Holiday Giving

by Phyllis Ring

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One family I know was sitting around their Thanksgiving table last year when the subject of Christmas and holiday giving inevitably came up. Only this time, the discussion led to a little revolution.

"It all feels like it belongs to the mall and the advertisers more than anything else," said one. All agreed that, in their efforts to be good stewards, they felt frustration at how such a holy season had become about consumption of goods rather than celebration of spirit.

As Christmas approached each year, most of them found themselves in a slow-moving sea of frenzied humanity, cramming what had come to feel like an obligatory burden into already over-scheduled days.

As their discussion lasted long beyond the coffee and pie, they decided to try an experiment. Why not find a different approach and actually enjoy this beautiful season completely, and for all the right reasons?

What they devised together turned into one of the very best experiences they've shared. First, they took the holiday meal planning off anyone's shoulders by making it a cooperative affair that three family members volunteered to oversee and organize. They'd already been leaning in this direction over the years, trying to find creative ways to keep any of them from getting marooned in the kitchen.

Their new gift-giving strategy was their biggest brainstorm. They agreed that whatever presents each chose to give, the gift had to involve recycling something that had already been owned or used. The focus wasn't about off-loading junk or unwanted items, but rather to find a way to personalize Christmas more than it had been for a long time by really giving time and thought to finding something right for the recipient. The goal was to also invest an item with more meaning as it found a new life of usefulness for someone else.

Some resorted to visiting second-hand stores; some looked among their own belongings. Quite a number of items that had received admiring remarks over the years went home with the admirer that Christmas day. One segment of the family had a little "trading day" beforehand with others they knew, in order to create a cache of prospective items from which to choose. Some traded or bartered goods or services with others in order to obtain the right gift, and some made the gifts themselves, of course.

One resourceful member created a wallet-sized, fabric-swatch booklet for a color-blind sibling, with colors clearly labeled so that if he ever chooses a purple shirt again when he thinks it's blue, he'll at least know how others see that shade.

A grandchild who annually gobbled most of a certain cookie produced by his aunt received a tin canister of these, the tin shaped like his favorite Sesame-Street character and unearthed at a church rummage sale.

One much-appreciated gift was the photograph albums that several members made their pet project, assembled and captioned from photos they'd had on hand, or from forgotten photos in drawers, closets or boxes.

One environmentally friendly rule was that no commercial gift-wrap was allowed. Most wrapped their gifts in newspaper, while some created their own hand-decorated paper, or wrapped their present in a collage of magazine images inspired by the recipient. Other givers borrowed a concept from a tradition associated with Saint Nicholas Day, celebrated December 6 in Europe. The goal is to make the packaging or wrapping itself as creative or fun as possible. Since one recipient loved to play pool, the giver designed her package to look like a miniature pool table. Another family member had to wade through a dish of dark Jell-O to find his gift.

Beyond the money they saved, the credit-card balances they didn't run up, and the traffic and stress they avoided, these folks found many different benefits in this family-friendly Christmas. Most said that they had actually looked forward to the day together, and experienced a fun kind of anticipation that made them feel like kids again.

The best part, they say, is that the process of giving gifts in this way often became a source of wonderfully humorous or moving stories, which made their holiday together even more intimate and enjoyable. Those stories were almost gifts in themselves, ones they're likely to share with each other over and over as holidays roll around each year.

When gift giving is about people (God's most important creation), it captures the deepest spirit of the season. If it feels too late to design the kind of holiday your family wants to share, on its very own terms, then be sure that the topic is on your holiday table to begin planning for next year.

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