Casaubon's Book

During a three month period, between September 9 and December 16th, we have Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Simchas Torah, Asher’s birthday, Simon’s birthday, Thanksgiving, Isaiah’s birthday and eight nights of Chanukah. It was manifestly poor planning on my part to produce three kids between Rosh Hashana and Chanukah, but it also means I don’t have the luxury of slacking off on holiday prep – not if I want to do them sustainably.

Now on the one hand, I think most of us realize that the traditional Western holidays and birthdays are kind of ridiculous. Less is good for our kids, good for adults, good for our personal economies. Most of us need to shift from a consumptive relationship to celebration to focusing on other pleasures – connection and experiences, rather than things. We are drowning in things. And now that many of us can’t afford them, we panic – because our holidays are so deeply associated with material goods.

On the other hand, I also think gifts can be important – they play an important role in our culture, and in difficult times, they may provide the only luxury items in our lives. The idea of scrimping and saving to be able to afford one thing that our partner or grandkid or friend wants and needs, to offer a little beauty when really there has only been enough for necessities – these are good things, they have value. Our present model of excessive, debt-based gift giving has been perverse and excessive is bad, but it doesn’t erase the value of all gifts. Instead, what we need are Depression gifts, the ability to give what is needed without spending a lot of money.

And on a purely practical level, it is important to think about gift-giving well ahead (ideally well before now, but all is not lost, if you are just getting to it) if you are going to give handmade, recycled, yard saled or homegrown (I could have just said “cheap” here ) gifts. I discovered this during the year we went without buying anything new – let’s just say that the term “IOU” appeared more than a couple of times at our family gift exchange.

So I encourage people to think now about gifts, and about their role in your family. Do you exchange gifts? What kind? Is this something you are happy with, or unhappy about? Is there a way to shift your family’s gift giving to a kind that feels enriching and positive? How? What, exactly, can you give? If budgets are tight, how can you overcome economic constraints?

On a practical level, my kids usually get one gift each for their birthdays from us, and one group gift (much wanted toy, experience) along with a couple of books I want them to have each for Chanukah and maybe a blanket or new pair of pajamas. I buy the books over the course of the year, along with books for my nieces and for our friend’s kids, birthday party gifts, etc… Being a book person, that’s my favorite gift, and I spend a lot of time hunting for appropriate choices. Perfect condition children’s books are pretty easy to find used, or new but at wildly discounted prices. Plenty of wonderful adult books appear that way. Books are so undervalued in our society – even if the books are clearly used, the value of good reading material is in no way undercut. If money is tight – or even if it isn’t – used books make terrific presents.

It helps if you begin thinking long in advance – and occasionally really long. No one tell Simon and Isaiah, but for several years, I have been picking up inexpensive superhero comic books at local library sales. Some of them probably have collector value, but that’s not why I want them – I want my kids to enjoy them. Right now, they are about ready to have them – when I started they were young not to wreck them and a bit too young for this sort of comics. But this year or next, they will receive them as a Chanukah gift. I don’t think they’ll be less appreciated because Mom paid 10 cents apiece for them.

I don’t run across many trash-picking opportunities out where I live, but my family that lives in suburbia often finds wonderful trash pick gifts. My kids have long loved a wooden, rideable airplane, an absolutely beautiful toy that my sister trash picked for my oldest son when he was two. My nieces play in a trash picked toy kitchen my step-mom rescued and restored – it is beautiful, huge and fancy, and my son rides a bike his aunt and uncle saved from the dump and painted purple. Check your dump, freecycle, garbage bins, etc… If you have prejudices against trash picked articles, get over them – the kitchen pretend cooks just as well as a new one, the airplane rides beautifully and the bike is the best one ever, according to Simon, particularly since my son’s uncle spray painted it really bright purple.

Ebay, Craigslist, Freecycle, barter networks, Goodwill, the Salvation Army, Thrift Shops – these are good places to get used and high quality toys, clothes and linens – sometimes still in the packages. I also have seen good tools there, at reasonable prices. My Goodwill routinely has brand new clothing of extremely high quality for very little money. My own professional wardrobe comes from there, and I have bought gifts for kids and adults through them.

Homemade gifts are terrific – jams, jellies, baked goods, homemade treats of all kinds including liqueurs, candies, and dairy products are wonderful gifts. Then there are hand knitted and crocheted, handsewn and homebuilt projects of all sorts. Remember, they don’t have to be made from new or expensive materials. Consider unravelling woolen thrift shop sweaters for yarn, or making mittens out of felted wool sweaters (cut out a mitten shape, sew the ends together and flip it inside out). Build with scrap wood, repair broken goods, make quilts from old fabric.

Or give the gift of service – help your Mom clean out her attic. Give your son a month of daily baseball practice with you. Give your children a “get out of chores free” card. Babysit for the new Mom, make dinner for the busy family, do some chore for your wife or husband, or fulfill a favorite fantasy.

Charitable gifts are especially important now that safety nets are being overwhelmed by increased need. My children give an animal to the Heifer Fund several times each year, and one year, everyone in my family got something poultry related plus a donation to Heifer. We also give to relief groups, food pantries and Doctors without Borders as holiday and birthday gifts.

There are tons of options out there – no matter how poor we are, there’s almost always something to give. I know there are people out there who really can’t have anything under the tree or on a birthday, but most of us, given a little time and thought, could find a gift that was appreciated and free, or very nearly so.

If you are going to buy something new, buy something with real longevity. Spend your money carefully on things that will last, that have permanent value. Choose nice clothing that will last your lifetime, tools that you will pass on to your children, toys your grandkids can play with. And remember, you don’t have to fit it in a box – if you are saving for a piece of land, needed health treatments, some other piece of security – that’s a gift too. Give your children the chance to give the whole family a gift (small children probably won’t get this – a certain amount of abstract reasoning is required) – that is, to put the resources you would have spent on Christmas towards paying off the house, getting your land, making sure Grandma is healthy for the holiday. Even children are more moral and generous than they are often asked to be.

If you are facing birthdays or the holidays in despair, wondering how you will pay for it all, stop. It will be ok. Instead of seeing a well into which you must plunge your remaining financial security, start looking for ways to make holidays and birthdays inexpensive, comforting, and simple.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Lisa
    September 17, 2010

    Backing away from excessive consumer culture as a family has meant scaling back from cultural expectations of gift-giving excess, as well. There’s so much positive to this but one unexpected plus has been NO HOLIDAY STRESS. It’s been amazingly freeing and our holidays (throughout the year) are focused on more than acquiring or gifting more stuff. We make gifts or buy used or simply send well wishes. I think we’re perceived as “cheap” but I simply cannot feel good about participating in the craziness of consumer culture.
    -Lisa

  2. #2 Michelle
    September 17, 2010

    My eldest brother gives my children books or magazine subscriptions at birthdays and Christmas – and he loves doing it. From us, he receives handmade art from the children, and a plate of homemade fudge, and another of tollhouse cookies, from me. He gives gifts from his abundance, and we from ours. It all works!

  3. #3 janine
    September 17, 2010

    We can power down our consumer instincts and still give generously of our time, effort and thought when we select gifts that tred lightly on the earth. It sometimes will be hard – many folks adhere to inflexible traditions, and have actual prejudices tied up in their conception of what is “right” for the holidays. One of my relatives objected strenuously to our greeting cards! I just took them off our list. Others were grateful about the amount of thought that went into our admittedly modest offerings.

  4. #4 Julie Willardson
    September 17, 2010

    I love looking through thrift stores for special gifts for friends and loved ones. It’s an adventure! Thanks for the timely and lovely post! J

  5. #5 Shadeburst
    September 17, 2010

    Although I am solidly atheist, I have long envied the depth and richness of the Jewish tradition. Long after the expensive gifts have been tossed, your family will remember the gifts you gave them of yourself. Don’t teach them to take these things for granted. If you sit down to meals as a family, before you start eating thank each of them for a special gift they have given you today. (Children are ungrateful because they’ve damn well been TAUGHT to be ungrateful!)

  6. #6 NM
    September 17, 2010

    Lovely. My husband and I especially like to give each other good quality, long-lasting tools we know the other will use for years to come, and sometimes count items for the house as gifts — such as the lovely bathroom medicine cabinet he built secretly and “gave” me last Christmas.
    A friend has been giving dishcloths and towels she knitted herself as gifts, and goodness, they are beautiful, and it’s moving to know how much time she put into them.
    My own knitting is pretty primitive and I have yet to finish a project; I give a lot of food gifts and home-canned goods, and sometimes sewing projects — quilts, shirts. One year, we gave homemade beeswax candles. A basketful of homemade jams or selection of catsups, salsas and chutneys can be a wonderful gift, selected from among items you made anyway, to see your own family through the winter.
    A cousin sometimes offers to help with a purchase — one year, she gave me a discount from one of her paintings that I was buying, as a birthday gift; this year, part of the cost of an especially beautiful skirt I admired at an art fair. It’s quite a lovely, thoughtful gift.
    Many of the above do cost money, and we do them because at the moment we can afford to. But all Sharon’s suggestions are wonderful. My husband has worn into rags a tee-shirt I found for him one year at Goodwill, with a picture of cats imitating a dalmation (we had a dalmation), and I will always treasure the memory of the hand-carved beeswax candles he gave me once when he had no money, but did have wax from his own beehives. You can sew beautiful things from rags — aprons, pot-holders, quilts, cozies for everything from hot water bottles to toasters, market bags — and end up with gifts more unique, beautiful and thoughtful than anything you could have bought.

  7. #7 Erin
    September 17, 2010

    If you are buying new, I have another suggestion. For one of our grandmother’s each year at Christmas we buy her as much as we can afford (last year it was a 6 month supply, other years its been a 30day supply) of an expensive OTC medication she needs daily. This allows her to spend her money on something she’d prefer to have. It can be nice to have someone “free up” some of your income (whether it’s in the form of meds or something else you use regularly) that’s not necessarily a “gift item”.

  8. #8 stripey_cat
    September 17, 2010

    Most people I know like luxury foods! Homemade sweets and baking go down well for groups (like classmates or co-workers); for family and friends I’ve found that pitching the presents at their own culinary preferences is better. One thing that’s pretty cheap is to make up seasoning mixes for people who’re too busy to cook (or simply less confident handling complex seasoning) tailored to their tastes, with instructions for one or two simple recipes on a card with them. Something as simple as chilli seasoning is good (and can include instructions for either beef or veggie dishes), and there’s a humungous variety of Indian mixes suitable for long storage and easy cooking.

  9. #9 dewey
    September 18, 2010

    Superb piece. Alas, my two families have opposite outlooks on gift-giving, but one thing they firmly agree on is that doing used and handmade gifts would be, as they say here in St. Louis, hoosierly. I have hand-made a few Christmas and Chanukah presents (knit scarf or hat, sewn pillows) for people to whom I wanted to express extra-special thanks and love for some reason. Because I am clumsy at crafts, these gifts cost me far more hours than it would have taken just to earn the money to buy something nice from the store, so they’re intended to convey a very high level of caring. (Whether the recipients realized that, while looking at my blobby knitting, is another question.)

  10. #10 Cat
    September 18, 2010

    Be careful on what you trash-pick. One of my friends had neighbours telling her that she had thrown away some great toys- their kids had fished them back out and were having great fun. The reason they were thrown out is because rats had been living in them, and they had been covered in the various leavings of the rodents.

    Try to pick washable stuff, or stuff you know wasn’t thrown out for a similar contamination reason (or because it was dangerous in some way).

  11. #11 Claire
    September 19, 2010

    re dewey: until I moved to St. Louis, I thought Hoosier was a resident of the state of Indiana. My native-son DH set me straight right quick. ;-)

    A few weeks back, my mom called and asked if I would mind if we stopped giving each other Christmas gifts this year. Not only did I not mind, but I was hugely relieved! My parents live 1200 miles away and I don’t see them at Christmas (we spend it here with my in-laws), meaning that for quite some years we’ve just sent each other gift certificates. I’m fortunate to have a practical mom who realizes that we’re both better off to save that money, particularly since I can then put it toward the once every year or two visit. My siblings and I had agreed not to gift each other years ago, and more recently I have stopped gifting their children in favor of using that money toward occasional visits.

    A gift my DH and I like to give each other is to go to a longstanding local bookstore and have the one being gifted pick out however many books fit into the budget, for which the other pays. We both love to read, and we both enjoy the particular bookstore and want it to stay in business.

  12. #12 dewey
    September 20, 2010

    It’s one of those innocently picked up locutions that I fear may someday get me punched out by an Indianan.

    I realize also that when Sharon writes “It was manifestly poor planning on my part to produce three kids between Rosh Hashana and Chanukah,” we have so far all missed the opportunity to say ah-hah, so THAT’S how she stays warm January through March. ;-)

  13. #13 Sharon Astyk
    September 20, 2010

    Noticed, did you, Dewey ;-)?

    And I still don’t know what “Hoosierly” means other than “from Indiana.”

  14. #14 Claire
    September 20, 2010

    Whether or not the H is capitalized makes the meaning. Hoosier with a capital H is a resident of Indiana, with the -ly added might then be an adverb pertaining to Indiana. With a small h, hoosier is the St. Louis term for which others might use hillbilly instead. Don’t ask me why, it’s just one of the weird things about St. Louis is the best I can tell.

  15. #15 aimee
    September 20, 2010

    My sister and I have been trying for years to get our parents to pull back from the orgy of excess they call christmas. We have discovered it is impossible – so we banded together and decided we are willing to be perceived as cheap or miserly – as long as we do it together. The last few years, she has given handmade soaps and felted toys or jewelry, and I have given thrift store finds like cashmere sweaters and home canned goodies. It might be having an effect – last year my mom gave us donations made in our name to health clinics in poor countries. We were thrilled.
    As far as my own children go – I try to give them experiences. I might spend just as much money (or more!) on a trip to the art museum or the zoo as I would have spent on a toy, but I consider it money well spent. It gives them what they truly want more than anything – time alone with their parents.
    That said, I think it is not always a bad thing to buy well-made, imaginative toys that will last. One year I made a very big purchase of a child sized wooden table and chairs (including high chair) made by a local artisan. That toy has been a major hit and I expect to hand it down to my grandkids.

  16. #16 Helga
    December 13, 2010

    It is absolutely crazy how people get into that gift buying around Christmas, who knows why?! Feed the poor instead or take some cheap vacations away from it all so that you don’t have to buy anything : )