Why do we even call a gift a “present,” anyway? I suppose that when a gift is offered to another person, it is sometimes done in a formal way: in other words, the gift is presented to someone else. Giving presents should not be ostentatious, however: how sad it is when the gift brings attention back to the giver rather than to the recipient. And yet, the very word “present” does call attention to the offering of the gift rather than to the particular gift itself: if I present you with something, I dignify my gesture more than your acceptance.
Somewhat strangely, given that we are near the end of the first week of December, the word “present” brings to my mind the presentation of medals by Princess Leia to Han Solo and Luke Skywalker at the end of the original “Star Wars” movie (now pathetically retitled “A New Hope” — as if anyone would have swarmed to the theatre to see a sci-fi film with such a soap opera-like name). The wonderful score by John Williams adds a measure of dignity to the scene: Luke and Han are all cleaned up and beaming as Leia drapes medals around their necks, conscious of her importance as a public figure and yet amused by the competitive camaraderie of Luke, the earnest seeker of truth, and Han, the noble-despite-himself rapscallion. I must say, even though I think of this scene as the ultimate example of a presentation, the focus here is on the recipients.
But in real life, when one receives an award from a public figure, the attention inevitably is shifted to the celebrity rather than to the average citizen. I’m thinking of my own experience of receiving a presidential award as a graduating high school senior: the presentation of medals on the White House lawn was not so much about the 100 or so kids receiving medals as it was about the ceremony itself. Of course, there were a lot of us; maybe it’s different if you’re the only one receiving the medal.
In everyday, ordinary gift-giving, it is important to try to keep the focus on the one who is receiving the present. A classic short story by O. Henry about presents, “The Gift of the Magi” is a sweet look at the sacrifices made by two impoverished newlyweds, each of whom gives up something of value in order to buy a gift for the other. There is an ironic twist to the story, but I won’t reveal it here, in case there are any non-Americans reading: I’m not sure it is possible to graduate from high school in the United States without encountering this well-known tale that still resonates with me, years after I first read it. I don’t think it will give away much for me to say that both the husband and the wife spend time observing the other person before purchasing a gift — considering what is of value to the person receiving the present rather than the amount in one’s pocketbook, considering what would most please the recipient or enhance the quality of daily life.
But a present need not be costly to be well chosen. Sometimes, we may know what the other person needs or likes, yet we lack the means to purchase the ideal item. Then we are thrown back upon our resources and must do as the little drummer boy did: play our best. Clearly, I am yielding to the stream-of-consciousness rules here in not editing out “The Little Drummer Boy” reference: this song does not usually make my top-10 list of Christmas carols! But there is a point to be made: not having the resources of the three wealthy kings from the East, the drummer boy, who has no gift to bring, must give his best. Perhaps Christina Rossetti’s words from “In the Bleak Midwinter,” set beautifully to music by Gustav Holst, relay the same message with more eloquence: “What can I give Him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man, I would do my part. Yet what I can, I give Him: give my heart.”
Changing the focus from gifts to the Christ child, how can we give our hearts to others in this season where the giving of presents has become so focused on buying, wrapping, getting a bargain? In my household, it is traditional for gifts to be exchanged around a sparkling tree on Christmas morning, so there is no getting around this procrastinating mom’s need to buy presents. As our children are getting older, the shift has been away from the magic and mystery of presents from Santa (a shift that I welcome, as I have always felt uneasy with the Santa alliance); now, gifts tend to take the form of what is needed and, to some extent, what is wanted. Rarely have we asked our children to make lists, although I see the expediency of lists. Probably that is because I hate to see unrealistic expectations dashed. Also, too much focus on “what I want” is not something that I want to encourage.
But, with three out of five children living away from home this year, lists may become a practical necessity. I do struggle with the present problem, especially when I find myself spending money merely to even out the presentation of gifts. Ideally, a gift should be from the heart, not mandated by an occasion. But in present-day America, the presents have become the occasion.
This Stream-of-Consciousness post was written in response to the prompt present, given by guest host Helen Espinosa on Linda’s site. After writing this post, I re-watched the Throne Room scene from Star Wars IV: I’d forgotten about Han’s rolled eyes, Luke’s proud smile, and Chewbacca’s processing with Han and Luke, even though he doesn’t get a medal.