- Illustration by James Steinberg
Along with festive food and family gatherings, the holidays bring the inevitable social rituals of gift-giving. Some enjoy the art of finding or making the perfect presents, and wrapping them with elaborate bright bows. But for many others, gifting is an onerous, thankless task, often involving purchases for people barely known. And even for close friends and family, the question arises: What is a suitable, meaningful gift? Quickly followed by: Is it affordable? Financial pressures only increase the anxiety. Some people resent feeling obligated to participate in structured giving, dislike holiday celebrations, lack the time to shop, or are simply put off by the collective consumerist frenzy.
Bill McKibben ’82 speaks to some of these concerns in his 1998 Hundred Dollar Holiday, which resonates all the more today. The book chronicles efforts by his local church to rediscover the true joys of Christmas (and any special occasion can be substituted here) by limiting spending and making room for other, more rejuvenating activities. “Christmas had become something to endure as much as it has become something to enjoy,” he wrote. “The people we were talking to wanted so much more out of Christmas: more music, more companionship, more contemplation, more time outdoors, more love. And they realized that to get it, they needed less of some other things: not so many gifts, not so many obligatory parties, not so much hustle.”
In the interest of understanding more about what gifts are actually meaningful, and why, we asked several professors a simple question: What is the best gift you have ever given? As Lewis Hyde, an associate of the Humanities Center, writes in The Gift, the focus here is not on those given “in spite or fear, nor those gifts we accept out of servility or obligation” but on “the gift we long for, the gift that, when it comes, speaks commandingly to the soul and irresistibly moves us.”
Assistant professor of philosophy Russell Jones does not particularly care about getting or giving presents or, in general, about celebrating birthdays, holidays, or anniversaries: “I just never got overly excited about this stuff.” The single exception came about a decade ago, when he bought a clear glass vase and some flowers for his girlfriend, Emily. “It wasn’t particularly extravagant, it cost maybe $40 or $60,” he recalls, “but I gave it to her with the promise that I would refill it.”
The couple are now married. The vase sits in a prominent place on a living-room table. “I asked her, and she didn’t quite remember, whether I had said I would fill it regularly, in which case I have not fulfilled my promise,” Russell says. “But if I said I would fill it often, then I have done that.” The flowers tend to come at times of accord, but not necessarily to make up for disagreements. Always he brings them home and hands them to her to put in the vase with some water. They are the gift that keeps on giving—“although imperfectly,” he says, smiling. A symbol of the couple’s continuing commitment. “They remind us that we are still here together, all these years later.”
Hyde, an essayist, poet, and translator, is a former director of undergraduate creative writing at Harvard and now teaches English at Kenyon College. The best modern gift exchanges are those that are of intrinsic value, he says, “where the gift somehow recognizes the recipient—it is a sign that ‘I know who you are and am thinking about you.’ It’s about actually seeing who the other person is.” One reason so many gifts are “irritating,” Hyde adds, is that most do not indicate that the giver “did any reflection around who you are.” The worst gifts are those that “seem to be a discharge of obligation: there is no intimacy involved.”
Hyde’s own best gift was handed over in a hotel room in 1966. That year the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda had been allowed to enter the United States for the International PEN conference. He also read at the 92nd Street Y, an event that Hyde, then only 21, traveled from the Midwest to hear. He had translated one of Neruda’s books, and, in an effort to get it published, Hyde’s friends had helped arrange a meeting with the poet at the Algonquin Hotel.
“Neruda was a collector, collected several things,” Hyde begins. “The two I knew about were ship’s figureheads and seashells.” The day of their meeting, Neruda had been out walking in New York City and had found an antique shop where he bought a figurehead. “He had it there in the hotel, in his suite, where there was a living room with wingback chairs. The figure was sitting in one of these chairs and Pablo was in another and I was in a third,” Hyde recalls. “The figurehead had a bag over her head. I always imagined that the shop keeper had asked, ‘Would you like a bag?’ When we sat down, Pablo said, ‘We must take that off,’ and in some strange way that wooden woman joined our conversation.”
Hyde took a cloth bag out of his pocket that held his own gift to Neruda: a fossil seashell, a pyritized spiriferid brachiopod. His uncle had given it to him as a boy “because he knew it would intrigue me,” Hyde adds. “You can hold it in your fist and it is covered in fool’s gold. They are not particularly rare, but they are striking. I always thought it was so special.” Neruda immediately recognized the shell and took out a book on the subject and showed his guest more specimens. “I think he was tickled,” Hyde says. “Then he gave me a phonograph recording of him reading some of his poems. There was an exchange.”
As an emerging poet and writer, Hyde felt grateful to artists who gave of themselves, of their creative, artistic gifts. “Neruda was one of the poets who had affected me in precisely this way. His powers to say things I had not been able to say myself led me to feel a sort of spiritual debt,” Hyde explains. “So this is a little, concrete gift but it was an expression of enormous gratitude.” The chain of gifting the shell was also kept intact.
The significance of the gift, Hyde continues, is also connected to a story Neruda tells in the essay “Childhood and Poetry” that is “related to his own mythology about what it is to be an artist.” (Hyde ends The Gift with Neruda’s tale.) In it, Neruda is a boy in rural Chile standing by a small hole in a fence when the hand of a boy appears, placing a small white toy sheep on the edge of the hole. The boy runs away before there is any contact, but the gesture prompts Neruda to run to his own house and pick out an adored treasure, a pinecone, and put it in the hole for the boy. “To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life,” Neruda writes. “But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and weaknesses—that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things…Just as I once left the pinecone by the fence, I have since left my words on the door of so many people who were unknown to me, people in prison, or hunted, or alone.”
Giving money and things away, even to strangers, has the capacity to make us artists. But it also can make us feel happier, according to research by Michael Norton, associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. “You see this phrase a lot, ‘Money can’t buy happiness,’” Norton said in a 2011 TEDx lecture. “In fact, it is wrong.” Norton has a doctorate in psychology and studies consumer behavior. People who win the lottery tend to spend all the money and then go into debt, he reported, or their families and friends ask for money, which spoils their social relationships. Norton and his fellow researchers found that “People who spend money on other people [instead of themselves] were happier,” he told the TED audience. “The specific way you spend on other people isn’t nearly as important as the fact that you spend on other people…You can do small, trivial things and yet still get the benefit of doing this.” Moreover, this was true across the nations studied, including the U.S., Canada, and Uganda: “Giving money away makes you happier than keeping it for yourself.” (Norton and coauthor Elizabeth Dunn discuss the many ways people misunderstand how to wring joy from every dollar in their forthcoming Happy Money: The Science of Spending, due out this spring.)
Various members of the University community are finding creative ways to act on Norton’s findings. “The best gifts I have ever given,” says Nir Eyal, associate professor in global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School, “are to people I do not know.” He and his wife, English professor Leah Price, are part of the international group www.givingwhatwecan.org, whose members pledge to give 10 percent or more of their pretax income to cost-effective global health and poverty causes. “We give not in order to feel satisfied, although recent research suggests that giving can give you greater happiness,” Eyal says. “But the gift is about the other person.”
He serves on the steering committee of the campus-wide Program in Ethics and Health and is also the faculty adviser for a new undergraduate-run group called Harvard High Impact Philanthropy (http://harvardhip.org) that supports donations to global-health and poverty causes and also encourages the 10 percent pledge. Guest speakers at their events have included Kolokotrones University Professor Paul Farmer, of Partners In Health, Rachel Glennerster, of MIT’s Poverty Action Lab, and Jeffrey Sachs, of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. “I think we do not realize how rich we are,” Eyal asserts. “We compare ourselves to others like us and think we are relatively middle class or even poorer. You would be surprised if you looked at what you have even when you give away 10 percent. You would hardly miss it and you could save thousands from life-threatening diseases.”
Realizing the dreams of one’s nearest and dearest is also a profound gift. Professor of government and of African and African American studies Claudine Gay says her best gift was a surprise for her husband after graduate school, when they were both working so hard that they rarely saw each other during the week. With his thirtieth birthday looming, she nixed a party in favor of an experience: as a third-generation Greek-American, he had always dreamed of visiting his grandparents’ homeland. Recognizing his deep desire, but knowing that “he could not see how to make that possible,” Gay secretly took on planning the logistics and soon presented him with a bag. Inside was a copy of Robert Fagles’s translation of The Odyssey, a phrasebook to supplement her husband’s school-level Greek vocabulary—and airplane tickets.
Throughout the trip, “he got out his phrasebook and tried conversations with people, and there were lots of stories about his grandparents living in different places we visited,” Gay says. “It was an experience that connected him on a visceral level with his cultural heritage, with who he is,” she explains. “And for me, being a spectator and watching that happen, was terrific.” They also ended up taking what turned into a strenuous trip on buses and ferries to obtain holy water that his mother (a breast-cancer survivor) had requested “from a particular rural church on a particular island off Athens,” she adds, “and then traveling all the way back to Michigan to give it to her. ”
Gifts among generations are especially resonant, perhaps because they signal the reality that someday the gift, or its memory, will remain even though the people engaged in the exchange have gone. Stephanie Paulsell, Houghton professor of the practice of ministry studies at Harvard Divinity School, points as an example to the greatest, and most intangible, gift she ever received—appreciation for the power of books and reading “to unlock, enlarge, and open up the world, and your place in it” —which she is now attempting to pass on to her 15-year-old daughter.
“I grew up sitting next to my mother, having her read to me, and she taught me to read very early on by doing that,” says Paulsell. “She would take the stiff cardboard that came home from the cleaners in my dad’s button-down shirts and write words on them and we used them like flashcards.” Her father was a historian of Christianity and specialized in the monastic tradition, including prayerful reading. Paulsell often sat with him in the backyard reading psalms out loud: they discussed what they meant as he copied lines that struck him as important into a notebook, one of his lifelong practices.
At her first Christmas back from college, her mother gave her the first volume of Virginia Woolf’s letters. “I remember unwrapping it and going upstairs into the bedroom and being under blankets the whole day reading,” Paulsell says. She still reads, teaches—and writes—about Woolf; her book on the author and religion is due to the publisher this spring. “My parents kind of gave me my life, which ended up being in school with a lot of reading and writing. It was a very great gift that I have tried to pass on to my daughter, who is a musician and has a lot of interests and a lot more choices than I did as a kid, in terms of technology and how to spend her time.”
One book Paulsell recommended that her daughter fell in love with was Dorothy Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness. “I would be so thrilled if my daughter felt that Day, an example of how you can take your life and do something radical with it, opened up all kinds of life questions for her, like the ones Day poses: How can we create a society in which it is easier for people to be good? What kind of difference can one person make?” Her daughter may not devour books the way her mother has, but she does appreciate them—and the spirit of delving into life’s deeper questions. “I want to give her the richness, comfort, community, and conversation that go with a life drenched with books,” Paulsell says. “There is something about encountering ideas about how to live life through reading that make it a lifelong gift you can keep unwrapping.”