December 24, 2006

As the hours dwindle down to a precious few for those who haven't finished their Christmas shopping, we are reminded that there's a perfectly acceptable - even trendy! - way to spread holiday cheer without actually buying anything. It's called "regifting" (if you've never quite gotten over the linguistic travesty of using "gift" as a verb, "regifting" will only compound your dismay). It means, of course, taking a present that someone has given to you, generally one you are not particularly fond of, and giving it to someone else.

In fact, this so-called trend is not a new phenomenon at all. It's what old-timers used to call "passing along a present." It was practiced for years on the q.t., particularly when someone unexpectedly showed up at the door with a present.

That, however, was before regifting became ... institutionalized. Before a 1995 episode of Seinfeld introduced the term. Before Web sites were devoted to the "art" of regifting. Before a book was published about it.

Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with accepting a present and then, because it belongs to you, giving it to someone else - assuming, of course, that the original giver and the ultimate receiver do not travel in the same circles. But what exactly does it say about the role of gifts in this "season of giving"?

Is it too sobering a stretch to think of those first Christmas presents brought by the Magi from the East to Mary? No regifting thoughts there, to be sure - though modern wags have suggested that in today's world the myrrh might be a borderline candidate.

And what of the much later "Gift of the Magi," O. Henry's classic story of a young wife who sells her crowning glory, her long brown hair, to buy her beloved husband a platinum fob for the gold watch that has been passed down through his family - only to find that her equally devoted husband has sold his watch to buy her a set of coveted tortoise combs for her hair.

Perhaps that is the sort of behavior lamented by a prominent economist quoted recently in a Wall Street Journal article on regifting. "People choose the wrong things for gifts," he said. "From the recipient standpoint, gift-giving is a terrible way to allocate resources." Regifting, at least, makes the whole sloppy process a bit more. ... practical.


But perhaps O. Henry should have the last word after all, this being Christmas Eve:

"The magi, as you know, were wise men - wonderfully wise men - who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones ... . And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts, these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi."

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