Ralph is all excited. When his poor wife Lisa comes home after a hard day's work in the office, he enters the living room beaming. "Happy birthday, darling!" he exclaims while thrusting the neatly packed gift at her. Momentarily delighted as she quickly unwraps the package, Lisa murmurs, "Oh, Ralph, I thought you'd forget my birthday again this year. Gee, thanks, sweet...." Her voice trails off as she lifts the cover of the box to disclose its contents: steak knives. Ralph, still beaming, then pulls the trigger of the rifle aimed at his own foot: "I bought some steaks, so you can use your new birthday gift to get us dinner ready!"
Most women, of course, would use the new knives on Ralph, not the steaks. What did poor Ralph do wrong? He certainly meant well. He noted his wife's birthday carefully, sacrificed time and money to buy a gift on time, and even had the box gift-wrapped. Where did he go wrong? Long before Ralph bought the knives, he should have paid more attention to those things Lisa expressed or showed an interest in. While walking or shopping, many people notice things that obviously interest them; this is the time to make a mental note of what those items are for future purchase. While talking, too, many people reveal "wish list" items they dream of having. Noting these items and turning them into gifts at a later time, whether for Christmas, birthday, anniversary, graduation, or any other important occasion, distinguishes just another item on a shelf in a department store or in a catalogue from "the perfect gift."
Gifts do not have to be objects. Doing house chores for parents or spouses which normally are "theirs," taking someone out on the town or wheeling an invalid around the block, or taking the time and effort to create one's own personalized handicraft can bring smiles as wide as those aroused by the giving of expensive presents. Many a child would prefer to have an afternoon at the cinema and an evening in their favorite restaurant with Dad than another of his expensive gifts, some with the price tag still on them! Many parents would rather happily settle for a full day with their children at home or on a picnic than with a mailed check or "Happy Birthday" greeting on their answering machine. Perhaps the expression "Time is money" really is true: time spent with those whom we do not often see is indeed precious. Sacrificing time from one's busy schedule to give to another is often more meaningful than a pricy gift from an upscale department store.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with buying gifts. Everyone has needs, including material needs. Close friends or family members often know what their loved ones need even before they do! Few compliments can make us happier than "You always know what to give me." For those who never seem to know what to prepare for others but who would like to learn, observing the successful giving of gifts to others is as good a place to start as any. In any class, family, or crowd, someone always seems to know the right gift to give at the right time. Making mental notes of these occasions and then writing them down in a special notebook can make the difference between a future present well-received and one politely accepted.
Still, only a social incompetent would criticize or refuse a gift from another. Being gracious even in disappointment is a sign of good manners. Besides, a gift is an expression of thoughtfulness and a token of love. We should never question the judgment of the donor; instead, as we say in English, "It's the thought that counts." Learning to appreciate whatever little surprises life prepares for us is a sure sign of maturity and poise. When the giving of symbols of our appreciation and love to others becomes an art form to the giver, these profound words can be understood: "It is more blessed to give than to receive."