Wednesday, December 3, 2014

XMas Buyer's Guide: Making Things

There is an assumption I am making here.  It is part of my theme for this Sunday's sermonizing.  One of the great challenges we face when we try to re-claim the holiday for ourselves is the simple fact of an overblown gift culture.  Simply put, Christmas has become about getting stuff you want and giving people stuff they want.  As an economic engine this may have some merit.  As a spiritual one, however, it makes little sense.  It changes the conversation around what is important.  Both adults and children grade their holiday experience based on how much loot they received.  They are bothered when they don't get what they want.  The people doing the giving (and, yes we are both the giver and the receiver this time of year) are quite appropriately tense about the gifts they give being accepted.  This is not a healthy arrangement.

As it currently stands holiday gift giving is a test of our wealth and our love.  It creates a general anxiety that makes us feed the machine, spending a great deal and then demanding the same.  Instead of bringing families together, it can drive them apart. The dominant emotion on Christmas morning in many households is not joy but relief that it is over.  That is too bad don't you think?

I have written about this part of the holidays a few times and no doubt will again.  There are a variety of ways to get things under control.  Setting a budget is one way.  So is narrowing down who gets gifts in the first place.  Another adaptation used for many years by parents and spouses--one that gets a bad rap--is when people buy things that need to be purchased anyway and then wrap them. Think socks.   Similarly, buying your own gift (and letting him/her reciprocate) can be the perfect gift to a spouse.  You get what you want.  They get the satisfaction of knowing you got what you wanted without the threat of failure.  Yeah, these sound silly, but, really, it frees you up to celebrate in other ways.  It isn't your birthday, after all.  Presents shouldn't be central.

If I am on the ball, I will provide a few updates on gifting this Advent. However, I want to start with another time honored tradition that might just make life a whole lot easier for you.  Namely making gifts.  They cost less.  They show you thought about someone.  They also let you observe the holiday in a non-commercial way while taking care of some of those pesky obligations.  Here are some ideas...

Baked goods have been the currency of the holidays since forever.  They are a casual-yet-not-casual  way to say that you are thinking about someone.  Baking takes time.  At least some of that time is spent thinking about the holiday and about the person on the receiving end of the gift.  It also makes the house smell nice.  You can turn on some music.  There are plenty of free resources online that you can grab to figure out a new thing. Alternatively, you can go with an old classic recipe that you try to perfect over the course of years and decades.  That makes it special.

Check out the previous post for that pseudo-fruitcake recipe.  Cookies are also great this time of year. Here is a link to today's New York Times to get you started on cookie making.  Bacon Gingersnaps anybody?

You can check out the link but don't forget to return.  After all, there are plenty of people for whom baking something would be inappropriate.  What will you do for them?  How about...

No, really.  I am bad at throwing parties, but I love to go to them.  When I am invited (whether I manage to attend or not) I see it as a gift.  You can get your friends together and share the responsibilities, or you can dominate the planning yourself.  Either way, you have done something special and it should count.  Just let them know that is what they are getting.

Also, you can combine the party with some other low impact gift.  After all, that is what the time honored "cookie swap" really is...

Making a Book: Notice I didn't say "bookmaking".
When the kids were younger, my wife and I had them make books that we could give to family and friends.  The first was "A Christmahanakwanzakah Companion" (an alphabet book).  The next was "The Christmas Ride of Paul Revere" which told the story of Paul Revere and his apparently inebriated sidekick William Dawes rescuing Santa from himself by delivering presents to "every Middlesex village and farm".  Both involved photographs and drawings.  Plenty of tape was used.  Then we had it printed and bound at Staples or some similar place.  It.  Was. Awesome!  Just as with baking, there was plenty of time to think about the holiday.  Also, the kids got into it in a way that they don't when it comes to cookies.

Making a Plant Press: 
This is a plant press.  It got quite a bit of use during the year I was homeschooling Son #2.  I did not make it.  My brother's family did and gave it to us as a Christmas present.  It is the sort of thing you cannot pick up at the mall.  It is fun to talk about.  It makes me feel like I am a 19th Century intellectual.  Which is to say that it makes me feel at home.

I do not have mad skills in the making-stuff-with-wood-and-nails department.  However, if you do,  figure out a cool project like this.  It will be worth your while.  again, there are plenty of resources.  You can find a plan to make pretty much anything online and there are books as well.  Try something out!

Mix Tapes:
You remember mix tapes, right?  I realize that technology is super-cool and whatnot.  However, there was something great about the idea of somebody compiling a group of songs that they like and giving it to someone.  These days you could even add an original performance or composition to the collection.  I say "why the heck not?"  If you do this, though, try to use a concrete medium.  The web is fine and convenient.  However, the holidays are old-fashioned (see "Plant Press" above). Why not be old fashioned, too?

Art in General: 
Do you paint?  Do you sing?  Think about what other creative thing you can do.  There has to be something.  Use your imagination and come up with a unique gift that people will appreciate!

Final Notes:
There are two of these...

1) One note has to do with the giving.  You need to be clear with people what you are doing.  They need to adjust their expectations.  Also, you can start gradually.  Pick your hipster friends and family first.  They will get it.  They have probably been dying to make you a mix tape or a spinning wheel (out of tuna tins) for some time.  You will make them happy.  Save the difficult cases for another year when enough folks have said positive things in their presence. A good buzz like "I sure hope Adam will give us his fruitcake recipe this year.  I sooo look forward to it" will help break the ice.

2) This one has to do with receiving.  Son #3 asked me what I wanted for Christmas.  I told him to make me something.  He said, "I would rather get you something you would like".  Heart. Broken.  I thought I was doing a great job of appreciating his crafts.

We as receivers need to be helpful about what sorts of crafty things we like.  We also need to be encouraging and supportive to the people who make us something.  If we are not, they will go back to buying expensive crap and we will miss out on  a profoundly spiritual way to address the gift giving this season.

That is all for now.  Be good givers and good receivers.  Like I said earlier, there are a variety of ways to go and I will try to hit a few others before we are through...


  1. Such good ideas! We have been trying to live pretty minimal in our house and sometimes that's hard to get across to our families so this year we're limiting the gifts to homemade or experiences. One of the best gifts I gave last year was a (delayed gratification) gift of vegetables each month. By the time June rolls around, my garden is chugging along enough to give away a hefty bit of the produce and it wound up being the gift that kept on giving, delighting my work Secret Santa recipient all year. I'd never had someone so appreciative, even if they did have to wait a few months.

  2. Veggies are always good. :-) The only problem I have is that a good part of my family runs and organic vegetable and pork farm, so they have a corner on the family gift market. ;-)