Skip to main content

The Perfect Gift

The cat is sleeping on the bed behind me. An early snow is resting softly on the balcony outside, deaf to my passive-aggressive hints that it take a hike. The kettle has just boiled for my second cup of chai green tea. After a few busy days and weeks, including another research trip to University of Notre Dame, I am back to reading, researching, and thinking about the idea of "gift."
Image from

It is exciting and frustrating at the same time. Gifts should bring out the child in us, making us ready recipients and willing donors, eager to participate in generous interactions without calculating future obligations or feeling the pressure of expectations. But it turns out that a true gift is really hard to find. Scholars and researchers write about the dark side of gift, the contradictions in gift-giving practices, the evaluation of the gift economy as a system which provides much-needed social cohesion and stability in our relationships, the importance of self-giving, and the near impossibility of separating giving from taking. Sigh. All those things which should be associated with gift - altruism, compassion, love, spontaneity, joy - seem to have faded into the background. It's a bit deflating. But pretty accurate when I think about it.

As Christmas approaches, I am warmed and inspired by the idea of celebrating the greatest, most astounding gift ever (Jesus), but to be honest, that all too often takes second place to feelings of being exhausted and overwhelmed by the flurry of activity, the obligations and expectations of gift-giving, and the stream of family and social events. Call me Scrooge if you want, but I won't accept the moniker. I don't believe I am particularly stingy nor a habitual party-pooper. I think my disillusionment with Christmas, at least in part, stems from a profound desire for genuine gift(s) to be more present in our lives.

One bright light in my reading thus far (there will be more, I am's early) has been an article by Russell W. Belk entitled, "The Perfect Gift." [1] He is a business and marketing professor who researches the meaning behind collecting, gift-giving, possessions, and materialism. He contends that "the perfect gift symbolizes the giver's agapic love toward the recipient" and the only source of the perfect gift is God. Whoa, Russell! That's crazy stuff for a business professor to be saying! He goes on to say, "When agapic love motivates a gift, it is not selected and given to communicate a calculated message at all, but rather to express and celebrate our love for the other. It is spontaneous, affective, and celebratory rather than premeditated, cognitive, and calculated to achieve certain ends." Keep talking, Russell! I am starting to get excited about giving!

Professor Belk goes on to describe six characteristics of a perfect gift, gleaned from well-known stories in literature and drama which have resonated with people for a century or more. He suggests that people intuitively recognize a perfect gift.

1) The perfect gift involves extraordinary sacrifice, displaying selfless generosity and wholehearted commitment to the other.
2) The perfect gift is motivated by altruism. The other's well-being is truly more important than our own. If the recipient suspects otherwise, the gift is not perfect.
3) The perfect gift is extravagant, having an element of luxury. It is not a necessity, not fulfilling lower-order needs but addressing higher-order needs for love, self-esteem, or self-actualization. The extravagance of the gift is "a tangible demonstration of the richness and depth of the love the giver feels toward the recipient."
4) The perfect gift is appropriate. This means it is not impersonal (like money) but unique and specially suited for the recipient.
5) The perfect gift is a surprise. To ask for a gift negates its value because a true gift is not reciprocal or obligatory. It is not a market transaction nor a disguised self-gift. With a spontaneous gift, there is little doubt that the giver is motivated solely by the desire to please the recipient.
6) The perfect gift results in delight. Any gift given to secure some form of reciprocal action or behaviour is more of a bribe than a gift. It turns out that when creating the perfect gift, receiving is as important as giving. Russell suggests that a gift falls short not because the gift itself is wrong, but because the gift-givers and receivers have become entangled in something other than agapic love.

Now I realize that some may find the above description of the perfect gift rather intimidating, but I find it reassuring. It is an ideal, to be sure, but ideals are what give direction to our lives. We all want to be better at loving, hoping, and creating (to name just a few) and this is why we read inspiring stories and watch movies which tell of courageous men and women. We are pulled forward and upward by ideals. Russell's description of the perfect gift gives me hope. It inspires me to step away from the "have to" and "should" which so often characterize the Christmas season in our North American world and moves me toward cultivating deeper and more genuine love for my family and others. If I give an extravagant gift but have not love, I am nothing. If I give out of obligation, I have entered into a business transaction, not celebrated love.

Let me protect and nourish the child giver in me, the one who does not hesitate to draw wild, colourful creations to present to loved ones, who will spend an afternoon baking lopsided, blue cupcakes to serve to guests, and who will take their own beloved, ragged stuffed bear and give it to another. This is the purity of heart with which I want to give gifts. It will take practice. I will get it wrong sometimes. But it is the only way great skills are developed.

[1] Russell W. Belk. "The Perfect Gift." In Gift Giving: A Research Anthology. Edited by Cele Otnes and Richard F. Beltramini. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Press, 1996, 59-84.


Popular posts from this blog

what does the cross mean?

Words which we use a lot can sometimes become divested of their depth of meaning. In the Christian tradition, we talk about the cross a lot. We see visual representations of the cross in prominent places in our gathering spaces, we wear crosses around our necks, some get crosses tattooed on their bodies. The cross is a ubiquitous symbol in Christianity, so lately I have been asking myself, what exactly does the cross mean? For the most part, the cross as portrayed in contemporary Christianity is a beautiful thing, festooned with flowers and sunsets and radiant beams of light (just google cross or cross coloring page). But in the first century, the cross was a symbol of disgrace. To the Roman empire, this ignoble instrument of death was for those who were traitors and enemies of the state. We are many centuries removed from this view of the cross as the locus of torture and death and shame. The fact that Christianity has made the cross a symbol of hope and beauty is a good thing, but p…

stained and broken

Recently, I was asked to speak at another church, and the passage of Scripture which was assigned to me was John 1:6-8. "There came a man commissioned and sent from God, whose name was John. This man came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe [in Christ, the Light] through him. John was not the Light, but came to testify about the Light." (John 1:6-8, Amplified Bible)

The first question I usually ask when reading something in the Bible is this: What does this tell me about God? Two things are immediately obvious - God is a sending God and God wants to communicate - but there is a third which merits a bit more attention. Though God could communicate directly with humanity, sending truth and love to every individual via some divine mind-and-heart-meld, God chooses to send messengers. Not only that, instead of introducing Jesus directly to the world as the main event, an opening, warm-up act appears as a precursor. What is the point of incorporati…

the songs we sing

NOTE: I am going to make some pretty strong statements below, but understand that it is my way of taking an honest, hard look at my own worship experience and practice. My desire is not to be overly critical, but to open up dialogue by questioning things I have assumed were totally fine and appropriate. In other words, I am preaching to myself. Feel free to listen in.


When I am in a church meeting during the singing time, I sometimes find myself silent, unable to get the words past my lips. At times I just need a moment of stillness, time to listen, but other times, the words make me pause because I don't know that I can sing them honestly or with integrity. This is a good thing. We should never mindlessly or heartlessly sing songs just because everyone else is. We should care deeply about what we say in our sung, communal worship.

At their best, songs sung by the gathered body of Christ call to life what is already in us: the hope, the truth, the longing, t…