mom.”

I miss the simplicity of that kind of Christmas shopping.

Earlier this year, I told myself to start thinking about Christmas gifts well before snow started falling. I had the image of myself in bookstores and flea markets, spotting the perfect thing, snatching it up and squirreling it away in the back of my closet until December.

So far, here are my spoils: I picked up a stocking stuffer for my Dad a couple of months ago. I have a bookmark folder on my computer of things I know my sister would like. I have the idea of a present for my Mom, but I haven’t gotten around to picking it up yet. In short, I’ve done very little.

One of my idealized markers of maturity is the ability to give meaningful, interesting presents to people I love. Right now, I’m not really there.

This is one of the few adult-like behaviors that I haven’t made a respectable effort to master. I’ve learned more recipes in the last few months and have gotten much better at calling customer service. The other day, I successfully parallel-parked. But when it comes to gift-giving, I’m still operating at a preteen level.

I inevitably scramble in the period between my last final and packing, searching for giftable things in the disappointing handful of stores near campus before my train home.

When you’re younger, the presents that you give don’t matter as much. The charm of handing someone an object you made or chose for them is a gift in itself. But as I’ve gotten older, I know that I’m not just on the receiving end of gift-giving anymore.

Any gift I give my parents is unlikely to inspire the kind of excitement that I once felt from unwrapping the Madeline dolls and LEGO sets that they gave me, but I can try. I think I owe them that.

I’ve always thought that a good gift is something that a person wants but wouldn’t get for themselves for whatever reason. Maybe it feels too frivolous or expensive. Maybe too childish. Maybe it just feels like the kind of thing you shouldn’t have to purchase for yourself, like a necklace or ring or something similarly shiny.

Something like a laptop or airfare is generous, but it’s not the same as a carefully chosen unnecessary thing.

There’s a measure of vulnerability that comes with gift-giving. I bought this thing I thought you might like. Here, take it. Wear it, or display it in your room. Use it on a daily basis. Add it to your collection. Watch it, read it. Please, please like it.

Perhaps for this reason, I don’t really exchange gifts with friends. A Secret Santa seems like a good solution for big groups, but the price limits and sometimes awkward pairings that characterize these exchanges can make presents more formulaic than thoughtful.

By contrast, the deliberateness of choosing a gift for someone just because you want to is potentially nerve-wracking, but it can also be really rewarding.

There’s something gratifying that comes from watching someone open a gift that they love and that you chose for them. It’s a weirdly intimate act.

Because, when you think about it, unwrapping a well-chosen gift is exciting, but so is realizing that someone cares enough to know what you want. It’s not just a cliche to say it’s the thought that counts.

Rachel del Valle is a College senior from Newark, N.J. Her email address is rdel@sas.upenn.edu. Follow her @rachelsdelvalle. “Duly Noted” appears every Tuesday.

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