NEW YORK — Each year at this time we begin to get lots of advice about giving the right gift. But giving a gift is only half the exchange: receiving is equally important, and sometimes the very hardest part.
There is an art to receiving a gift. Emily Post has dictated the etiquette: You will be gracious; you will be grateful; you will remember to say "thank you." But there is more to good receiving than rules. The art of receiving requires craft.
I admire those so skilled, that as they open a gift of note cards, say, in one breath: "Oh, I've been using scrap paper for a month."
A good receiver not only expresses liking and gratitude, but can make the giver feel more intuitive and smarter.
Being a good receiver requires genuine caring - and some acting ability. As you open a gift you must never let your expression stray from delighted surprise, or even hint, "Why is he giving this to me?" or "What am I supposed to do with this?"
The real test for a receiver is opening a "bad" gift. That's when you must turn your attention to the giver. "You are so thoughtful." (Obviously the giver had some thoughts about this item, if only you could surmise what they were.) Or, "How nice of you to think of me." (It is always nice that others think of us.) If the gift is handmade you can always appreciate "the time you must have spent." (Even "bad" gifts made by hand represent an investment of time.)
But etiquette and strategy cover only a part of receiving a gift well. What about the deeper difficulty in receiving - really allowing yourself to be given to?
The big test is whether you can accept a gift without reciprocating. This is hard for many of us. All of those "How To Live Beautifully" books advise keeping a stock of extra gifts on hand at holiday time so that you will not be emptyhanded if a friend arrives with a gift for you. But that could be equally ungracious.
What if you allowed the giver to simply give?
There's something to be said for allowing another person to be the sole giver. You honor them by receiving their gift, rather than by evening the score by handing back a pretty package of bath salts or sugared nuts that is generic and intended only to assuage the guilt inflicted by their generosity. Sometimes the nicest thing we can give someone is to let them be the thoughtful one.
Look at it from the giver's side. We all have memories of favorite gifts we've received. I remember my Cinderella watch, a red cashmere sweater, and a tiny silver airplane. Each has a story. But more striking are the memories of gifts I gave.
An early memory fuels my belief about the value of a gift well-received. When I was 4-years-old, my sister, Joy, left home for college.
One of my treasures at the time was a small white ceramic rabbit, an inexpensive figurine. Each time Joy came home from college for a holiday or vacation, I'd carefully wrap my rabbit and have my mother make a tag that said "To Joy, from Diane."
When Joy arrived home she would sit with me and unwrap the gift and say, "Oh, your rabbit, for me? How wonderful this is. Thank you so much."
In a month or two when she came home again, we'd do it all over again. Obviously the rabbit never stopped being mine - she never took it with her. I'd have been shocked if she had. I was at the very beginning of learning how to give, and my sister allowed me this. By receiving my gift graciously each time, she gave me the experience of myself as a giver.
Receiving well is a kind of generosity. This year, allow yourself to be given to, and give the gift of receiving well.
• Diane Cameron is a writer and fundraiser living in Albany, N.Y.