Opening gifts


gift - unwrappedA favourite activity at the various little-girl birthday parties that I hosted when my daughters were young was a game we called “pass the present.” The game required a fair bit of preparation on my part – in fact it often took longer to prepare than it did to play.

The preparation involved selecting a prize – usually something simple, but appealing to the particular age group attending the party. I would then wrap the prize as though preparing to give it as a gift. And then I would wrap it again. And again. And again. The more layers of wrapping, the longer and more exciting the game. I always made sure there were at least as many layers as expected party guests.

When the time came to play, all the participants would sit in a tight circle and pass the gift around while I played music. It worked like a reverse game of “hot potato”—when the music stopped, rather than being out of the game if you were holding the gift, you were instead rewarded with the opportunity to remove one layer of wrapping. As the controller of the music, I always cheated just a little—strategically pausing the music so as to ensure that everyone got at least one turn to peel off a layer.

The game always involved a lot of excited shrieking, as well as much melodramatic slow-motion passing executed in the hope of enhancing one’s odds of being the one to remove the final layer and reveal the treasure within.

Of course the final “unwrapper” would get to keep the prize. But for the most part, it seemed that the fun of the game was in the suspense and anticipation – the sense of possibility – that accompanied each round as the players waited in expectant agitation for the music to stop.


gift - handsA woman I know insists on opening gifts in private. If you give her a gift, she will thank you graciously, but she will politely refuse to unwrap it until she is alone. She explained to me once that she worries that her reaction to a gift might hurt the giver – that, try as she might to always appear grateful, any inadvertent disappointment she might feel regarding  the contents of the gift will be instantly betrayed on her face.

My friend’s anxiety highlights a certain intimacy surrounding the giving and receiving of gifts. Peeling the wrapping off a gift is a disrobing of sorts. In the moment where we first uncover the truth about what lies beneath the decorative exterior, both the giver and the receiver may find themselves revealed—perhaps uncomfortably so.

How will my reaction to this gift impact the giver?”

What does the gift that is chosen for me reveal about the way I am perceived by the giver?

What does the gift I choose to give reveal about me?

A mindfully chosen gift uncovers both the giver and the receiver a little, even if only to reveal a deeper layer of wrapping.


gift - wrappedAnother woman I know likes to tell a funny story at her own expense. She was working her way through opening a small mountain of gifts at a bridal shower held in her honor. With each reveal, she made a point of voicing an effusive “Thank you,” punctuated by the declaration that the object in question was “just what she wanted.”

She got on a roll, caught up in the chaos of the conversation around her and the rhythm of the gifts passing through her hands, until suddenly she heard herself once again enthusiastically declaring, “It’s just what I wanted!”

Except this time she had not yet unwrapped the gift.

She was mortified, certain that her guests would now read all of her expressions of gratitude as insincere because of this slip.

I think there’s another way to look at it. What if her premature outpouring of thanks is evidence that her gratitude was as much for the simple fact of having received a gift as it was for the nature of the gift itself?

Sometimes we don’t get the gift we were hoping for.

gift - openSometimes we get something better.


5 thoughts on “Opening gifts

  1. 🙂 The game you describe is a standard children’s party game in England which we call ‘pass the parcel’. When I was a child the layers didn’t contain presents – only the party guest who got the parcel for the final unwrapping was rewarded with a gift. By the time I had my own children expectations had changed and small gifts were being included in every layer. It’s a game that was quite useful to parents at a certain stage in a party as you could get all the children sitting down in the same place 🙂 As ever, I like your fresh angle on things. Thank you!

  2. Gift giving has always been a mystery to me. Unless you have been given a wish list from which to choose, or you have heard the person actually voice their desire for said item, how can you possibly know what to give? The other problem is knowing if the receiver already has one of these. Receiving a gift is also a slippery slope. The best thing to do is to realize the giver wanted you to have this for some reason, and you should just be grateful that the giver cares enough about you to buy you a gift in the first place. Nice post.

  3. Presents, Prose and Politesse

    I’m also British and I loved hearing you mention our ‘Pass The Parcel’. It was always the highlight of the party for me! I enjoyed reading your post.

  4. David

    Beautifully written and thoughtful post. I like how your post itself is comprised of layers in the same way as the gifts you describe, as is any understanding of gifts, of giving, of receiving. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard the giving/receiving of gifts described as intimate and yet that’s exactly what it is, and I like how you capture that here.

    Really, I learned something — that my difficulty with giving (and receiving) gifts isn’t just about the “stuff,” as I always imagined (I’m not very consumer-friendly), but it’s much deeper, more nuanced, and wrapped in many more layers that I thought, and so no wonder I freeze at the approach of the Big Day. Thank you.

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