12/19/2014 11:04 am ET Updated Feb 18, 2015

Putting the Joy Back Into Gift-Giving

My mother wasn't careful about hiding my big Hanukkah present of 1978. A quick scan of her closet's highest shelf revealed the coveted prize: a hand-held electronic game called Merlin. The box was too high to reach, but knowing it was there was sweet satisfaction enough.

Relying entirely on a three-by-three grid of blinking red lights and what seemed like two dozen AA batteries, Merlin bears as much resemblance to a modern hand-held electronic game as a walkie-talkie does to an iPhone. But back then, it seemed futuristic and miraculous. I wanted it; I just wasn't sure I was going to get it.

For years, I returned that joy to my own children. Charlie and his twin sisters spent many birthdays and Hanukkahs tearing colorful paper from vacuum-sealed Disney dolls, Lego Bionicles, Easy Bake ovens, Star Wars blasters, Harry Potter wands, Power Ranger guns, Power Ranger vehicles that transformed into guns and Power Ranger guns that transformed into larger Power Ranger guns. Charlie just couldn't resist tiny weaponry... or maybe that was me.

After my divorce, the pressure to get my children unique, perfect presents only intensified. I wasn't competing with my ex for gift-giving dominance, but I saw these presents as potent instruments of paternal bonding, like magical coins in a Mario video game.

When the kids were old enough to know about gift cards, things changed. Gift cards are faster and easier, and isn't it better -- if not more fun -- for the kids to pick out their own presents? That was the biggest rationalization for me, and it's very persuasive. I can't say my kids exploded with excitement upon receiving their flat little pieces of plastic, but they were very thankful.

After the anti-climactic reveal of the cards, we'd immediately go to the stores -- GameStop, Justice, The Disney Store, Barnes & Noble -- eyes wide, cards in hand. We left with nice presents, big smiles, and, inevitably, random balances on each card -- what can I still buy for $1.16?

But somewhere deep in my mind, I knew an important piece of the experience puzzle was missing. Though everyone technically got what they wanted, we'd transformed a wonderfully suspenseful moment into a weirdly soulless transaction.

My wife Anne -- stepmother to three, wise counsel to one -- ultimately intervened. She saw me considering a generic gift certificate for Miranda and knew I'd hit rock bottom. I don't remember the exact subtle, understanding words she used, but it was something like: "A gift certificate? Really? Really."

Anne eschews not just the gift certificate approach, but the whole idea of asking people what they want. She thinks soliciting gift suggestions robs the experience of surprise, originality, personal connection, and fun... and she's right, as her own delightful gifts prove every year. After all, you're giving a holiday present, not taking a burrito order. And even when kids want something very specific, grandparents are more than happy to take special requests.

I'm not the primary parent to my kids, but I'm their only dad. That means traditions are important -- whether it's sneaking cheap candy into movie theaters, listening to Christmas music on the radio, or giving meaningful presents. There's a reason I don't remember the obligatory fancy pen sets and personal checks I got for my bar-mitzvah, but I can clearly remember Merlin, Operation, Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots and The Hal Needham Stuntman Set -- only the greatest surprise birthday present ever for a 9-year-old boy in 1977.

Last year, inspired by the Anne-tervention, I bought actual, three-dimensional presents for all three kids: An intricate ladybug keychain for Cindy, a tennis backpack for Miranda and a flying disc launcher for Charlie. On the first night of Hanukkah, they looked at the wrapped presents on the dining room table with great anticipation and curiosity. The suspense was as thick as a matzo ball.

After we lit the candles and said the blessings, the kids attacked those boxes with a wild, joyous ferocity that instantly brought me back to my own childhood. Recapturing that feeling -- even on the grownup side of things -- felt like a gift in itself.

A nationally-published essayist, Joel Schwartzberg is the author of the award-winning "The 40-Year-Old Version: Humoirs of a Divorced Dad" and the recently-released "Small Things Considered: Moments from Manliness to Manilow".