Every year Christmas finds us bewildered, wondering what to give to that certain someone, and puzzled by the vast array of choices. Often we are unsure of the appropriateness of our selection right up to the moment of presentation. We quiver while the package is being opened, or until we hear that happy exclamation: “Oh, it’s just what I wanted!”

Ralph Waldo Emerson recognized such perplexities and, in 1856, wrote a brief essay titled “Gifts” on the theme. It is a straightforward statement of the problem of choice and its reading should be a requirement of all Christmas shoppers.

Emerson begins his essay by classifying various types of gifts. We might illustrate the classification by a staircase symbol. At the first level, the plane at which we admit that we just do not know what to give, Emerson lists flowers and fruit—“flowers because they are a proud assertion that a ray of beauty outvalues all the utilities of the world.… Fruits … because they are the flower of commodities.” Proof of the former is evident to any husband: his wife is far more delighted by a cluster of carnations than by a new dusting mop, no matter how little or great may be the respective utilitarian value of each. And of the tangible objects or commodities, the decorative basket of highly-polished fruit remains an attractive gift as evidenced by the popularity of this choice among modern business people.

On the first step above flowers and fruit Emerson places the gift of necessity and states that “one is glad when an imperative leaves him no option.” To illustrate his point he draws the picture of a man in need of shoes. Shall we offer him a paintbox? The obvious answer to his purposely ludicrous suggestion is a negative one and reminds us of Christ’s ...

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