Gift. Simple word, isn’t it? Short and to the point. Something given without payment or reward, and top of mind this time of year.

If only it were that simple.

In America even the simplest gift, such as holding a door open for someone or handing them their coat, comes with unspoken but culturally mandated obligation. When someone walks through a door and holds it open for you to avoid it hitting you in the face, for example, it’s a gift and you are obliged to say “thank you”. The gifter in this case will be irritated by the lack of closure in the giving process if you don’t. But then, once you have given your thanks in return, you will expect to hear a “you’re welcome”. You may look the giver in the eye, waiting for the response. The gift has become an iterative process, and at each stage it brings the potential for disappointment, upset or even anger.

“Can you believe it? I mean did he hear me? That person deaf or something? I said thank you and — nothing. Not even an acknowledgement. Like I was invisible.”

And before you know it, a possibly unconscious breach of common courtesy in the gifting exchange has spiraled into a sign that society is going to hell and the Russians are probably responsible and with people like that around with their refusal to give a simple “you’re welcome” we’re probably all better off in Siberia anyway.

So gifts of all types and on all occasions come with reciprocal duties, social entanglements, that they do their best to erase at the moment of gift-giving. Here I am, says the gift, a simple embodiment of the giver’s desire to give; a pure, unadulterated expression of generosity. But the gift always fails, it can never carry forward the initial and no doubt pure impulse to give without tainting it with all the trappings of giving protocols.

Christmas is a great opportunity to see this process in action. You think of someone you’d like to give to, or you think of something that would be a perfect gift for that person. That fleeting moment at its inception is the purest moment in the gift giving process, and from that point on it’s all downhill.

Is it right for them? Will they already have one? Is it too cheap? Too expensive? What will they think. I don’t want them to feel they have to get me something. Mid you, last year not so much as a “thank you”. Maybe just a card then. Too impersonal? A blank card, and I’ll write in it. They may think I’m a cheapskate, or I forgot the gift. OK forget it — I’ll call and wish them a merry Christmas.

Partly it’s because these days almost anything counts as a gift, so the ‘giftness’ of it all is discounted. Good health is a gift, isn’t it? Thank you, we may say in Church. Of course, in this case we don’t expect a “you’re welcome” from above, but ask any protestant about the requirements that come with that particular gift. Justin Bieber’s musical skills — a gift, some say, and maybe in this case his lifestyle betrays a few of the accompanying obligations. Giant Pandas from China are usually gifts. Who knows what reciprocations are involved there.

Perhaps at this time of year the purest form of what gifts have become is the envelope containing personalized return address stickers, a gift from the Salvation Army or some other charitable organization. Some even include a coin — a quarter to juice up the deal slightly. No no — it’s a gift, and you are under no obligation to send any money, support any cause, or do anything but enjoy your gift, use it regularly, and just try to avoid thinking of the selfless gifters and the Church, charity, or politics they represent when you do. Here, then, is the gift laid bare, stripped of all any claim to the independent expression of goodwill. Those address labels enter directly into the economy of gift giving, in which the last thing that counts is the thought and everything hangs on the actions that follow the giving. The giver baits his hook with an inexpensive gift, casts it into the festive pond, and hopes for a significant number of bites.

So — is there any kind of gift that can be trusted to convey without corruption that pure impulse to give that you feel when you think of the recipient? Maybe, after all, it is the thought that counts and we shouldn’t betray that thought with a gift. Maybe this was the conclusion Robert Frost, with a seasonal glint in his eye, was grudgingly drawn toward in ‘Christmas Trees’:

“A thousand Christmas trees I didn’t know I had!
Worth three cents more to give away than sell,
As may be shown by a simple calculation.
Too bad I couldn’t lay one in a letter.
I can’t help wishing I could send you one,
In wishing you herewith a Merry Christmas.”