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The fine art of re-gifting

Does the concept have more relevance now as our homes get downsized and tastes, outsized?

Elaine in the ‘Seinfeld’ episode ‘The Label Maker’.
Elaine in the ‘Seinfeld’ episode ‘The Label Maker’.

I was around 20 when this boy gifted me Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray. It appeared to be a well-thumbed, personal copy. How special, I thought. And the choice of book? It reflected well on him and what he thought of me. It was, by all accounts, a very good gift until I opened it and read these words in green ink: This book contains a piece of my heart. Always keep it safe with you. Still good? Except that it was signed by another girl.

The thought of this book about the selling of one’s soul, now carrying a piece of another girl’s heart, resting on my bookshelf, made me, understandably, uneasy. But I kept it. The boy was a “re-gifter", a term I learnt from Seinfeld many years later.

Seinfeld has always been quick on the uptake with new cultural phenomena. While the concept of re-gifting—not to be confused with the passing on of a precious family heirloom—has been around forever, it has even more relevance now as our homes get downsized and tastes, outsized. While earlier a newly-wed couple might have settled for a clock with chirping birds in their living room just because it was gifted by a dear aunt, they will simply not nail it to their walls any more. So, what happens to the clock?

In the US, 18 December is National Regifting Day. Canada has the whole week following Christmas earmarked for re-gifting, although this was decided by eBay. According to a 2014 survey, the American Express Spending And Saving Tracker, more than three in four Americans find it socially acceptable to re-gift, with kitchenware being the most popular item, followed by sweaters, electronics, gloves and toys. While I couldn’t find a comparable survey for India, I thought about what I would be okay re-gifting if it came to it: clothes, jewellery, stationery, “show-pieces" (thankfully, these are on their way out of our lives). And food items I know I will never eat—a friend has repeatedly given me sun-dried curd chillies from her trips back home to Chennai, which I have no taste for, but I know others who do.

Contemporary etiquette guidebooks say things like, “Don’t re-gift among the same social circle", “A re-gift has to come with the right must fit the receiver’s style and be something you would likely have purchased on your own as a gift" and “Handmade gifts are not something you re-gift"—all of which seem like common sense. According to a 2017 guide to Christmas etiquette by Debrett’s—the custodian of British manners going back to the mid-1900s—posting pictures of presents on social media is poor form, as you could risk outing a re-gifter. This is a post-millennial conundrum I wish Seinfeld could have addressed.

Since we are not British, I asked my grandmother about her thoughts on re-gifting. She draws the line at gold and silver. “What is the need to re-gift anything else? Just keep it in the storeroom if you don’t like it." What about our modern lives in which there are no rooms for secrets, let alone storerooms? She acknowledges this as a problem and says, “Just find friends with good taste."

Anindita Ghose tweets from @aninditaghose

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