It still does not make sense to me to rush through Thanksgiving in order to charge to the store that evening or the next day simply to buy, buy, buy for Christmas. But that practice seems to be the norm for people these days. If I believe the hype from the news and commercials, the main motto of this time of year has become “More, More, More” and “Rush, Rush, Rush.” That is not quite the feeling of the season I remember from growing up. No matter what holiday you are celebrating—Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Pancha Ganapati, Ashura, others—the intent is to celebrate life, peace, goodwill, all that stuff. Somehow getting a good deal on some electronic toy or fancy purse seems a bit silly, doesn’t it? It does to me, anyway.
Still, during this time of celebration and renewal, it seems very appropriate to give gifts, to share with others out of love and generosity. Of course, the best gifts do not have to come from the fashionable stores or cost a lot of money. The best gifts come from the heart and build relationships, memories, traditions. I do not have a definitive list of the best gifts to give for the holidays. But I can make some suggestions:
Books are always a great gift! Of course, you need to know the likes and interests of the people you are giving the book(s) too. If someone does not enjoy cooking, do not give a cookbook, even a specialized one connected with some Food Network TV Show. A conservative would probably not appreciate a book by a liberal pundit, even if it is topical—and vice versa. But if you can match interest, book and person, great! My mom loved animals, so last year I gave her Betty White’s Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo. She was ecstatic! For kids, giving a book that might spark an interest in reading along with the content material of the book is a gift for life. Reading the book together—whether to kids or with the elderly—will really enhance the gift. One of my favorite books to give a toddler is Animalia—a delightful picture book that requires sitting together with a loving adult and sharing the experience of the book, sparking the child’s observational and creative skills.
Time. In this crazy, hectic world of long hours, multi-tasking, and technology that consumes our attention, honest-to-goodness one-on-one time with someone is a real treat. For example, my mom loved our Saturday nights together to watch a movie—but she often did not really follow the movie. She just liked the company, the normalcy of the activity that was reminiscent of watching TV together over the years. The other day, my dad said I do not have to come visit him, because he knows it is a long ride to get to him (4 hours round trip), but the time with him is well worth the effort. Right now at 92 he is still alert and engaging. He recognizes me from down the hall, smiling and waving and making a point to introduce me to the various care givers who wander by. He does not need anything, but time together is a gift for both of us. But it is not just family who appreciate time: volunteer at shelters, invite those who would otherwise be alone for the holidays over for dinner or a movie, offer to babysit for someone who needs to get out without the kids, take those without transportation to church, store or park—you get the idea.
Extend the Tradition. Find something that is repeatable year after year, as a way to extend the memories and tradition for whatever holiday you are celebrating. Christmas has always been my favorite holiday, especially decorating the tree. So a gift I always liked to give was an ornament to each niece and nephew and others throughout the years. My parents always displayed a Christmas Village Scene each year, and it also became tradition to add to the village every year—new buildings, extra skaters or snow men, but also more unique items like an outdoor manager for next to the church or a little old lady sitting on a bench feeding the birds. I also like little plates and bowls for serving goodies, so every year Mom and others would get a Christmas plate of some kind. Last Christmas, Mom wanted to have some of those plates in her room at the retirement center, so she could give them to visitors as a way to extend her Christmas cheer and generosity even if she could not get out to shop. At her Memorial Service last month, it was a real treat to hear several members of her church family comment on those plates she gave them that now they treasure as well. So my suggestion would be to find something—candles, plates, ornaments, angels, snowmen, cookie cutters, something—and make it an ongoing part of the annual celebration You will reap memories to share for years to come.
Goodies. The holiday season is often a time of over indulgence and extravagance, especially in the areas of food and drink. But I am still going to suggest that you cannot really go wrong with candy and cookies and wine and such. Chocolate, of course, always works! Handmade is always nice, but not necessary. Some variations to consider: a gift card to a place that specializes in favorite goodies—Italian Swiss Colony, See’s Candy, Harry & Davids—so that extra goodies can be ordered later when the wealth of goodies has waned. Or give favorite recipes and ingredients along with a promise to come back at a later time to help make the special recipe together. Maybe create a little booklet filled with favorite family recipes, not just holiday goodies, and add the special pan or unique cookie cutter as needed. Or promise to come over sometime when everyone is tired and worn out from all the celebrating to make a meal or to take the kids out or to order pizza when the tree is being taken down. Of course, if those to whom you give truly have much more than enough, you could share literal goodies with shut-ins or church groups or shelters and tell family and friends it was given in their name.
Gift Cards. Giving gift cards has become more and more of the norm lately, as people find it harder and harder to personalize purchases for those on their list. At the same time, complaints surface that someone has received a card for a place they would never eat or shop. If you give gift cards, give them sparingly and match them to the recipient as carefully as you would any other gift. One of my nephews, for example, is in Germany for a research grant and will be gone until February. He’ll be getting a gift card to Amazon.com—shhh! No one tell him! But he loves books that he can read on his kindle—and I do not have to worry about shipping to Europe. My mom is gone this year, so I am not buying her the usual traditional items from Santa; instead, I will make a donation to The Humane Society in her honor, given her everlasting love of animals. In fact, instead of a generic gift card, a donation to a worthy cause such as cancer research or nature preservation might be appropriate for anyone on your list. Or consider giving memberships to zoos, museums, or botanical gardens in the area, allowing the recipients to visit these places as often as they want throughout the year—now that is a gift that keeps giving!
A Little Something Extra. My mom always made a point to have a generic gift or two under the tree. It might have been a book, a candle, a puzzle, even a can of nuts or candy—something. As a kid, I never saw the sense of this practice. But then year after year, someone would arrive unexpectedly—and there would be a gift for them! No one was ever left out. No one sat without a gift when the group around them were exchanging many packages. Looking back, I see my mom’s gesture as a true representation of the spirit of giving. And I make a point of having a gift ready to share, no matter who shows up at the door.
One Last Point: It is never wise to give a gift if you are expecting something in return. Give for the joy of giving! However, if you receive a gift, especially if it arrives in the mail rather than face-to-face, say thank you. Let the giver know the package arrived and that the thought is appreciated even if you want to return or re-gift the actual present. Gift-giving is the holiday activity that connects people, shows appreciation and generosity—what the present is, is really not that important. That you were thought of, that someone reached out to you—those are the gifts. So say, “thank you” or at the very least, “got it.” If you don’t, do not be surprised if the gifts stop coming. Generosity is a two-way street, graciously giving and receiving.
Finally, if you are still rushing around trying to get ready for the holidays and frantically buying last-minute gifts, slow down! Don’t forget to enjoy the holidays. It would not really be a catastrophe if no gifts were given.
So, have you finished your shopping yet? What is your advice about buying the best gifts for the people on your list? How do you focus on the giving, the connections, the people rather than the present itself at this time of year?