Bag of tricks: the giving edition - FamilyEducation

Bag of tricks: the giving edition

December 10,2008

I'm knee-deep in final exams this week. Last night I was up until 11:45 calculating grades, and when I went to bed and closed my eyes, I saw small numbers and percentages and class participation points, instead of visions of sugar plums. This is the time of the semester when I get a type of tunnel vision: All I want to do is make it through the next exam, the next batch of exam grading, and the next set of calculations. At the other end of it all is Christmas, a tantalizing and magical oasis shimmering in front of me, my favorite time of the year. Lying ahead are days spent with my family, and cookies to bake, gifts to buy and wrap, and through it all my kids' infectious excitement, lighting them up like dancing candles. I don't have much brain power left these days for other tasks, but I have been thinking a lot about gift-giving.

Last week I asked some friends for suggestions of places where you could shop and benefit others in the process. I've also been thinking about some more out-of-the-box gift ideas--ones that are more in keeping with the spirit of the holidays. Sometimes we get so caught up in the holiday rush that we place convenience over philanthropy, and consumerism over thoughtful gift-giving. Scott and I try every year to buy at least one gift for someone from an organization that takes the proceeds and uses part or all of the money to help out a cause. But there are other ways you can give generously without being just another consumer.

Query relatives and friends early on about charities they support, and consider making a small (or large) donation as part or all of their holiday gift. Many parents and grandparents will appreciate having a donation made in their name, and this is a great gift for your children to "give" their grandparents or aunts and uncles.

Browse thrift shops, secondhand stores, or antique shops for small knick-knacks or one-of-a-kind gifts that may be perfect for someone you love. If you know that a friend or relative collects candle holders or salt and pepper shakers, or needs a unique ceramic bowl or platter, you might be able to find just the right thing secondhand. Gifts do not always have to be new to be valued.

Establish new traditions for gift-giving. Some families draw names, but have a rule that everybody buys for the kids (my family does this). Some families draw names for the kids, but then do book or old toy exchanges. This is a great idea for passing along toys or books that have become old news to one child. A cousin might find the same gently used toy or book exciting and different when he unwraps it. We've found that our kids don't really care whether something is new--they just love getting the gift. T.'s favorite presents are additions to her Care Bear family, which we find on eBay.

Shop philanthropically. This site has wonderful gift options--make sure you click first before you shop--each click provides 1.1 cups of food to the hungry. Then you can sit back and browse through the gift options. These are wonderful gifts for teachers, and these would make great stocking stuffers (I've ordered two for my kids--maybe they could help with sleep anxieties?). Older parents and relatives who have everything might be really touched to get a gift in their name from here. Just $20 will buy a flock of chicks, or you could spring for a llama. This charity is one of my favorites--it touched my heart two years ago when I first found out about it, and I try to give a little to them once or twice a year.

I love gift-giving, and I love it even more when I feel I've tried each year to spread some of the happiness and peace of the season to others less fortunate. I also find a strange joy in discovering unique gifts--gifts that once meant a great deal to someone else, perhaps, and which will find a new home with the people I care about. And as I rush around this next week, grading like crazy and burning the candle at both ends, I'll think about how lucky I really am, because spreading the joy is a privilege and a gift, too.

What are your gift-giving ideas and traditions? How do you combat the over-consumerism of the holidays and spread the spirit of the holidays to others?