I used to be a terrible last-minute procrastinator about buying Christmas gifts. I would find myself on Christmas Eve searching store shelves trying to figure out what material things to buy for this or that person. I had a particularly hard time buying for the older people in my life.
A few years ago, an acquaintance taught me how to give the perfect last-minute gift — a meaningful, lasting gift — to friends and loved ones of any age.
She said I should give an act of personal service, and make it as simple as possible. Here is what she taught me. Determine the most important thing you can afford and competently do for someone, earnestly assessing what service the person needs most. Either by hand or using your computer, make a coupon or IOU stating the service you will perform and when. Mail the coupon or IOU as you would a regular card or place it under the Christmas tree.
I began this new way of gift-giving when realizing that an older friend's property had become overgrown while I'd been away. Although she paid a company to mow her lawn, pruning and trimming weren't included in her contract.
Knowing how much she loves a beautiful yard, I worked on her shrubbery and trees and thinned several beds of flowers. This was her Christmas present. And she loved it.
This was not one of those popular random acts of kindness. It was a planned act of service for someone I know and care a lot for.
One of my friends has the perfect gift of service for a relative who's too infirm to do difficult, vital chores around his house. She's mailing him a card with a promise to spend an entire day during the holiday season doing whatever he wants done around his house. This is a wonderful gift because it means the relative won't have to pay strangers for this needed work, and he'll be assured the work will be done well.
Another friend has a gift that nearly makes me cry to think of it. Each Christmas morning, she drives from St. Petersburg to the Clearwater condo of a high school classmate who lost most of her sight in a car accident more than 20 years ago. They sing carols and sip eggnog while preparing a turkey dinner with all the fixings. They invite several other residents in the condo to enjoy the food. After dinner, she reads Christmas poems for the guests.
Her gift epitomizes the essence of what French dramatist Pierre Corneille wrote many years ago: "The manner of giving is worth more than the gift."
Imagine what Christmas would be if more of us practiced, or perhaps even contemplated, Corneille's wisdom. Imagine teaching it to our children.
Make no mistake that the yuletide season is the season of materialism and commercialism, a trend made possible by our manner of giving. Not to be self-righteous and not to be the Grinch or the misanthrope, I contend that American gift-giving long has become an exchange of mere things whose intrinsic values, in too many instances, are ephemeral both physically and spiritually.
I'm reminded of Ralph Waldo Emerson's insight on gifts. "The gift, to be true," he wrote, "must be the flowing of the giver unto me, correspondent to my flowing unto him."
How do most of us decide what to give? Do we give, say, to impress, to ingratiate, to apologize, to shame? Do we give simply to make others happy?
What motivates us to give what we give?
There's one thing I know for sure: The gift of personal service — because it requires real sacrifice — is the perfect gift, even for chronic procrastinators. Its significance will last long after Christmas has passed.