Paris taught me how to keep birthdays simple

le tour eiffel (from my scrapbook)
It feels like it wasn't long ago that I spent a summer in France but time flies by when you start having kids, moving locations and making career changes. I do hope that I'm a lot wiser now than I was then. But even if I didn't exercise wise choices at every opportunity, there were some pretty important lessons learned from that time that I still carry with me today. One stand out lesson was on materialism and simplifying birthdays and gifts.

The summer of 1998, I traveled to France with a group from my university (Roll Tide!) to study French in Tours, France. Many weekends we would hop on a train and indulge ourselves in the luxury of Paris. One weekend in particular we spent at a friend's home in the suburbs of Paris on the occasion of their teenage daughter's birthday. We dined on a lovely meal in the beautifully landscaped backyard, ate dessert, and then opened presents. That was when the culture shock set in for me. She was given just a handful of presents wrapped in colored tissue paper. No ribbon or fancy bows and the gifts were even less fancy: a CD and a few makeup items like colored eyeliner pencils. I noticed that even the makeup was a drugstore brand such as Maybelline or L'Oreal - something easily purchased in any drugstore in America.

I grew up in a fairly affluent suburb in my hometown. I was accustomed to great birthday extravaganzas and, even more so, lots of extravagant presents. I never forgot that detail about my Paris friend. She was so happy with the gifts she received. I noticed true contentment at spending her special day with loved ones and thankful for the gifts she did receive.

Of the many things that I remember about my time in Europe, it's interesting to me that this particular memory stands out. There was a lesson to be learned. When we celebrate someone's birthday what we are really doing is giving thanks that they were born. That they were created for a purpose and that we are blessed they were born on that day, in that year, and are a part of our lives. Giving a gift is one way to show the person our thankfulness for their presence in our lives, but it's not the only way. So as the years have gone by, my family has done it's best to adopt this principle. Keep it small, keep it simple, and keep it memorable. Because when I look back on my birthdays, I don't really remember the gifts, I remember the people who were there.

What are your tips for maintaining balance when it comes to gift giving?