The Meaning of Giving (A Christmas Story)

I was in line at the UPS store mailing a Christmas gift to a family member who will not be visiting this holiday.  The woman in front of me was on her cellphone, and I heard her say, “I rather they save their money than receive a gift I didn’t like.”  Those two sentences brought me back to Brazil.

It was Christmas Eve in 1978.  That year my mother left the house with a budget to buy our Christmas gift.  Quite late in the season, but my dad never did anything early or even on time.  And when he was in a pickle, he sent my mother to finish his shortfall.

That year, I wanted a particular doll: Chorinho, which means little cry.  It was a doll that cried (tears and sounds) until you gave her a pacifier or a baby bottle.  The doll was the hottest gift that year. 

I was already 12 and hung out with the fifteen to the eighteen-year-old crowd, but I still slept with dolls.   

About 5 PM, my mother returned home and told the 6 children to go to our bedroom, close the door so she could walk into our small 2 bedroom apartment, and hide the gifts in her bedroom. She used to put them on the top shelf of the wardrobe.

By then, only my youngest brother still believed in the magic of Santa Claus.

Back then, we went to bed at 8:30 PM after having a snack. At 11 PM, my parents woke us up to ring Christmas at midnight with a glass of sparkling wine, turkey, walnuts, hazelnuts, rice with raises, cakes, and other rare munchies.  It was our tradition for most of our childhood.

Brazilian panettone, a traditional pastry in Brazilian Christmas

By 1 AM, we went back to bed and woke up the next day to find our presents near the silver Christmas tree we decorated year after year.

 My oldest brother was always the first one to wake up and get us up.  On Christmas morning, I walked into the living room looking for the medium box, and I didn’t find one with my name. My sister pointed to the side of the tree, and there was an acoustic guitar.  I was devastated, and everyone saw it on my face.  My mother tried to console me, saying that the store didn’t have the doll, but I knew in my heart that we couldn’t afford the doll.  It was too expensive for my parents to buy it along with five more gifts.

Photo by Oleg Zaicev on

I didn’t know how to play the guitar.  I put on a good face and showed my guitar to my friends.  The guitar stayed in the corner for a while until my dad arranged for guitar lessons.  In 1978 I felt exactly like the woman in the UPS line from 1978 until the end of my marriage.

Many people will feel disappointed, betrayed, and mad by the gifts they will receive from their loved ones this Christmas day.  It may not even be due to a lack of resources.  We just want people to get us, and we will not accept their lack of effort in getting us a gift we will like.  The expectation we have about getting the gift we love from the people we love the most creates anxiety around holidays and birthdays.  Being Spiritual and all, I too had these expectations.  My rationale was that I buy all the gifts for everyone in our family.  My partner only needs to buy only one; he must get it right, right?  Absolutely not. People don’t go around with a crystal ball around their neck. I don’t have one. Do you?

Dr. Laurie Santos, a professor at Yale University and host of the podcast “The Happiness Lab,” had a great show on December 7th, which I highly recommended.  She invited other professors to share the science behind gift-giving to reduce stress and increase our happiness.

There is great wisdom in their suggestions. Without giving the episode way, I found a golden nugget hidden in the 31 minutes podcast: Giving a gift is as much rewarding to the giver as it is to the receiver.  Yes, even though you may be that person that buys yourself a gift every time you buy one for some else, the act of giving increases oxytocin for the giver and the receiver and may even cause people to be prone to give more. Accepting a gift (any gift) is a caring act.

The lesson here is to graciously accept whatever gift you get because you will be spreading happiness around, even if the gift ended in the back of the closed or on the shelf of the Salvation Army.

Also, don’t be so fast to dismiss or rationalize any gift you received.  The guitar I got in 1978 has been an integral part of my life; it helped me developed my voice, creativity, companionships, and mind.  It led me to expand my social circles and find peace when everything felt apart.  I don’t have that guitar anymore, but I received another as a gift and purchased a really good one over the years.

Merry Christmas!

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