Gift giving can be an imposter; free yourself of the baggage and bring on the joy
I look into his kind eyes, then blurt out the truth.
“I don’t want to loan her money again, Santa. I think the broken promises are as painful for her as they are for me. My only choice is to give her the money as a gift. I just hope it does some good this time.” I say.
The thin, colorfully wrapped box, only slightly larger than the check nestled in tissue paper that hides inside, looks fragile in his big hand. I am amused by the care he uses to avoid disturbing the oversized tinsel-colored bow.
“You might give her the money, honey, but it’s not a gift,” says Santa, shaking his head while he hands the package back to me.
“What do you mean?”
“A gift can be anything – money, a present, a kind word or gesture, an act of service – but it is only a gift if it is given freely. A true gift is an expression of love from the heart with nothing attached.”
I catch the phrase, “with nothing attached.”
“Ok, Santa, what am I attaching?”
“Doubts. Expectations. Resentment perhaps?” Santa says, eyes twinkling. “You may expect her to be grateful for the sacrifices you’ve made. Or you may want her to be sorry for the pain she has caused. Or better yet, you may expect for her to finally be responsible – to do the things that you think she should do. To move from your naughty to nice list.”
“Yes, I want her to do all of those things.”
“That’s not a gift. If your expectations aren’t met, you’ll suffer. A gift is never, ever, a source of suffering. We add so much mischief to gift giving – especially with those that mean the most to us! What you are considering is commerce my dear, not gift-giving.”
Santa lets out a “Ho, ho, ho” at the dismay on my face.
“Yes, commerce. Conscious commerce or unconscious commerce. Once there is an expectation of reciprocity or repayment of any kind, our gift-giving is perverted into commerce. Purchases, trades, loans. We are giving something in exchange for something else and pretending we’re not.”
“Many times our ‘gifts’ take the form of loans. We are blind to the fact we are holding the recipient accountable to repay our generosity on our terms – when we want it and how we want it, even if we never communicated what the terms were.”
Santa continues. “Other times our gifts are simply trades. I will do this nice thing for you if you do this nice thing for me. Or I will give you this if you stop being naughty. Similarly, we often don’t communicate the terms of the trade. We just expect the return of an equivalent gesture conforming to them.”
My gaze shifts to the gaily-wrapped presents under the tree. I wonder how many presents I have given as acts of commerce. Then, I realize Santa is talking about any gift. Regardless of the season.
“Remember, if joy isn’t present, it’s not a gift, Liza. Any joyless act in service for another is commerce. Our “selfless” giving is not giving at all. We are bargaining for something in return.”
Santa strokes his beard, letting the silence amplify the impact of his words.
Do I do that? Deliberately make sacrifices under the pretense of giving in order to ultimately get what I want? Are my acts of service truly acts of selflessness?
“Or we use our gifts to purchase something.”
“Purchase something?” I ask, relieved to move on.
“Yes. Sometimes we give a gift because we feel an obligation or duty to do so. The gift purchases our freedom from the feeling of obligation.”
“Mmmm,” I say.
“Yes, I’ve checked a few off my list doing that.”
“How did you feel? When you gave the gift?”
“I don’t know. Sort of begrudging that I had to give something, or at least felt like I had to give something, then relieved to be free from the guilt of not wanting to give. You’re right. I purchase my freedom from obligation and guilt.”
“A true gift brings joy. It’s the litmus test for all giving.”
“I know this, Santa. Somehow I forgot.”
I plop the box with the tinsel-colored bow down on the table. “I guess I struggle with whether my assistance is helping her or hurting us both.”
He nods but says nothing. I recall the rumors of switches and lumps of coal left in stockings. I realize this expert in gift giving has likely grappled with issues like this many times before. How often has Santa felt conflicted to give? The naughty list is a long one.
I stand up, conscious of the minutes ticking by on his busiest night of the year.
“You’ve got to go.”
“This is important.”
He doesn’t seem rushed at all.
“Liza, tell me. How can you give freely if you fear your giving may hurt her or hurt you?”
“Oh!” I say, instantly freed from my self-induced conflict.
“I can’t!” I half shout.
A big grin spreads across my face. It is returned by his jovial smile, eyes sparkling, cheeks rosy.
“Of course you can’t! You see, the real gift is how much you care. You may want to share that with her. If you start there, you’ll know where to go next. Your heart will tell you.”
“Of course! It’s so simple. I add so much complexity!”
“We all do, Liza-Lou,” Santa says, looking me straight in the eyes as he swings his bag over his shoulder.
And, there they are spread before me: Time. Attention. Compassion. Connection. Affection. The greatest gifts of all. I see Christmas in his smile. I hear Christmas in his words.
“Thank you, Santa.”
He reaches for one last cookie.
“The joy is all mine,” he says with a wink and makes his way toward the chimney.