“When do you open your Christmas presents?”
When David Sedaris asks in an essay about international Saint Nicholas traditions, he links when families open gifts with how many gifts they give and get. Some families prioritize other traditions- meals and church services, for instance- trending towards restraint in gifting.
“It’s nothing I’d want for myself, but I suppose it’s fine for those who prefer food and family to things of real value,” he jests.
This year, we’re hearing that things of real value may be delayed or unavailable. Not only have shipping containers been backed up in ports and high tech parts unavailable, but also everyone is barometing fears about the economy. During the lockdown, we stocked up on toilet paper, upgraded our TVs, worked on our homes, and learned new skills. While we’ve been unable to go out or vacation as much, we’ve learned a lot about what each of us call things of real value. Connection, not stuff, produces more happiness.
Remember when we were kids or had little ones? The giving economy involved a lot of coupons for services because givers lacked buying power. Giving without money and stuff made us resourceful. Instead of filling our attics with cast offs, we received pies, free babysitting, cheerfully completed chores, or diaper services. Who doesn’t love that?
Yet in the holidays, we tend to slip back into consumerist psychology. How do I purchase the thing of real value that so-and-so wants? What if we paused to ask why is that what drives us? The answer is likely that we have a good heart. We want to bring happiness, a la Clark Griswold. Maybe we want to feel like American heroes. Giving the perfect gift gratifies our self-worth.
What if, though? What if we are trapped in a game called “managing expectations?” When in this game do we factor longevity into the expectation of joy? Oh, how quickly stuff wears out its welcome. Consider how many of us purge last year’s cast offs or forgotten toys before the gifting bacchanalia. In our home, we purge after as well. One might ask, is this the time of year Goodwills and Salvation Army stores see the most donations because so much of what is donated gets trashed, shifted overseas- then trashed,- or malingers in second hand shops.
There is an old way out of this new mess, a new way out of this old mess, to recontextualize a lyric from the band the Psalters. Instead of stretching our waistlines, busting the walls of our storage spaces, hoarding and purging, exhausting our psyches not to mention this precious world, consuming at a pace that mirrors addiction, seeking new things like a rush, we can give better.
What would this look like? Here’s a collection of practical suggestions.
Pack up a basket of your artisan bread/homebrews/jewelry/woodworking/essential oil blends that you perfected during lockdown. Put on a bow. Add a chocolate bar, a bottle of wine, a box of tea, some cowboy caviar, and a coupon for monthly delivery. Voila! A custom subscription box.
Return to coupons. Offer monthly babysitting or regular house-cleaning. For those who can’t get out, offer to be a personal shopper or deliver groceries. Who wouldn’t love having their car detailed or some landscaping services? Do you have a special skill like HVAC or repairing clocks? You can coupon annual system maintenance to your parents or siblings. Don’t have the skill to fix a clock, but your mom has that family heirloom she’s wanted fixed for years? Pay to have it repaired.
Artists could paint a beloved photo or give a coupon to lead a paint and pour, supplies included. Put together scrapbook pages or an album of this year’s photos via one of the many photo services online. Start a tradition of foot prints on the same canvas. Are you a gardener? Propagate cuttings and gift plants or starts. Do you excel at menus? Build a home meal kit, deliver a meal monthly, put together a healthy eating plan. Do you know what wines to drink with what? Curate a wine of the month for your family members.
For kids and grandkids of senior citizens who are downsizing, set up monthly lunch or dinner dates. Take your parent or grandparent out and spend an hour eating and chatting.
If time is a scarce resource for you, consider some excellent second-hand classy gifting or subscriptions. Your grandparent might love to read. Give Readers Digest or a book service, a Kindle with subscription. Gift from Thredup for your fashionistas. There are other fashion services on-line. Give experiences. AirBNB has gift cards. Give concert tickets, restaurant gift cards, rockwall climbing, axe throwing, wine tasting, or state park passes.
What’s delightful about this era is that the scrappy creativeness of these gifts promises they’ll be memorable. Our leisure has been exploited, our boredom and desire for adventure, joy and connection are being exploited. Perhaps the new question to ask when gifting is “what will they remember?”