George Duffy, 14, has always been tall and rangy — a trait mirrored by his three older uncles.
As he stands before them on a crisp Iowa Christmas morning, holding three gifts wrapped in brown paper folded under itself to hide the tape, he's thrilled to capitalize on another shared trait: love of music.
The gifts are passed to each uncle and the tearing of paper is followed by gasps. "Awesome," says one. "Great idea!" says the other, scanning the list of songs on his new CD. The hours Duffy spent compiling the mixes are met by appreciation and an added affinity.
A growing amount of research shows gifting trends are challenging the old-fashioned ideology that an unexpected, well-thought-out gift is best. While there are obvious advantages of giving someone what they really want, Miss Manners and etiquette experts are cringing at the prevalence of gift card and formal or informal gift registries, as well as the rising trend of self-gifting. As Christmas approaches, knowing how to give thoughtful gifts can enhance family relationships and bring the family closer together.
How thoughtful of me
Self-gifting will reach an all-time high this season, the National Retail Federation found. We'll spend an average of around $140 in self-gifts this year — up 9 percent from 2011.
"No one picks out better things for me than I do," said 62-year-old Marsha T. Wallac of Alexandria, Va., who just bought herself a $90 necklace at a craft show.
Mikey Ross, principal of creative consulting company Paper Rox Scissors in New York City, will be placing a puffy vest and new pair of snow boots beneath the tree this year, compliments of himself. "I paid for it," Ross said. "So why not, right?"
A similar mindset is often applied to the gift exchange process. Giftees themselves are more appreciative when receiving what they ask for, a pair of Harvard and Stanford researchers found in five different studies last year. Gift cards have been the top item on consumers' wish lists for five years in a row, the National Retail Federation found last year.
Etiquette experts, however, are concerned that something may be lost in the guarantee of an enthused recipient.
What's behind a gift?
The inclination to give is innate to mankind, said Ryan O'Donnell — CEO and co-founder of Let's Gift It, a social gifting company in New York and Ohio. Extending back to the first documented form of gifting in early Rome, folks offered objects to acknowledge a milestone occasion.
What's more, analogous with the need to give is the need to personalize a gift, O'Donnell said. "We offer something in the form of a physical good or product, but are also trained — in part by American greeting cards and Hallmark — to add our own personality to it."
O'Donnell launched a company that creates video blurbs with gifts. "By understanding that life passes us by, gifts that capture and immortalize a moment, a memory, can be priceless."
If the recipient is open and the gesture is sincere, a gift can maintain a lasting relationship, says Carolyn Hax, advice columnist for The Washington Post. If neither of the two, a gift can expose and even exacerbate relationship problems.
The etiquette of giving
The heart of a gift lies in its purpose: to show love, Hax said. "There are so many ways to do that, and if the love is there, then the way is valid."
Hax recommends being open to the full range of what someone might want. If a loved one is weary of clutter or conscious of the effect of materialism on the environment, gifts may not be necessary, Hax wrote. "As a gift-giver, do you have the nerve to give nothing to someone who has asked for exactly that? Or the creativity to find ways to give your time instead of stuff?"
The investment of time is not always necessary to buying a good gift, Hax wrote. "I, for one, would hate to think a loved one was taking time away from family just to get me a gift. I’d rather have the person’s companionship."
Essentially, people just want to be understood, says Amy Alkon, advice columnist and author of “I See Rude People.” A good gift reflects that you "get them."
On the part of the recipient, recognizing effort is a key element in the gift-giving process, Hax said. "If someone is busy working, tending to kids, keeping the house in order, etc., and only manages to get to the mall last-minute, it would be pretty thoughtless to dismiss that gift as lazy."
Beyond the sock drawer
The moment is not foreign to many: rushing down the aisles of Walmart at midnight on Christmas Eve, willing to grab whatever's at arm's reach for that last-minute gift. Anything to fill that stocking. How does one avoid such a scenario? Plan ahead, says Aileen Avery, gift specialist and author of "Gift Rap."
Make a list of things you want to get people and be on the lookout throughout the year, Avery wrote on her website. "I have a friend who has a wicked sense of humor. ... I'm constantly searching for funny things during my travels and I collect them and store them until the next gift giving opportunity."
Avery advises shoppers to brainstorm ahead of time — are they a bookworm? Foodie? Tech head? — and have a list of specific gift ideas on hand before the holiday rush.
Listen for clues people drop: a comment on dark chocolate or a wish to buy something, Avery wrote. "This seems like a no-brainer. But sometimes we take people for granted. We can know them for years and never know what their favorite color, food or TV show is."
Beyond listening for clues, Alkon suggests doing detective work: call her best friend, talk to her father, scan her Pinterest account.Comment on this story
Lisa Haisha, a psychologist in Sherman Oaks, Calif., suggests making your gifts: self-published books, screen-printing T-shirts, copies of art or photos. "There's no shortage of do-it-yourself gifts online," Haisha said.
Haisha suggests offering a trade of talents: draft letters, clean up a space, help set New Year's goals, model for a painting or run that detestable errand. "These beautiful gifts empower the recipient by helping them accomplish something important to them and giving them peace of mind."
Make a gift fun and light-hearted, said Tina B. Tessina, psychotherapist in Southern California with 20 years’ experience in counseling. A shared joke can be more important than a fancy restaurant; a sympathetic hug more comforting; a college ball game or gallery opening can be a lovely, cheap gift.
Rachel Lowry is a reporter intern for the Deseret News. She has lived in London and is an English graduate from Brigham Young University. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.rachellowry.blogspot.com.