The Art of Christmas Giving

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

From Success Magazine December 1905

As Christmas draws near, the ever-recurrent question is uppermost: “What shall I give, and to whom?” The fact is, that giving is by no means the simple thing which it seems to many, — not even Christmas giving. To give where no need exists is an injury; to give where no desire exists is worse, almost an insult, since it implies that the wishes of the recipient have not been in the least studied. Merely to hand over to another from one's abundance is not in the truest sense giving at all. There is true giving only when the gift fills a need and confers genuine joy of possession.

Giving Christmas gifts is almost a science. It is certainly a study for one who really wishes to give, and not distress and embarrass. No one is more helpless than the woman who receives an utterly useless and undesired gift. She is fairly forced into falsehood, and is obliged to express gratitude which she does not feel. The woman who has a green parlor, and receives a blue rug, or the woman who has a blue dining-room, and receives a set of doylies embroidered with purple violets, or the woman with a sallow complexion who is given a delicate pink shawl, is actually made to sin against truth. She feels, if she is of a naturally grateful and tender disposition, that she must express thanks which she does not feel. Then, ten chances to one, if it is not a struggle for her not to pass along those useless gifts, next Christmas, and fairly involve herself in a mesh of deceit, she goes about terrified lest, by any unforeseen chance, the first giver should discover the gift in the hands of the second recipient. Often people are so deluged by useless gifts, that memory fails them concerning the givers. Such mistakes are likely to occur, and petty, and absurd, but no less lasting feuds, are the consequence. Hannah searches among her store of laid-by Christmas gifts, and congratulates herself upon the slight expenditure which she will have to make this year; but, alas, when Sarah shall see the silk work bag which she gave Hannah in the possession of Ada, who is an intimate friend of both parties, and when Sarah, possibly, receives back her own centerpiece, which Hannah has quite forgotten was embroidered by her with so much pains, and for which she has no use, since she already had so many! Sometimes Christmas giving partakes more of the nature of forcing nauseous medicine into the mouths of children than anything else. Only it is worse, because the wry face and sob of remonstrance must be suppressed, and smiles, as if the palate were tickled with the most delicious sweet, must take their places, and the bitterness of deceit must rankle in the very soul.

I am not by any means decrying the joys of Christmas and Christmas giving. I consider that it is the sweetest and holiest holiday of the year; but I do think it has gradually acquired, among a certain number, a strenuous, almost forcible, nature which detracts from its real glory. People give because other people have presented them, the preceding Christmas, with things for which they had no manner of desire, and sometimes, when the gift has really delighted them in one way, it has placed them under a painful obligation. It almost amounts to a blow on the other cheek to an insult given and returned, rather than a gift, — that is, of course, in some cases. Christmas is still Christmas to many honest souls, who study the needs of those whom they love, and give and deny themselves for the love of them and the love of Christ, which is, after all, the true essence of all giving. The gift which is because of the Great Gift, and in memory of it, rather than because of even human love itself, is the truest; but many lose sight of that.

Mrs. G. gives to Mrs. C., because Mrs. C. gave her something which she did not want, the year before, and she feels that she must return the gift with one of equal value. She is burdened and bored, and angry, but give she must. She struggles amidst the sharp elbows of the shopping crowd. She fairly fights her way to bargain counters. She feels in her inmost heart that she is forfeiting her position as a gentlewoman; she loathes herself. She is angry and ungrateful, but give to Mrs. C. she must, because Mrs. C. gave to her. As Christmas Day draws near, she is in actual terror lest some new Mrs. D. or E. or F. should give something to her. Her husband's income is limited, and there are the children, who must have their Christmas, and she will need to stint in the quarter where she loves the most, and she is glad when the day is over. All summer, the anticipation of Christmas is, with her, not as a pleasant and joyful thought, but one of dire necessity. She has the eye of an eagle for some cheap article which she can pick up on her summer trip, the value of which, in dollars and cents, Mrs. C. and Mrs. H. can not possibly know, and all the time she feels her self-respect dwindling, — but what can she do? She is a grateful soul, and, moreover, a proud soul, — and, when she accepts, she must give. She laments the passing or partial passing of Santa Claus, when Christmas involved little more than the row of stockings beside the fireplace, and the presents which the old saint was supposed to bring down the chimney, pausing in his gleeful career over the housetops with his toy-laden sleigh and reindeer.

All the blame could then be put upon Santa Claus, and who dared, especially a child, to blame a saint coming way from the North Pole on an errand of love? Mrs. G. would so much rather have Santa Claus as a giver of Christmas gifts than Mrs. C. Passing from the realms of fancy into the actual does involve a good deal, although it may produce a more straight-laced truth.

Now Mrs. C.'s children go over to thank Mrs. G. for Christmas presents, when formerly they would have thanked Santa Claus in their pious little souls, and would not have questioned his choice at all. They do question Mrs. G.'s choice, sometimes quite openly, in spite of home training, and strict injunctions to be polite. Deceit is not an easy lesson for all children to learn, nor is gratitude readily assumed when none is felt in the heart. “Mamma sent me over to thank you for my beautiful doll, Mrs. G.,” says little Katie. Then she adds: “I had five other dolls on the tree, and one was a baby doll. I have always wanted a baby doll. I had one just like yours last Christmas, that Mrs. H. gave me, and she is just as good as ever she was. I do n't play with dolls very much. I like games better.”

It is horribly rude and ungrateful, but it is honest, and if Mrs. G. had inquired into the state of little Katie's doll family, it might have been avoided. Also, little Katie might not have been guilty of saying, when the doll was given into her arms from the tree, that she did n't want another old doll, and been thereupon spanked by a mother who believed in the rigorous bringing up of children and due chastisement for spiritual sins, and in consequence shed real tears on Christmas Eve, which was a pity. The vigor of Mrs. C.'s blows might, too, have been unconsciously accentuated by the fact that she, herself, had received two new pairs of crocheted slippers, when she had three left over from last year, and never wore crocheted slippers, anyway.

There was once a devoted Sunday-school teacher whose class was made up mostly of poor children. There was a Christmas tree in the church, one year, and she was pleased and touched to receive gifts from every one of her class, even the poorest of them all, a forlorn little scion of a disreputable family. The gift was a very fine handkerchief with her initial embroidered in the corner. It was evidently imported. She displayed it to her mother when she went home. “Poor little Angelica gave me this,” she said. “I do believe the poor child earned the money to buy it picking huckleberries. It could not have cost a cent less than a dollar. Dear little thing, I could cry when I look at it! To think of the self-denial, and her poor little coat is so thin! I am going to give her a thick one for a New Year's present. I really can not have such a child going cold to give me a present. Just see how very fine it is, and the initial is hand work.”

The teacher's mother, who was not given to sentimentalism, examined the handkerchief closely. Then she looked at her pretty and enthusiastic daughter with a queer expression, as if she hesitated to say what she thought.

“What is it, mamma?” asked the teacher. “Why do you look at me so?”

“Nothing,” said her mother, “only —”

“Only what?”

“Well, dear, do n't you see that this handkerchief is of exactly the same pattern, as to the embroidery and the fineness, as those you bought when you were in Paris, last summer?”

The teacher's face clouded, but she was still enthusiastic, and believing. “So it is,” she said, “and it must have cost much more here. I paid a dollar for those I bought in Paris. Poor, dear little thing! I should n't wonder if she picked berries all summer to earn the money to buy this, and went without candy, and things, — and showed such refined taste, too. Angelica has something refined about her in spite of her poverty and her surroundings. I always thought so.” The teacher almost wept.

“How many of those handkerchiefs did you buy in Paris, dear?” asked the unsentimental mother.

“A dozen and a half; why?”

“Where are they?”

“In the guest chamber, in the top drawer of the dresser. I have not had occasion to use them yet. I thought I would finish my old ones first. I had such a supply already that I felt rather extravagant when I bought them, but they were so fine, that I was tempted.”

“Suppose you go and count them, dear.”


“Never mind; just go. I dare say I am wrong.”

“Mamma, I am ashamed of you,” said the Sunday-school teacher; but she went, and, when she returned, it was with a crestfallen face.

“Well?” said her mother, interrogatively.

“There is one missing,” admitted the daughter, unwillingly. “I counted them over three times, and I am sure. One is missing, and I am positive I have not taken one out myself.”

“When you had your Sunday-school class to supper, week before last,” said her mother, rather pitilessly, though her eyes were twinkling, “you remember the children used the guest chamber for a dressing room.”

“Oh, mamma, I can 't believe —”

“It looks suspicious,” said her mother.

“I can 't and won't believe,” began her daughter; then she stopped suddenly. “Hush, mamma,” she said; “here is Angelica coming, now, — to thank me for her Christmas present, I suppose. She is so grateful, poor child, and it is almost dark, and so cold, she has such a long way to go home, and her coat is so thin!”

The loving young teacher ran to the door, and ushered in a shivering little girl with a delicate face.

“Thank you for my present, teacher!” she said.

The teacher kissed her, and drew her up to the fire.

“Thank you for your present to me, dear!” she said.

The little girl looked at her teacher, and smiled, — a delicate smile, without the slightest suggestion of guile in it. But the teacher's mother interposed.

“Angelica,” said she.

“Oh, mamma, do n't!” cried her daughter.

“When did you get that handkerchief?” she asked.

“The day I was at teacher's party,” replied Angelica, without the slightest hesitation. “I went in the room when nobody saw me.”

“You do n't mean to say, —” gasped the young teacher, but the little girl continued to regard her with loving, innocent eyes.

“I did n't have anything to hang on the tree for you,” she said, simply.

There was no excuse in her voice, only love. She had taken and returned to her dear teacher her own.

“She did n't, —” said the teacher, brokenly; then she bent down and kissed the little face again, the face of the little unconscious sinner and giver for love's sake.

She always wondered if she did right, and if she should not have reproved, rather than kissed her, — but she had not detracted from her merry Christmas.