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Finding the perfect holiday gift is a bit like finding happiness. It can be elusive and tricky but when you find what you’re looking for, it’s pure magic. But the struggle is real.

Weeks before celebrating my first Christmas with my future husband nearly two decades ago, I fretted about what to get him. We’d been dating less than six months but I knew I needed to find just the right gift. I worried, fretted and combed the mall. Then I succumbed to my practical instincts: I bought him a humidifier and a bathrobe.

Nothing says love like moist air on a cold winter day.

My husband, who comes from a long line of fun gift-givers who buy things like potato guns and life-size foam Taco Bell hats, opened his gifts with a laugh. It was to hide his horror.

It took years to make up for the humidifier – I even bought the page-turner “The Cat Who Saved Christmas” the following year to make up for it and show that yes, I can buy fun gifts too – but it’s hard to deny who we are. And what we give as gifts is a reflection of our pasts and our upbringing.

Yes, the holidays are about so much more than gifts but still, finding the right gift for the right person is a skill, an art but also a look in the mirror.

Sociologists and anthropologists have studied gift-giving and what they say about a particular culture. And it turns out it says quite a bit.

Marcel Mauss was a French anthropologist and sociologist who in the mid-1920s published his book, “The Gift,” which made the argument that gifts are never free. His work was based on studying several cultures and he identified several obligations: giving, which is the first step in forging and maintaining a social bond; receiving, which means refusing a gift would be to reject that social bond; and reciprocating.

According to Mauss, giving gifts requires reciprocation. And without that reciprocation, relationships can be threatened.

Based on Mauss’s writings, the “identity of the giver is invariably bound up with the object given,” according to the New World Encyclopedia’s website.

And my identity is that I come from a long line of pragmatists. We give what you need, not necessarily what you want. And that practicality is a way of saying, “I care about you.”

For my 22nd birthday, my ever-practical mother bought me a Crock-Pot, never mind the fact that I didn’t cook at all at the time and had never cooked a thing in my life with a slow cooker. I was underwhelmed. But I still have that Crock-Pot to this day – and use it.

But my gift-giving has evolved through the years. Influenced by my husband’s side of the family, I now try to buy a mix of fun and functional.

And for those loved ones who have everything, I’ve switched gears. I now try to invest in experiences or things we can do together.

One Christmas, I bought my mom tickets to “The Lion King.” For another, I bought my sister a night out at Pewabic Pottery for a make-and-take event. I’ll remember those experiences and treasure them far more than an sweater or piece of jewelry. And isn’t that what we all want? More time with loved ones.

But now matter how much you grow and evolve, you can’t shake your roots. My family will get a few practical gift this Christmas and some fun ones too. But my husband will be happy: He isn’t getting a humidifier.

mfeighan@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mfeighan

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