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Sentimental journey: Why gifts from the heart become memories
Rhett Krawitt got a visit from Santa while he was in the hospital battling leukemia at age 2. The boy, from Corte Madera, California, won that battle and is now a healthy 7-year-old. - photo by Lois M. Collins
Eileen Gunn's first apartment more than 20 years ago was a tiny studio in Brooklyn, New York. She was trying to fix it up, to hang rods and curtains and assemble furniture. But when people asked what she wanted for Christmas and she responded a cordless drill, they laughed aloud or ignored her. Whats a tiny female in a studio going to do with power tools? she asks rhetorically now.

In a frenzied holiday shopping season where billions of dollars are spent on gifts, sales start early, some stores never close and it's easy to forget someone or something, finding the perfect gift can be a challenge. And which gifts will still have meaning as years race by?

What to give and why is quite a question one that has been asked a lot by researchers and others.

Guy Gilchrist, who has inked the iconic Nancy comic strip for more than 20 years, believes that for staying power, the best gifts may be the ones that are nostalgic or sentimental and thus memorable.

"Things that are familiar make us feel good," says Gilchrist, who lives in Nashville. "Sometimes the world is a scary place and holidays are never perfect. There are very, very few Norman Rockwell families around. But the feeling in the heart you want to hold onto is what's familiar or meaningful."

What people crave even need, he says is "joy and light and laughter. Those are gifts with meaning."

Gunn would add being understood. On Christmas morning, the young man Gunn was dating showed up with a power drill, to the horror of her family. She remembers her grandmother, indignant that he hadnt gotten something personal, like perfume. Gunn's reaction was different: Given that hes the only person who listened to me, understood my needs and gave me what I really wanted, I did the only thing I could, the New Yorker says. I married him.

Me, you or stick to the list?

Does a gift thats a piece of the giver, that reminds the recipient of their connection and friendship, provide extra warmth? That's what Lara Aknin of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia and Lauren Human set out to learn recently. They told some study subjects to focus on the recipient when choosing gifts and told others to find something that reflected themselves, says Human, now an assistant professor at McGill University in Montreal.

Their research shows people feel a closer bond when the gift reflects the giver.

"One reason might be that gift giving can be an act of self-disclosure," Human says. "Telling something about you to someone else verbally seems to facilitate closeness. Giving something that reflects who you are may, as well."

That doesn't toss out the notion that one wants to give something the individual would like to receive, she adds. People want what they like. But it's a reminder that good gifts are "somewhat grounded in the relationship," bringing two people closer.

A Yale-led study found "practicality trumps desirability in gift giving." But there may be something to be said for a sure bet. In 2011, researchers from Stanford published studies in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that found "gift recipients are more appreciative of gifts they explicitly request than those they do not." Furthermore, while "gift givers assume that both solicited and unsolicited gifts will be equally appreciated," researchers found that wasn't true.

The exception was money, which everyone liked.

Finding meaning

Among the best gifts are those that help someone see themselves and others more clearly.

Leslie King of Sunrise, Florida, remembers a birthday gift when she was in eighth grade, close to 30 years ago. Her mother told her it was too soon after Christmas for a family with seven kids to do much in the way of presents. Then the woman threw a "truly epic" surprise party. She topped it off by bestowing a yellow quilted jacket from Saks Fifth Avenue that I had been eyeballing forever, King says a memory she notes still tingles and lights her up.

I mean, wow, I didnt think she was even listening to me when I said I loved the jacket.... Best surprise ever. To me, it was everything and acknowledgement that my mother heard and saw me, her seventh child," King says. "I know she sacrificed to buy that jacket. While I am sure we disagreed during my teen years, I only had to put on my yellow jacket and all was forgotten and forgiven. Cant be mad at a mom who loved me like that.

Dr. Lionel Alford has for two decades worn the Orthodox antique cross his wife bought him for Christmas. It is more than beautiful, says Alford, 57, of Wichita, Kansas. "It's a reminder to me of our own relationship, the blessings of family and the meaning of the Christmas season."

It took Mike McDermott a few minutes to "get" why his fiance's mom gave him the 25th Anniversary edition of "E.T.: Extraterrestrial." Then the Downers Grove, Illinois, man realized he was getting her blessing to marry. His fiance's initials were E.T.

Emily Buehler, 41, of Hillsborough, North Carolina, says a gift needn't be intricate or handmade to matter tremendously. "What's important is that the giver pays attention and gives something meaningful and that the gift is about the recipient and not about the giver." She was touched when the man she is dating noticed she likes hoodies and bought her one for Christmas from the venue of their first date.

Ask Karen Kenworthy about great gifts and she hearkens back 27 years. Back then, she and her husband argued. One Christmas, when their daughter Alicia was 3, they found a toy bunny bearing the childs name on the porch. They had had a terrible argument" a few days before, and Alicia had stood on the front stoop crying as her dad left the house and Karen yelled from the yard. I think an old man, a widower, had left the bunny for Alicia because he had been in his yard and had witnessed our argument, Karen Kenworthy says.

They no longer argue like that, but she still treasures the thoughtfulness and considers the bunny among the best of gifts.

Human connections

When Lori Stanton-Dinger was expecting her first child, her father-in-law pulled her aside on Christmas Eve. He was, she says, a "stoic and sometimes hardened man" whose wife had died three years before. He told her it was family tradition that children could open a gift on Christmas Eve and he'd brought one for the baby. "What a sweet gesture," she thought, opening the shirt box to find a baby quilt the mother-in-law had lovingly made before she died, for the grandchild not yet conceived. "That quilt and the story will be a family treasure to cherish for generations," Stanton-Dinger, 47, of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, says.

Sometimes the best gift cannot be handed to someone. Ken Benner of Tucson, Arizona, will never forget driving one of a two-bus charter through northeast Iowa in the 1960s just a few days before Christmas when they ran into a "horrific" snowstorm. Roads were blocked, businesses closed and motorists, including 80 passengers on the buses, were stranded for nearly two days in a small town. A local cop called members of a church, who took care of the travelers, each refusing any payment a kindness recalled half a century later.

When death is a real possibility, Christmas joy is a tough sell. Carl Krawitt of Corte Madera, California, got the gift hell never forget on Christmas Day 2010 when his family was stuck at a childrens hospital where his son, Rhett, then 2, was battling leukemia. Rhett was so sick that Carl and his wife Jodi had told their 4-year-old daughter, Annesley, he might not survive.

It was a bleak Christmas. Until dinnertime.

For decades, University of California San Francisco Benioff Childrens Hospital has prepared a traditional Christmas Day meal for those who couldnt go home, the meal served by volunteers, including a family that had once been there, like the Krawitts, with a sick child.

One of the servers was Greg Cuhna, scooping food and laughing with his family. Hed battled death in that same children's hospital and won. His gift was hope at a time when Carl and Jodi Krawitt were fearful.

This year, the Krawitts will serve the meal with other helpers. And Rhett, now 7 and indeed healthy, will be the gift of hope that other families need.

Teaching moment

Jimmy Hernandez, 49, didn't understand adult problems as a boy, but he was starting to understand money problems. He's pretty sure his dad was laid off the year that Christmas was barebones: soft plastic trucks, cars and planes. That has since become his most sentimental Christmas gift, says the Denver, Colorado, man.

"I remember thinking not to make a fuss and to be happy, so as to not let on that I knew we have money troubles." Though he pretended to love the toys, he suspects his parents noticed he never looked at them again.

Now he considers it a Christmas that changed him, "sad, but heartfelt." He has tried to pare down Christmas ever since, he says.

The best gift Diana Davis-West of Rome, Georgia, ever received was a slightly chipped beige cup with a strawberry on it that was probably once part of an unremarkable set. She was teaching fourth grade in Enid, Oklahoma, in 1990. In a class where many kids had behavior challenges, Michael stood out. Blond, blue-eyed and always in need of a bath, he was also angry, often hungry and couldnt read. His mom had died recently, and he seemed a bit lost, she says. His family moved a lot.

He didnt like what he called baby reading books, so she switched to books she used with illiterate adults. Working together after school, he slowly began to read and to confide some details of his life details bad enough that counselors and social workers were involved.

Just days before Christmas, a school counselor happened to be working late when Michael walked through the dark and rain to drop off a gift. His family was moving again. He asked the counselor to be sure that Ms. West got his mother's favorite cup.

"I never saw Michael again," Davis-West says. "But if I ever doubt that being a teacher was what I was called to do, I look at the cup that sits on my desk the one filled with pens, pencils and Michael's love."