Ralph Waldo Emerson

Master the Art of Gift-Giving and Receiving: Timeless Wisdom from Ralph Waldo Emerson

How to be a Proper Gift Giver & Gift Receiver

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Gifts of one who loved me, —
'T was high time they came;
When he ceased to love me,
Time they stopped for shame.


In his essay "Gifts," Ralph Waldo Emerson delves into the intricacies of giving and receiving presents, emphasizing the importance of thoughtfulness, sincerity, and simplicity. He underscores that the true value of a gift lies not in its material worth but in the genuine expression of love, friendship, or gratitude it represents. For Emerson, the most meaningful gifts reflect the giver's understanding and appreciation of the recipient's character, needs, and desires, transcending the mere transactional nature of gift-giving.

Emerson also explores gift-receiving etiquette, stating that gracious acceptance is as crucial as giving. He encourages recipients to recognize the giver's intentions and appreciate the emotional significance behind the gift rather than focusing solely on its material aspects. By cultivating mindfulness and humility in giving and receiving, Emerson believes that individuals can strengthen their relationships and foster a more profound connection with one another.

It is said that the world is in a state of bankruptcy, that the world owes the world more than the world can pay, and ought to go into chancery, and be sold. I do not think this general insolvency, which involves in some sort all the population, to be the reason of the difficulty experienced at Christmas and New Year, and other times, in bestowing gifts; since it is always so pleasant to be generous, though very vexatious to pay debts. But the impediment lies in the choosing. If, at any time, it comes into my head, that a present is due from me to somebody, I am puzzled what to give, until the opportunity is gone. Flowers and fruits are always fit presents; flowers, because they are a proud assertion that a ray of beauty outvalues all the utilities of the world. These gay natures contrast with the somewhat stern countenance of ordinary nature: they are like music heard out of a work-house. Nature does not cocker us: we are children, not pets: she is not fond: everything is dealt to us without fear or favor, after severe universal laws. Yet these delicate flowers look like the frolic and interference of love and beauty. Men use to tell us that we love flattery, even though we are not deceived by it, because it shows that we are of importance enough to be courted. Something like that pleasure, the flowers give us: what am I to whom these sweet hints are addressed? Fruits are acceptable gifts, because they are the flower of commodities, and admit of fantastic values being attached to them. If a man should send to me to come a hundred miles to visit him, and should set before me a basket of fine summerfruit, I should think there was some proportion between the labor and the reward.

For common gifts, necessity makes pertinences and beauty every day, and one is glad when an imperative leaves him no option, since if the man at the door have no shoes, you have not to consider whether you could procure him a paint-box. And as it is always pleasing to see a man eat bread, or drink water, in the house or out of doors, so it is always a great satisfaction to supply these first wants. Necessity does everything well. In our condition of universal dependence, it seems heroic to let the petitioner be the judge of his necessity, and to give all that is asked, though at great inconvenience. If it be a fantastic desire, it is better to leave to others the office of punishing him. I can think of many parts I should prefer playing to that of the Furies. Next to things of necessity, the rule for a gift, which one of my friends prescribed, is, that we might convey to some person that which properly belonged to his character, and was easily associated with him in thought. But our tokens of compliment and love are for the most part barbarous. Rings and other jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts. The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me. Therefore the poet brings his poem; the shepherd, his lamb; the farmer, corn; the miner, a gem; the sailor, coral and shells; the painter, his picture; the girl, a handkerchief of her own sewing. This is right and pleasing, for it restores society in so far to its primary basis, when a man's biography is conveyed in his gift, and every man's wealth is an index of his merit. But it is a cold, lifeless business when you go to the shops to buy me something, which does not represent your life and talent, but a goldsmith's. This is fit for kings, and rich men who represent kings, and a false state of property, to make presents of gold and silver stuffs, as a kind of symbolical sin-offering, or payment of black-mail.

The law of benefits is a difficult channel, which requires careful sailing, or rude boats. It is not the office of a man to receive gifts. How dare you give them? We wish to be self-sustained. We do not quite forgive a giver. The hand that feeds us is in some danger of being bitten. We can receive anything from love, for that is a way of receiving it from ourselves; but not from any one who assumes to bestow. We sometimes hate the meat which we eat, because there seems something of degrading dependence in living by it.

"Brother, if Jove to thee a present make,
Take heed that from his hands thou nothing take."

We ask the whole. Nothing less will content us. We arraign society, if it do not give us besides earth, and fire, and water, opportunity, love, reverence, and objects of veneration.

He is a good man, who can receive a gift well. We are either glad or sorry at a gift, and both emotions are unbecoming. Some violence, I think, is done, some degradation borne, when I rejoice or grieve at a gift. I am sorry when my independence is invaded, or when a gift comes from such as do not know my spirit, and so the act is not supported; and if the gift pleases me overmuch, then I should be ashamed that the donor should read my heart, and see that I love his commodity, and not him. The gift, to be true, must be the flowing of the giver unto me, correspondent to my flowing unto him. When the waters are at level, then my goods pass to him, and his to me. All his are mine, all mine his. I say to him, How can you give me this pot of oil, or this flagon of wine, when all your oil and wine is mine, which belief of mine this gift seems to deny? Hence the fitness of beautiful, not useful things for gifts. This giving is flat usurpation, and therefore when the beneficiary is ungrateful, as all beneficiaries hate all Timons, not at all considering the value of the gift, but looking back to the greater store it was taken from, I rather sympathize with the beneficiary, than with the anger of my lord Timon. For, the expectation of gratitude is mean, and is continually punished by the total insensibility of the obliged person. It is a great happiness to get off without injury and heart-burning, from one who has had the ill luck to be served by you. It is a very onerous business, this of being served, and the debtor naturally wishes to give you a slap. A golden text for these gentlemen is that which I so admire in the Buddhist, who never thanks, and who says, "Do not flatter your benefactors."

The reason of these discords I conceive to be, that there is no commensurability between a man and any gift. You cannot give anything to a magnanimous person. After you have served him, he at once puts you in debt by his magnanimity. The service a man renders his friend is trivial and selfish, compared with the service he knows his friend stood in readiness to yield him, alike before he had begun to serve his friend, and now also. Compared with that good-will I bear my friend, the benefit it is in my power to render him seems small. Besides, our action on each other, good as well as evil, is so incidental and at random, that we can seldom hear the acknowledgments of any person who would thank us for a benefit, without some shame and humiliation. We can rarely strike a direct stroke, but must be content with an oblique one; we seldom have the satisfaction of yielding a direct benefit, which is directly received. But rectitude scatters favors on every side without knowing it, and receives with wonder the thanks of all people.

I fear to breathe any treason against the majesty of love, which is the genius and god of gifts, and to whom we must not affect to prescribe. Let him give kingdoms or flower-leaves indifferently. There are persons, from whom we always expect fairy tokens; let us not cease to expect them. This is prerogative, and not to be limited by our municipal rules. For the rest, I like to see that we cannot be bought and sold. The best of hospitality and of generosity is also not in the will, but in fate. I find that I am not much to you; you do not need me; you do not feel me; then am I thrust out of doors, though you proffer me house and lands. No services are of any value, but only likeness. When I have attempted to join myself to others by services, it proved an intellectual trick, — no more. They eat your service like apples, and leave you out. But love them, and they feel you, and delight in you all the time.

What did Emerson say about the gift giver and the gift receiver?

In his essay "Gifts," Ralph Waldo Emerson discusses the roles of both the gift giver and receiver, emphasizing the importance of thoughtfulness, sincerity, and understanding. According to Emerson, the true value of a gift lies in the expression of love, friendship, or gratitude it represents rather than its material worth.

For the gift giver, Emerson believes the most meaningful gifts reflect a deep understanding and appreciation of the recipient's character, needs, and desires. A thoughtful and sincere gift transcends the mere transactional nature of gift-giving and creates a meaningful connection between the giver and the receiver.

As for the gift receiver, Emerson stresses the importance of gracious acceptance. He encourages recipients to appreciate the emotional significance and intentions behind the gift rather than focusing solely on its material aspects. By doing so, the receiver acknowledges the giver's thoughtfulness and effort, cultivating mindfulness and humility.

In summary, Emerson's views on gift-giving and receiving revolve around the ideas of thoughtfulness, sincerity, and fostering deeper connections between individuals. He believes that both the giver and receiver have essential roles in making the exchange of gifts a meaningful and enriching experience.


What are the Rules of Gifts according to Emerson?

Ralph Waldo Emerson doesn't necessarily lay out specific "rules" for gift-giving in his essay "Gifts." Still, he does convey several important principles that can guide giving and receiving gifts. Some of these principles include:

  1. Thoughtfulness: The most valuable gifts demonstrate a deep understanding of the recipient's character, needs, and desires. The gift should be chosen with care, reflecting the giver's genuine affection and appreciation for the recipient.

  2. Sincerity: A gift should be an honest expression of love, friendship, or gratitude. It should come from the heart and not be given out of obligation or as a mere formality.

  3. Simplicity: Emerson suggests simplicity is often the key to a significant gift. Extravagant or expensive gifts may not necessarily be more meaningful than simpler ones, especially if they lack a personal connection or thoughtfulness.

  4. The gift's intrinsic value: The true worth of a gift lies not in its material value but in its emotional significance and the connection it creates between the giver and receiver.

  5. Gracious acceptance: As a gift receiver, it is important to be mindful and humble, focusing on the emotional significance and intentions behind the gift rather than its material aspects.

  6. Reciprocity: Emerson touches on the idea that gift-giving is often reciprocal but also emphasizes that it should not be a tit-for-tat exchange. The focus should remain on expressing genuine feelings and fostering a deeper connection between individuals.

In conclusion, while Emerson does not lay out specific rules for gift-giving and receiving, he emphasizes the importance of thoughtfulness, sincerity, simplicity, and graciousness in the process. The giver and receiver can create a more meaningful and enriching experience by following these principles.

Why do we find it difficult to receive gifts?

Receiving gifts can be difficult for some people due to various reasons, including the following:

  1. Feelings of unworthiness: Some individuals may feel undeserving of gifts or attention, leading to discomfort when receiving presents. This could be rooted in low self-esteem, past experiences, or cultural beliefs.

  2. Fear of obligation: Receiving a gift may create a sense of indebtedness, making the recipient feel as though they are now obligated to reciprocate the gesture. This pressure to give back can be uncomfortable and may cause some people to feel uneasy about accepting gifts.

  3. Discomfort with vulnerability: Accepting a gift requires acknowledging that someone has thought about and cared for you, which can make some individuals feel vulnerable. This vulnerability may be challenging for those who prefer to maintain emotional distance or self-reliance.

  4. Concerns about the gift's appropriateness: Some people may worry about the suitability of the gift, whether it is too expensive, too personal, or not aligned with their tastes or values. This concern can create unease when receiving a gift.

  5. Fear of appearing greedy or materialistic: Accepting a gift might cause some individuals to worry about appearing selfish or overly focused on material possessions. This fear can make it difficult to accept a present graciously.

  6. Cultural differences: In some cultures, accepting gifts may be associated with specific customs or expectations that can create anxiety or confusion. For example, certain cultures may dictate that a gift should be refused several times before finally accepting it or that an immediate reciprocal gift is required.

To overcome these difficulties, it is essential to cultivate gratitude and graciousness when receiving gifts. Remember that a gift is often an expression of love, friendship, or appreciation; accepting it graciously can strengthen relationships and foster a deeper connection with others.


What is the meaning of gift giving?

Gift-giving is a universal expression of various emotions, sentiments, and social bonds. It serves several purposes and carries different meanings depending on the context, culture, and personal intentions. Some of the key meanings and purposes of gift-giving include:

  1. Expression of love, affection, or friendship: Gift-giving is often a way to show love and care for someone, reinforcing the emotional connection between the giver and the recipient.

  2. Celebration or commemoration: Gifts are often given to mark special occasions, such as birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, or holidays, to celebrate and create lasting memories.

  3. Expression of gratitude or appreciation: Giving a gift can be a token of thanks or recognition for someone's kindness, support, or hard work.

  4. Strengthening social bonds: Gift-giving is essential in building and maintaining relationships, whether among family, friends, or colleagues. It promotes goodwill, trust, and reciprocity, fostering stronger social connections.

  5. Cultural or religious traditions: Many cultures and religions have specific gift-giving customs and rituals, reflecting the values and beliefs of the community. In these contexts, gifts can carry deeper symbolic meanings and serve to uphold cultural identity and continuity.

  6. Acts of generosity and charity: Giving gifts to those in need, such as through donations or volunteering, is an expression of compassion and empathy, contributing to the well-being of others and the greater good.

Overall, the meaning of gift-giving is multifaceted, encompassing emotional, social, cultural, and even spiritual dimensions. By giving and receiving gifts, individuals can express their feelings, strengthen relationships, and create lasting memories, making it an essential aspect of human interaction and connection.

Ralph Waldo Emerson Self Reliance

Ralph Waldo Emerson left the ministry to pursue a career in writing and public speaking. Emerson became one of America's best known and best-loved 19th-century figures.
More About Emerson

Emerson Quotes

"Every man has his own courage, and is betrayed because he seeks in himself the courage of other persons."
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” 
– Ralph Waldo Emerson