Giving can be more gratifying than receiving

"Someday, our parents told us, you’ll appreciate giving gifts more than you enjoy receiving them."

My brother and I didn’t sleep a wink on Christmas Eve.

We shared a bedroom, and we would stay up, cross-checking our wishlist for the umpteenth time, already making grand plans for what we would do with all of our presents on Christmas Day.

Earlier that evening we would have negotiated with our parents about what time it was okay to wake them up. After several years of this business, we knew the key to any arbitration process was to start as early as possible.

“We would like to open presents at 3 a.m.,” we would declare, chins in the air, the way we pictured courtroom lawyers behaving.  

In the end, the verdict would be handed down: 7 a.m., they would say, and we would sign our proverbial names on the dotted line. Then we would wake them up at 6:58 a.m.

As our bleary-eyed parents sipped their coffee we would tear open our gifts: action figures, video game consoles, sporting equipment, musical instruments. There was no sense of deliberation. We had one speed: open those presents.

We thought it would last forever.

“You’ll get more and more clothes,” our cousin, Danny, warned us one year. He was four years older than my brother, who was two years older than me, and Danny had been around the block a time or two. He was regularly smoking cigarettes, my parents said in the car on the way back from our extended family Christmas, you could hear it in his cough.

“You can?” I asked, eyes wide, somehow knowing that this confirmed Danny’s soothsaying. Cigarettes equated to maturity, which equated to wisdom in my small and developing brain.

That was it. Our fate was to get clothes for Christmas soon.

It started in the teenage years, and up on through college. Sweaters we hated but were told to wear, jeans that weren’t baggy enough, and then, years later, weren’t tight enough.

“Thank you,” we would say to the gifter, our faces belying the words. We unwrapped the presents more slowly, paying attention to the things other people were unwrapping at the same time, absorbing the joy they got out of their own gifts.

Someday, our parents told us, you’ll appreciate giving gifts more than you enjoy receiving them. This would have been impossible to believe if I hadn’t just finished opening a collared shirt that would never be hip on my college campus, but still, I was skeptical.

How was spending money on someone else ever going to be gratifying?

Last year I bought shoes for my dad. I bought a new backpack for my brother. Unfortunately, I had to pay a visit to my mother’s grave on Christmas Day, but I left her flowers. My favorite part of the holidays is, indeed, the act of giving gifts.

This December I’ve been reevaluating the things I have versus the things I need, and I’ve already wrapped some things I can live without, including a video game console I rarely used. I know a younger kid, the child of a friend, who would want it more.

I like to picture him and his sister on Christmas Eve, looking at their wishlist and dreaming of what might be under the tree in the morning.

I hope they enjoy playing the Playstation, and I hope they know that someday soon, they’ll be unwrapping clothes.