It was the most thoughtful gift I’ve ever received.

For my 30th birthday two years go, my dear cousin, Haley, sent me a creative care package in the mail featuring a gazillion little goodies. There were chocolates and assorted candies, cards from my aunt and uncle and a picture frame with cute cutouts of Mariah Carey (me) and Kim Kardashian (her)—placeholders for what would eventually become a photo of the two of us.

But the final two gifts really stole the show.

The first was a small purple mug that she made by hand in a ceramics class. She topped it off with some of her favorite teas from around the world she curated just for me. From a grapefruit-flavored green detox tea for the mornings to an herbal “Sleepytime” tea for the evenings, Haley made damn well sure my tea-obsessed self was satisfied for any occasion.

The final gift was a heart-shaped notebook she titled “30 reasons I love you” in honor of the milestone birthday. Each page featured a handwritten note that detailed specifically why she loved me. From the first note (“I love how articulate you are with your feelings and how expressive you are with your thoughts.”) to the final one (“Lastly and mostly… what I love about you is that you are you. You’re so important to me and I love you with my whole heart.”), I was taken on an emotional journey full of inside jokes that made me laugh and words of encouragement that brought me to tears. There were even moments I was crying and laughing at the same time. It was that powerful of a gift.

I was absolutely blown away by the amount of time and energy that went into that package. It had nothing to do with the quantity of gifts or the price tag associated with them. It had everything to do with the meaning and the thoughtfulness imbued into each and every delicately assembled item.

It was a true act of selflessness. It was pure love wrapped in ribbon and topped with a bow. It was the kind of magic only the heart could conjure. It was remarkable to behold.

And yet, while those gifts stand out in my mind, I can barely remember most of the other presents I’ve received for my birthday and Christmas over the years. Turns out, not all gifts are created equal. Some gifts are given with the wallet. Some gifts are given with the pen. Some gifts are given with the hand. But the best gifts of all are given with the heart.

That’s what the holidays are really supposed to be about, right? Heart.

Somehow, over the years, our consumerist culture has morphed the holiday season into a rat race replete with deep discounts and bargain bins meant to convince us that, in order to be happy, we need to buy more, consume more and give more.

But that couldn’t be further from the truth. We actually need very little in order to be happy in life.

Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and New Year’s Eve are about traditions, old and new. They’re about faith, food, friends, family, festivities, forgiveness and fresh starts. They’re about love.

Don’t get me wrong, gifts have their place and time. Presents can be a great way to express love if they’re meaningful. But the presents themselves are merely the vehicle to deliver that love and that meaning. And they’re not the only way to do so. In fact, there are four other love languages besides gift giving that may or may not be better vehicles through which to deliver your love. They include:

  1. Words of affirmation.
  2. Quality time.
  3. Physical touch.
  4. Acts of service.

[Read more about the Five Love Languages in my post, 16 Life Lessons I Wish I’d Learned Sooner.]

Allow me to be blunt here: Gifts are most finicky of the love languages because they’re the most difficult to get right. Honestly, most gifts are given lazily—and often lack the thoughtfulness and wholehearted love they’re meant to convey to their recipients. And, to top it off, almost all gifts lose meaning with the passing of time. Think about it: You grow tired of most objects in your life.

That shirt? Pshhh—so last year!

That car? Too many miles on it—time to trade it in!

That ring? Yeah, it’s great—but what about the other fingers?

No matter how much money you spend, you can never buy your way into someone’s heart. Thinking that gifts can take the place of the love they were meant to convey is a huge mistake. And a costly one.

[Train your mind to be grateful no matter what’s going on in your life with my post, How to Practice Gratitude, Even in Tough Times.]

I’ve watched moms and brothers and daughters and cousins go berserk each year trying to find the right present just so they could check someone’s name off their list. I’ve seen families go into debt to try to make each other happy. I’ve witnessed the closest of bonds get destroyed by the bickering that inevitably results from the endless shopping that was meant to bring them together in the first place.

Enough is enough.

It’s time to stop this madness. It’s time to realize that gifts for the sake of gifts is an empty and pointless notion. It’s time to focus back on togetherness.

There’s a reason people love movies like The Holiday and Love Actually—and songs like All I Want For Christmas Is You and Santa Baby. At its core, the best Christmas entertainment evokes the spirit of closeness that embodies the holiday season. Honestly, when’s the last time a gift truly gave you that feeling?

Don’t run yourself ragged trying to find the perfect gift. Find the most authentic way to express your love and you’ll never go wrong.

Presents only have meaning because of who gave it to you and what they traded in exchange for it. Take away the gifts and all you have left are people who love each other. And that’s the beautiful simplicity we need to return to. Now more than ever.

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  • Chris Rackliffe

    Author and Storyteller

    Chris Rackliffe, or @crackliffe, as he is fondly known by friends and colleagues, is an award-winning storyteller, motivator and marketer who has driven over one billion clicks and over six billion interactions as head of social media for some of the biggest magazines in the world, including Entertainment Weekly, Men’s Health, PEOPLE and more. With a B.S. in Advertising and Psychology from the University of Miami—and a Ph.D. in the School of Life—Chris tells first-person stories that cut straight to the heart. Chris has made it his sole purpose to empower and uplift others and help them find peace, perspective and power through what they’ve endured. You can read his work as published or featured in BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, TIME, Women’s Health and many more.