The giving and receiving of gifts at Christmas has the potential to be a wholesome and comforting experience, where we show kindness and affection to our loved ones and feel it radiating back from them to us.
Enormous posters and full-page ads on our screens show us just how Christmas “ought” to look, if we do it right. Take the John Lewis ad, the White Company ad and even the Aldi and Lidl ads.
We should have the perfect mood lighting, a magnificently laid table with a good-looking heterosexual couple and their joyful two children exchanging large gifts with delight and joy, the glossy-skinned turkey in the background promising a sumptuous meal with all the trimmings which are never cold, soggy or burnt.
However, the reality is that, while we may strive to make our Christmas day look just like that, it rarely does.
Acknowledging the expectations and reality
We can choose to enjoy whatever parts of the season go relatively well, or we can choose to become stressed about the cooking, the gift buying and the costs of everything. We can feel unmoved by the gifts we receive, especially if they’ve obviously been re-gifted to us. We can buy just any old thing for someone out of obligation or reciprocation or because it was three for the price of two in Tesco, or we can take time out of our crazy schedule to choose gifts to give with mindfulness and thought.
We can buy just any old thing for someone out of obligation or reciprocation […] or we can take time out of our crazy schedule to choose gifts to give with mindfulness and thought
I often talk about how we can squeeze mindful living into our day as a vet or nurse, and how meditations can be mini-meditations because I know we don’t have time to spare for full-blown sitting-on-the-cushion meditations.
I know how taking one breath, inhaling and exhaling, may be the only six seconds in the day we can spare to notice the here and now, because I work in an insanely busy practice too.
I understand that, at home, multitasking is cooking food while emailing and while emptying and filling the dishwasher, and hanging up clothes simultaneously during a FaceTime call.
Yet now I’m asking you to spend time you really don’t have on Christmas shopping.
Christmas day for many people is a stressful day. A day where family members are holed up together whether they like it or not. Or it might be a day of painful loneliness, full of yearning for company or of wishing that one’s family was intact. Alternatively, we might be remembering and longing for those who have died.
For others it might be their favourite day of the year, when kids are full of sugar and excitement, the Prosecco is flowing and someone else is cooking. Most people feel their Christmas is something in between, or a mixture of all the above.
When it comes to giving gifts, we can get so much pleasure and joy from seeing the look on someone’s face when they see what we’ve given to them and they are genuinely delighted with it. We glean joy from seeing the happiness of those we love.
How to practise mindful gift giving
When starting to choose the gift, think of the person with loving kindness when deciding what you want to give to them. Think about your relationship with them and the good feelings which come with that. Consider what would bring them joy. It’s not always the most expensive or flashy item.
My mum would always reply with the same answer when we asked her what she’d like for her birthday. She’d ask for something we had made ourselves. I always thought that was her way of saying not to spend too much on her. But now I understand that it was her asking for thoughtful gifts which signified our feelings for her.
I have a very close friend who bakes cupcakes every Christmas. She spends so much time getting the cakes just right, the ingredients all at the correct temperature, the sponge light as a feather and the cakes all symmetrical. Then she ices each one with beautiful buttercream spirals, folds, designs and edible glitter – each one tailored for an individual friend.
I’m not proposing we all make collages or crochet a scarf for our nearest and dearest this Christmas. I am suggesting that we put thought and (dare I say it) time into choosing what we give
She places each one into a pretty box and then walks the roads of North London delivering them by hand. She takes the dog, but nevertheless it takes hours. The thought and care and attention which goes into that gift makes it so special. Once she’s delivered it along with warm hugs, we gather around this cupcake after dinner and split it neatly and ceremoniously into thirds and savour every crumb. I swear it tastes better because it is made with generosity of spirit. We’re already looking forward to receiving her gift this December.
This friend works five days a week for the NHS, has said dog and twins, elderly parents she cares for and a few dozen cakes to deliver. So, I doubly appreciate the effort. Would I prefer a scented candle from Harrods? Absolutely not.
I’m not proposing we all make collages or crochet a scarf for our nearest and dearest this Christmas. I am suggesting that we put thought and (dare I say it) time into choosing what we give.
Mindful receiving of gifts
So now you’re on the other side of the present exchanging. Someone has placed a gift onto your lap, expectation and hope in their eyes. They’re willing you to love this gift. When you open it, you sense that they care. Without wanting to sound too trite, that love and eagerness to bring joy is enough to make the gift special. Many people with fabulous hauls of expensive presents yearn for that abundance of love to be placed on their lap.
How do you reflect that special moment back? How do you show them that they have made you feel loved?
Eye contact, awareness of body language and facial expression are all important. Verbally telling them what it is that makes this gift bring you joy shows sincerity.
Whenever you use that shower gel, scented candle or woolly scarf, it’s comforting to remember the person who gave it to you with loving kindness and it means that the gift is not just for Christmas, but for as long as we maintain this practice.