The Art of Meaningful Gift Giving

Person's hands holding small Christmas gift

As the gift giving season sneaks upon us like a ‘polar express’ train coming ’round the corner, we should take a hard look at our style, methods and motivations in choosing gifts for all the people in our lives this Holiday Season.

Gift giving is non-verbal communication.  Your choice of gift sends a particular and specific message or statement to the receiver—they show instead of tell  how you think or feel about them.

Before giving a gift ask:  What message do I want to send?  What is it I want to say?  What kind of gift will say what I want?

The Basics of Meaningful Gift Giving

Word-cloud representing different relationships and emotions
The message you want to send when giving a gift is important, because you care about the person receiving it.

Because gifts act as a way of communicating feeling to another person, they should be given and received meaningfully, rather than blindly, because relationships matter. Often the messages our gifts send are misinterpreted because not enough care was given to selecting a gift that would communicate the intended message.

When we give gifts, they should be for the sake of the other person.  Not for inflating our own ego, gaining power, status, placing others in our debt, or influencing someone else unduly.

Gifts are symbolic and steeped in meaning, reflecting relationships.

Communication scholar, Susan Cunningham said, “Gifts are extremely cultural. The meaning of gifts is closely tied to both national traditions and the individual experiences of the receiver.”

Gift giving often comes from strong emotions like love, gratitude, or guilt. But even when our gifts are tied to cultural celebrations like Christmas, we should seek to find our underlying emotional reason for the gift.

Cunningham went on to say, “Meaningful gift giving means understanding the person you are giving the gift well enough to know what they will understand as meaningful.”

All this pressure on gift giving can be a lot to handle. So give yourself the gifts of sanity and peace by developing a new talent, by becoming the perfect gift-giver.

Develop a Plan

Christmas Ornament
Producing many of the same individualized gift can be a great way to save time while still giving meaningful gifts.

Being a great gift giver requires starting with a plan—preferably in advance.

Spreading Holiday Cheer shouldn’t mean you spread yourself so thin you snap. So follow the 80/20 rule.

Think minimalist; less is more.  Eighty percent of your budget, time, and effort should be spent on the most important twenty percent of the people on your list.

For everyone else, choose a single idea.  A small token that says, “I’m thinking of you this Holiday Season’.  That’s all you need to say to everyone else.

This single idea can be something that is uniquely you. Whatever your personality is, or something special that you do; put some of it into these gifts.  It doesn’t matter if it’s realistic, whimsical, sweetly charming, humorous, simple or sophisticated.

A grandmother I know of makes one simple Christmas ornament a year, on very limited income, for each grandchild and great-grandchild. With almost fifty, there’s no way she could realistically come up with a well-thought-out personalized gift for each of them. But this unique token means a lot to each of her grandchildren.

Whatever your specialty is; let it work for you.  Eliminate the stress of trying to make the Holiday perfect.  You can’t—it’s not your responsibility. Christ already made it perfect!

Once you’ve taken care of the bulk of your list, you will want to spend time choosing a meaningful gift for each of the remaining people on the list.

Choosing the Best Gift

Now that you’ve stopped trying to find a perfect gift, you can get on with the business of finding the best gift you can. Before you get started you’ll need to answer how much money, time, and effort you’re willing to spend on the gift. If you feel like these don’t communicate your intentions, think of ways you can find more time, money, or exert more effort.

The classic tale “The Gift of the Magi” features two gifts that are perfect because both people found ways to extend how much they could give for the gift. Their willingness to sacrifice out of love was manifest.

The best personal gifts have the same five attributes:

1. Nostalgic or Forward-looking Gifts

The best gifts tie into some element of your relationship’s past or future. An ideal gift for a sibling, for example, may refer back to an old inside joke. While a gift for a new boss may instead represent the type of ongoing relationship you hope to have.

2. Emotional Gifts

Emotion should be involved in all good gift-giving. But expand your thinking of emotions beyond love or mushiness. Emotions such as gratitude or friendship can be a great starting point for a gift. Cunningham also said, “People like gifts that indicate you listen to them.” Respect is an emotion your gifts should always convey.

3. Gifts Involving Sacrifice

The most common sacrifices we make when finding a gift are time, talents, and money. These are all great choices. The widow’s mite is a fantastic example of how sacrifice can mean different things for different people, however. In both giving and receiving gifts, we should keep this lesson in mind.

4. Surprising Gifts

It can be hard to get someone a surprise gift when a gift is expected, such as Christmas. But gifts that are particularly thoughtful or meaningful always catch the receiver off-guard no matter how strong your reputation as a gift-giver becomes.

5. Pleasurable Gifts

Great gifts are never practical. No matter how much your wife needs a new steering wheel cover or your husband needs a new mop, these kinds of gifts will not communicate the messages you want during the holidays.

Hopefully, those attributes will get you thinking in the right direction. Once you have a few ideas, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Can you imagine this gift being returned, thrown away or regifted?
  2. Does this gift mean more to the person I’m giving it to, than to any other person?
  3. How does this gift relate to our specific relationship?
  4. Will this gift be remembered or kept years later?
  5. Could the receiver imagine this gift primarily benefiting me?

Consider these ideas as you start looking for the best gift:

  • Gifts based on joint experiences, places you’ve gone together, things you both like or share: i.e., music, books, or hobbies, etc.
  • Coupons or IOU’s for special activities or days to be spent together are gifts of time together, too!
  • Give an experience or activity they would enjoy as a memory; a place, an event, concert, class or lecture.
  • Make occasions or memorable events of gifts.  Treasure hunts, crazy presentations or wrappings, secret messages, or communiques.
  • Donations to favorite causes or charities in their names acknowledge awareness of things that mean the most to them as individuals.
  • Personalized gifts acknowledge your loved one’s needs, desires, favorites, passions, memories, hobbies, preferences, or collections.  If you need clues or ideas, this is the perfect time for ‘stalking.’  Ask others who know them to help fulfill wishlists, or make them laugh.
  • Most people like secrets and surprises; especially on birthdays.  But, not everyone likes a surprise party.  Celebrations can be huge or small special intimate get-together’s.  Remember, the occasion is for the one who’s special day it is.

The Right Gifts for the Right People

giving elderly man a gift
We have to think about gift giving in different ways for the different types of relationships we have.

When discussing finding the best gift, we often have different considerations to make depending on the type of people for whom we are finding gifts.

Family Gifts

Often times our families are much too big to fit into the twenty percent of our list. There are a few approaches you may consider.

1) Family gifts. A ‘Family’ gift is exactly what it implies, one meant for the whole family to enjoy. It can take more thought and effort to find a gift that everyone in the family will find meaningful, but that effort can often be worth it.

2) Gift exchanges. Gift exchanges can vary in their rules, such as drawing names, but have become holiday traditions for family families. Gift exchanges are ways for families to help make gift giving more manageable for all involved. Remember that relationships are the most important part even of gift exchanges, and that gift exchange traditions shouldn’t necessarily continue if circumstances change.

Gifts for Co-workers and Neighbors 

Work associates and neighbors, or long term acquaintance deserve tokens of appreciation and recognition, well-wishes and holiday greetings.  Remember that unless these people are especially close, a particularly thoughtful gift could also send the wrong message.

We don’t want people to feel awkward or in debt to us because of the gifts we give. Most of these people will fall into the 80% of our gift list. But even if not, you may want to seriously consider a simple or token gift.

Even a greeting card works for many of these situations. Greeting cards are thoughtfully written, and can help you communicate the exact message you wish to.

Children’s Gifts

We should be especially careful to give meaningful gifts to Children. During the holidays especially, we can feel pressure to give children lots of stuff. But children at the receiving end in these situations don’t receive the message that they are loved unconditionally, but rather that they are only worth what they can receive.

Keep children’s gifts a mixture of things they need along with a few they really do want.  Educational gifts are always appropriate, as are those which help them develop talents.

As parents and grandparents, remember: playing favorites is a big No-No.  Different gifts are perfectly fine.  Children don’t need to have exactly the same things. Make selections as equal in numbers, cost and sentimental value as you can.  Love should never be short-changed.

celebrateGift giving communicates important messages to the most important people in our lives. It’s important that we take care to make meaningful selections. But we must also be careful to not let holiday gift giving take over our time and energy. Hopefully these suggestions will allow you to find that balance.

What strategies have you found for finding meaningful gifts for those in your life? Let us know in the comments!




Athena now works and lives on an old family farm homestead in northern Utah, after working in the public school system, for non-profit organizations, and in the fashion industry. She enjoys western living after having lived and moved 25 times around the Inter-mountain West. She loves writing, art, gardening and thrift shopping. She adores all her kids-the 'Grands' and four-legged variety.