The birthday gift

- Kate Feiffer.

Dear Nicole,

We’re invited to an acquaintance’s Significant-Age Birthday Party next week, catered dinner and drinks … and the invitation expressly told us not to bring any gifts. When I saw the party thrower at the Post Office the other day, he said, “No really, don’t bring anything, just come.” I feel awkward showing up empty-handed, but I’d also feel awkward bringing something if “bringing something” is really not part of the scene (especially since he’s in a higher socioeconomic bracket than I am, if you get my drift, so whatever I bring would probably be lame by his standards). He’s already said, “Don’t bring anything,” so asking him won’t clear this up for me. What do you suggest?

Confidentially Yours,

Dear Uncertain,

Gift giving is one of those things everyone thinks has obvious rules, but actually, it’s very context-dependent. In some cultures, gifts and offerings follow codified rules, to remind everyone of the social order; in some circumstance, gift giving is a wealth display; in others, it’s intended to cement political or familial alliances; in others, it is used to buy favors or affection. Oh, sure, you might be thinking, that’s all well and good for the Middle Ages, but we’ve evolved beyond that. Except we haven’t, really. I can think of modern-day examples of all of the above, from Santa Claus to super PACs to the Possible Dreams auction. I can also see these dynamics writ small, in the minutia of gift-giving etiquette within my family and with friends. I bet you can too if your personal life is even remotely interesting.

On the other hand, do you like hobbits? In the Shire, the birthday hobbit gives small gifts to each of his guests, even to those who don’t bring gifts to him. No need to go into a sociological exposé on why hobbits do this; the point is that gift giving is an expression of both appreciation and generosity. There might be other nuances to it (so please, Tolkien geeks, don’t jump down my throat about this), but appreciation and generosity are really the main things. The Vineyard, like the Shire, is a small, insular, tightly knit community inhabited by people who really don’t want to be anywhere else, who are chronically partial to beer and fireworks, and whose émigrés are prone to extraordinary homesickness. Given these similarities, I encourage you to use the Shire as a model for your actions. Be generous. Be appreciative. Not because either is required and not to prove or accomplish anything. Just because it fits our cultural narrative. It’s what makes us us.

Applied to your situation, that looks like this: On the one hand, believe your host. You don’t HAVE TO show up with anything. He’s a lovely person, to embody that kind of generosity. But even though you don’t have to bring something, bring something. That you are not obliged to be generous makes your generosity that much more authentic. Ironically, you have your host’s generosity to thank for that. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of good feeling and good fellowship. Lucky you! I’m sort of jealous. Maybe I’ll show up and bring something too.

Does this provoke the dread AWSWBA (“Argh! What should we bring?” anxiety) Syndrome? Don’t worry about it. Do not strive to wow. Hobbits don’t care about gift-giving wows. It is the gesture, not the object, that matters; the impulse and the essence, not the label. So bring wine, or chocolate, or a bouquet of handpicked wildflowers. Do NOT bring a bouquet of kale or bok choy, this time of year. I mean it; that isn’t funny.

That’s my take.

Bemused readers ask novelist Nicole Galland for her take on navigating the precarious social landscape that comes with living on the Vineyard. Nicole, who grew up in West Tisbury, is known locally as the co-founder of Shakespeare for the Masses at the Vineyard Playhouse and is the author of “I, Iago.” Her combined knowledge of both this Island and the world’s greatest melodramas compels her to help prevent unnecessary tragedy wherever possible. Trying to untangle a messy Island ethics or etiquette question? Send it to