ONCE UPON A TIME when the world was young, Christmas shopping for the kids on my side of the family was a dash of reconnaissance with the sibs, then a bender through Toys “R” Us with two shopping carts and a list.

Oh how simple it was then! The little nieces and nephews were so delighted with their Nerf Blasters and Polly Pocket Pop Up Glamper Vehicles that—with the exception of the year I bought one of the nephews a Star Wars light saber and another a Viking helmet (“But what’s a Viking?” he could be heard sobbing as he was dragged out to the car by his downy toddler hair, fingers fused around his brother’s sword)—Christmas was a lovefest; a snow globe scene of happy children and gratified grown-ups in a flurry of shredded wrapping paper.

These days the story begins somewhat differently. “I have no idea what he wants,” confessed my sister on the subject of her six-foot-two little boy. “Actually, yeah I do,” she said, her tone apologetic. “He wants money.”

Money?!? ” I yelped. Well of course he does; he’s in college. Bills to pay for the first time. A little extrabudgetary cash would allow the kid a movie in a theater for a change, maybe even dinner with a lady friend at P. F. Chang’s. Money.

But as the holiday season advanced at its usual gallop, I found myself not getting the money. Every day I didn’t get it some more. Couldn’t even fix my attention to the idea long enough to arrive at an amount—a nakedly quantifiable number compared with the blessedly vague value of something wrapped.

And how to present it? Giving someone cash in an envelope feels about as gracious as handing him a carburetor. A helpful do-it-yourself website suggested I craft a clever money pocket out of red and green felt, which thereafter could double as a Christmas ornament.

Really? Much as I tried to picture the big guy lovingly packing away his crafty auntie’s clever felt money pocket for next year’s holiday decorating, the image stubbornly refused to materialize. And without the “meaningful” packaging, money felt about as impersonal as it gets; the gift that said, Here, I’m throwing money at you because, well…I don’t know you very well, do I?

“How about a gift card?” suggested my sister-in-law. Doubtless that was a clear notch up on the intimacy scale, necessitating at least the choice of a store the recipient might like. Still, picking out a store for someone seems at best a pseudo play for intimacy—has a Target gift card ever brought a tear to a beloved’s eye?—with the added potential of failing altogether: Witness the nearly $5 billion worth of gift cards that went unused last year. Indeed, the non­redemption of gift cards is so common that a bunch of companies have sprouted aimed solely at redeeming unused ones. To a lot of folks, a gift card is less valuable than a fraction of its value in, well… cash.

That word again.

As I began to query friends and colleagues, I found that a lot of people feel this way. Cash gifts have become all the rage at middle school and high school birthday parties. One young woman confessed annoyance whenever her parents give her gift cards, as it suggested to her that she couldn’t be trusted to do the right thing with cash. It reminds me of the way a certain stripe of liberal gives to street supplicants: not money—because who knew what damaging self-abuse that might enable—but food stamps or public shower coupons or other practical redeemables. That way the giver could be satisfied in the knowledge that his or her gift would be used wisely.

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But that’s just it: The giver could be satisfied. As I cast my eye back upon my own history of Christmas giving, I had to admit there was, darkly entwined with genuine generosity, a streak of self-satisfaction. The year I gave my brother a photo montage of his football glory days, along with gridiron shots of our father and his sons, I relished the mist in his eyes, the eloquence of his speechlessness, and felt my ego swell with the pleasure of having nailed it. I have decoded this person! Ego sang. I have found the key to his joy! (And who will he thank whenever the present gives him that joy? Ego whispered, now with decency enough to be a tiny bit ashamed of itself. Why…moi!)

Giving someone cash in an envelope feels about as gracious as handing him a carburetor.

There’s a kernel of selfishness in every selfless act, of course, so it’s not like this revelation came as a shock. But it altered the way I look at Christmas presents. Money may feel like an impersonal gift but, when transformed by the recipient into his deepest heart’s desire, it becomes more personal than anything I could ever hope to pick out. In taking my gratification out of the equation, gifts of money make it entirely about the recipient’s. If gifts are proxies for love, maybe gifts of money—freeing, trusting, genuinely selfless— are love.

And so I stood at the cash machine, stiff tens gliding into my palm, and tucked them into an invitation to home-cooked dinner over Christmas break at my house. Here, the gift declared. I’m throwing money at you…and I want to get to know you better.

“But mom,” my daughter cautioned, “what if he thinks you just didn’t care enough to pick out something for him?”

Then I’ll describe down to its last golden sequin the red-and-green felt money pocket-slash-Christmas ornament I cared enough not to make him.

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