To wish was to hope, and to hope was to expect ― Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility
Many people talk about giving the gift of experience to the point where the words have lost some momentum in recent years. The concept, however, came full circle for our family this holiday season as a lifetime of experiences surfaced. By reflecting on the flow of what we have given and received in our lives, it became clear that giving is an important exchange that we give a lot of energy to, not just during the holidays, but all year, every year, always. Because it takes a lot of time and effort to get it right, we sometimes build expectations of the recipient without even knowing it, and we end up giving and receiving without unconditional grace.
When I was 12, my parents decided they would no longer buy Christmas gifts for us. We would go on a family ski trip between Christmas and New Year’s every year instead of gifts. We would start talking about where to go, where to stay, what to cook, and projected snowfall at the Thanksgiving table. The excitement about our time together as a family slowly took over and that momentum became the framework for our holiday season. We had more to give to others because the burden was lifted, and the excitement took over. It was a palpable shift.
To continue the tradition, on our first Christmas away in 2013, my aunt and parents paid for ski lessons for the kids in the Southern Apennines in Italy. The lessons lasted for six consecutive weekends and each time, their instructor, who spoke only Italian, pushed them to new heights and rewarded their efforts with Nutella crepes. Our kids have brought the experience they had on this fabled mountain into every alpine moment since and that is the power of such a gift.
In 2016, when we lived in New Zealand with my sister and her family, our children used certificates they received from relatives to try a high ropes course. From the moment they opened the envelope they began reading about each course, converting meters to feet, looking up new words, like flying fox which translated into zip line in the USA, in anticipation of their experience. As they climbed higher and higher into the trees, the image of them disappearing into the clouds on the chairlift in the Southern Apennines flashed before me. I stood there, watching them soar, overwhelmed with love for the people who thought of them in this way. It was truly an epiphany to think, not only are experiences gifts that keep on giving, but it is not possible to ever lose them, or have them taken away or devalued.
And now, in 2021, we are in the Italian Alps for the winter. Even though we won’t all be together this holiday, it is a full-circle moment. Every day that we spend in the mountains brings a wash of memories of Christmases past. We realized sitting on the chairlift with our three teenagers yesterday, that what we remember about the experience gifts of our childhood is best explained by Walt Whitman: “We were together. I forget the rest.” The essence of togetherness is something we carry with us wherever we are in this beautiful world.
This journey and the many people that have given us unconditional gifts have taught us there is no other way. As soon as conditions are introduced a kind of currency is sparked and there is a sudden obligation to reciprocate and keep the exchange going. With experiences, there is no way to give something of the same or greater value back because the growth is priceless. No returns, or exchanges. All we are left with is an appreciation for such a legendary gift and love for the person who saw us in that experience before we could even dream of it for ourselves (thanks mom and dad). There won’t be any physical gifts under our tree this year and yet we feel the magic of this season deeply.
An experience is often something we are willing to allow ourselves to have because it was a gift. Big or small, experiences are packages full of excited anticipation and that is a magical vantage point from which to view the world.
As John Keats penned, Nothing ever becomes real ’til it is experienced.