Saturday, December 21, 2019

Great Giver of Gifts

Interesting article from Becoming Minimalist, about giving fewer gifts, or none, at Christmas.

In Beowulf, Hygelac was a "great giver of gifts," a ring-giver. This was in some ways expected, that a war-leader or tribal king would give gifts to his thanes to ensure their loyalty. While clan-loyalty remained strong in northern Europe, it was not the only loyalty that mattered, unlike most of the rest of Europe, or indeed, the world. Warriors had more agency in who they would swear fealty to. A king who was niggardly would soon have no followers. But in poetry, at least, there was an extra quality of not only giving stuff to followers, but of doing so skillfully, of distributing a gift that was greatly needed or greatly loved.

Tolkien illustrates this virtue with several characters, and it is a mark of their generosity and wisdom. Of all the gift-givers, however, Galadriel was unsurpassed. She not only gave what was valuable, but had some prescience about what might be needed. The value and accuracy of her gift-giving drives the plot in a few places.

We would all like to be that person, who gives the appropriate gift, the intelligent gift, the wise gift that shows we truly understand the other. My mother was something of a risky gift-giver, and sometimes succeeded in finding the touching, upbuilding gift.  I think that is probably the only was to get there.  I took risks with gift-giving as well, hoping to find the affirming and necessary gift.  I can't think of any place that I have succeeded spectacularly in that. I can't think of many places where I succeeded moderately.  Maybe this year.

We were moving in the direction of few gifts, and of giving to charities in the name of others, or letting them choose where the gift would go.  The two older granddaughters both liked that this year.  Our oldest son and his wife had pushed hard for that starting a decade ago, and I think wisely.  Yet we ran up against a difficulty we should have foreseen.  Our two Romanian sons had grown up impoverished, and did not respond warmly to such abstracts.  They saw the point, but it didn't take. For a few years we took turns what charity all of us would give to, so that the grand total to that group was high, and we put them first in line to make those choices, hoping to draw them into the idea. They liked giving objects, and they liked getting them.  My wife's mother, who had been very poor as a child, even being sent to foster parents on a farm for a few years, was much the same way.  She had heard enough people say they loved her: she wanted to see it.  She also gave many gifts to show her love, including highly practical gifts of clothing and food. When son #5 came he was also geared to objects rather than gestures, however well-intentioned.  That has receded a good deal, but it has not gone away.  Son #3 married a woman who grew up very poor in the Philippines, and she is also very much given to buying presents for others.  She states she does not want things for herself, but it is clear that giving presents is important to her, so the natural conclusion would be...

I'm not sure it would be an actual kindness to our sons and daughter-in-law to even hint at demeaning that or calling it a weak way of showing love.

We have moved in the direction of giving experiences, such as taking them to an event, or consumables such as specialty foods that will not take up space in the house for the next twenty years.  When we have given objects, we have tried to give family heirlooms to the right recipients - the century-old Oz books went to the son who had enjoyed them most as a child.  (The temptation there is to just be old people giving useless stuff to their kids.  That may be our destiny as well.)

I don't subscribe to the idea of "love languages" particularly.  Teenagers, especially males, will miraculously discover that "touch" is their love language. People who have suffered deprivation will want to give protections from want, and will light up upon receiving the same. But the more general idea off matching the gift to the recipient is solid.  However, there's no guarantee they are going to in the least recognise how much thought and effort went into the gift.


james said...

One especially low-budget birthday time I bought a bird-call CD for my nature-loving wife. She liked it. Our eldest son loved it. He is now a bird-lover; rare or common--he appreciates them all.

Grim said...

After Beowulf defeats Grendel and his mother, Hrothgar bestows a great number of extravagant gifts upon him. Beowulf takes them home and promptly gives every single one of them to Hygeliac.

It’s a more complex web than the king giving gifts to warriors to ensure loyalty. There’s a mutuality to the support network. Hygeliac is Beowulf’s uncle (Beowulf’s mother is Hygeliac’s sister). Loyalty is assured in part by blood ties. The gifts that flow up as well as down are a reinforcing mechanism, but also one that allows non-family to join the web. It’s not just blood anymore, it’s honor; it’s not just access to good food and weapons for the warriors, but a chance to return won wealth to the giver both to strengthen the band and to win respect through the public act of gift giving.

Old Curmudgeon said...

In my limited experiences, there are preferred love languages and they matter; however, everyone does seem to like many different ways of being told he (this is the non-gendered, third person singular I was taught as a youth) is good, kind, etc. as well as all the other ways of expressing love.

Old Curmudgeon