묏버들 갈해 것거 보내노라 님의손듸 

자시난 창 밧긔 심거 두고 보쇼셔 

밤비에 새닙곳 나거든 날인가도 너기쇼셔.

[This branch was broken from a willow

Leave it outside your bedroom window

Night rain will bring new leaves—at dawn it is me you see.]

Korean courtesan Hong Rang wrote this untitled poem around 1573 when her lover, Choe Gyeongchang, left her to travel to Hanyang – the city now known as Seoul. The gifting of a willow’s branch to a parting lover is a common motif in East Asian medieval literature; some believe that this is because ‘willow’ was a homophone for ‘to detain’ in the Korean pronunciation of Chinese characters, while others point out how willow trees were known for their resilience, and so their branches represented one’s wishes for the departing person’s well-being in their travels.

예경정의중 [礼轻情义重].’ [A gift from afar is as light as a goose’s feather but carries a true heart.] Such was the principle at the core of such modest but thoughtful gift-giving practice. It is a principle for all of us to think over, in these times of travel restrictions, social distancing, and more need than ever for true hearts.

Our gift-giving culture has changed rapidly over the past few years, especially with the development of gift cards and online gift delivery services. The birthday present I ‘gave’ to my friend back home was an e-gift card for a pint of ice cream at Baskin-Robbins. A few weeks ago, I received a thank you gift in the form of a £20 Amazon voucher, which I used to buy a Costa voucher – I cannot deny how useful I found it, as I could get at least four quick lunches with it (and nothing’s more welcome than chances for a free meal for a university student on a budget). This also meant, though, that for at least a week I did not visit any local cafés that I usually would have gone for.

Indeed, along with the question of how to balance practicality and thoughtfulness, today’s gift-giving practices also raise questions of social responsibility. A recent CNN article, titled ‘Gift cards for Starbucks, Netflix and more can save the day this holiday season,’ lauded e-gifts from big brands and retailers as being quick and flexible—‘[they] are a safe and easy way to stuff everyone’s stockings this holiday season,’ it says.

And ‘safe and easy’ are not values we can easily dismiss – neglecting them can end up rendering gift-giving problematic. Research has shown that gift-givers can overestimate the recipients’ potential appreciation of how socially responsible their presents are, if the recipients are more distant. For those in more distant relationships, difficulty in understanding each other’s perspectives may even lead to some socially responsible gifts – especially those overtly given for their social significance – being received as offensive as distant recipients tend to focus more on the gift itself and not its symbolic meaning. Though socially responsible gifts are preferable, it is important to take such dynamics into account in our gift-giving.

The emergence of new gifting methods, the complications of more distant relationships – all these have made the art of gift-giving a difficult balancing act, between thoughtfulness and practicality, and between social responsibility and reception. For this year’s holiday season, at least, I maintain that we choose thoughtfulness and social responsibility.

2020 has affected many in several ways: social distancing and isolation have minimized human contact and aggravated mental health issues, and restrictions have dealt several blows to small businesses. A BBC article stated that record numbers of people have experienced loneliness during the last lockdown; younger people aged 16 to 29, especially, were especially likely to feel cut off. Meanwhile, a survey showed that two-thirds of small businesses are expressing lack of confidence in festive sales, and one-tenth fear closure following an unsuccessful Christmas. 2020 and its trials have cut us off from some of those closest to us, both people and businesses.

Therefore, it is especially important that we take the opportunity this festive season to reconnect – perhaps what everyone most needs are their own willow branches. Night rain will bring new leaves; this December will bring a new year. And hopefully, at the dawn of that new year, we’ll see each other again.

Artwork by Sasha LaCômbe.