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.