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Presents: Past And Future
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When giving gifts, the thought really does count

Giving presents is a means of showing appreciation and that we care about someone. When the practice began is anyone’s guess. In olden times it was often used to curry favour, an up-front offering in the expectation of reciprocation in future. Chests of riches were placed at the feet of chieftains and monarchs by visitors from foreign parts, not only to honour the potentate, but also in the hope of being rewarded at a later time. Lords would likely have received their titles and estates as a grant from their Liege, not just in recognition of services rendered and to ensure their continuing loyalty, but on the understanding that they would be called on to repay the generosity at their ruler’s discretion and on demand. These acts were less to do with simple kindness than they were political expedience. Presents were given because protocol demanded it, and the specific reason usually dictated the value. A woman could not marry unless a dowry was paid to the prospective husband – sometimes in money, frequently in the form of livestock – and this had to be commensurate with the wealth of the bride’s family. In all of these examples and more, anyone trying to do it on the cheap was asking for trouble.

It isn’t like that anymore, of course; or maybe it is. A fair amount of thought still goes into choosing an appropriate present, but included in the selection criteria is usually the cost. This will be determined by any number of factors: the reason for the gift, be it a birthday or a reward of some kind; the standing of the recipient in respect to the giver; the availability of suitable items; and perhaps age might have a bearing. Another consideration could be the value of the present weighed against those given to a number of people at the same time, either to ensure fairness overall, or varying levels of deservedness. Unfortunately, the money factor is becoming a priority to the point where a simple display of appreciation causes more than a few problems. Past or present, it would seem that cost is the thought that really counts.

Manufacturers and suppliers know it does. They cash in during the perennial Christmas and Easter periods, intensifying their TV commercials and junk-mail advertising. An overwhelming host of choices bombard the public to spend billions on presents simply because it is that time of year again. People are quite at liberty to ignore the general hysteria, but most will go with the flow, despite knowing that it will severely affect the budget. By the time the wallet has just begun to recover from one spend-up, another excuse arrives; and to make sure the wait isn’t too long, some bright spark came up with Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Added to these are birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, christenings, weddings and any other occasion that seems to require the giving of a present. For most families, I doubt a month goes by without at least one celebration or another to hit the pocket.

Most of us find it necessary to include these in the normal household budget. Like every other expense, inflation adds to the cost. Even if the same type of present is bought, for example a pair of socks and a handkerchief for Dad on Father’s Day, guaranteed the price will be up on last year. That’s to be expected of course, and the solution is simple – spend more, hunt around the bargain stores to pick up the same items cheaper, or leave out the handkerchief and just give him the socks. The first is undoubtedly the easiest because, in this case, the present is merely a low-cost token and any increase in price is unlikely to hammer the budget; but the equation changes when the monetary value of previous gifts was relatively high. Then, despite putting a strain on the coffers, to spend less than before might be construed as penny-pinching. Add to this the fact that we prefer to give something different each time, quite often the dollar value becomes the benchmark, even before we’ve decided what to buy. Obviously, by allowing more to spend, the choices are also increased; but although some thought must still go into the selection of a suitable present, the financial parameters tend to be the main consideration.

Over time, the cost-factor graduates from an inconvenience to a definite burden which can cause quite a few headaches not only to balance the books, but also when caution leaves one feeling a regular Scrooge. What was once a pleasure suddenly becomes a major issue of conscience versus practicality. Individuals who can’t really afford the expense can feel guilty for even thinking about it. They may regret being forced to spend so much and even start weighing up the price against the importance to them of the one they are buying for. It’s the same as sitting them on one side of the scales and piling cash onto the other – are they really worth that much? Whatever the decision, once made, the same ruling is likely to be applied to all future gift purchases for whomsoever. Only those with money to burn are immune; the rest of us are up for serious soul-searching when another birthday comes around, then another. There are plenty of those, an entire year of them, all serving to keep the bank account hovering close to overdraft. Still, there’s always the credit card.

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