Archive for October 21st, 2009

Toys R Not Us: Making a Homemade Holiday

Sharon October 21st, 2009

I just read a story from a Very Important Paper suggesting that retail sales seem to be rising because Americans are suffering from “frugality fatigue” – we’re soooooooo terribly tired of not consuming, and we’ve been functioning at austerity levels for soooooo long that we’re all done now.  So even though more and more people don’t have jobs, and a new evaluation shows that one in six of us is under the poverty line and one in nine needs food stamps to keep the wolf from the door, and we’re expecting almost 1.5 million more foreclosures this quarter….we’ve been frugal long enough and it is time for a party.

Right.  Seriously, Americans have dropped their consumption a little, but we haven’t even begun to move seriously towards a way of life that could persist for our children and grandchildren.  Don’t get me wrong – I know the lure of retail therapy (as I mentioned recently) but we just can’t afford to indulge it.   More importantly, we don’t need to indulge it – we can have the pleasure of new and beautiful and luxurious without the pain of the credit card bills and ecological destruction – we just need to place things in proportion.

As we approach the holidays, we all know on some level that the typical American orgy of spending can’t go on – that it is bad for our families, bad for the planet, bad for all of us.  But it is really hard not to do it – we’re so deeply accustomed to spending too much and paying later, to giving each other too much, no matter what the cost.  But we truly can’t afford to ever say “who cares about the cost” anymore, on any level.

All of this sounds a little depressing – the idea of the frugal holiday can sound bleak until you start to explore your options and realize just how much fun you can have doing it good *and* cheap.  I’m actually a big fan of presents and celebrations – in a sustainable life, ordinary days are, well, ordinary – you work hard, you live simply, you eat basic foods and you make do a lot.  And then, a few times a year, you feast, you celebrate, you get something new and beautiful, you feel refreshed by drink and food and pleasure.  This is good and it is important.

The problem, of course, is that we don’t live the ordinary life that would make this viable – our daily meals are feasts compared to most people’s lives, so an extraordinary meal has to become ridiculous to stand out.  Our ordinary lives involve plenty of new things and luxuries, so you have to give huge gifts to make them seem special.  A lot of what is needed here isn’t so much cutting back on the holidays – although there’s that too – but creating lives that allow us to enjoy our feasts and festivals for what they are – special, but not extravagant.  If you eat ice cream and cake regularly, a birthday cake isn’t enough.  If you buy yourself presents on a regular basis, a new pair of socks won’t thrill you.  If we step back in our ordinary lives, we can make the festivals magic again.

I had three children between the end of October and  the middle of December, so my kids (except Eli who has a March birthday) already have a predisposition to excess around the fall-winter holiday cycle – we have the Jewish fall holidays, Asher’s birthday, Halloween, Simon’s birthday, Thanksgiving, Chanukah and Isaiah’s birthday in quick succession – the last six in a period of six weeks.  And since we’re party people – that is, we tend to go light on presents but have plenty of friends and food – that means a heck of a lot of celebrations.   I’m for this – a friend of mine and I once envisioned a cookbook called the “any excuse for a party” cookbook – in which we imagined meals and menus for every conceivable occasion for inviting guests – because while I don’t think one needs to offer everyone smoked salmon-chevre puffs, I’m all for inviting people in to eat, and sharing meals at the root of our festive events.

We try very hard to moderate the scale, though – no salmon puffs here!  Our birthday parties have a pattern – we invite the kids’ friends and their parents, most of whom are our friends.  We serve a lot of food (simple, but people seem to like it), and the children get some kind of beverage treat – either lemonade spritzers (lemonade and seltzer) or homemade soda.  Each child gets to pick a cake.  And then everyone runs around and plays until they are exhausted, and that’s it.  The grownups sit about and chat, the kids run with the goats, climb the trees or play in the creek, we all eat cake, and that’s all.  I have to say, I love these parties – they are friendly and warm and fun for everyone.  I love hosting them, I love cooking for them.  We usually also do one for Chanukah – although sometimes it gets combined with Isaiah’s birthday, depending on the timing (Isaiah actually likes this).

Present-wise, we try and keep things pretty restrained, and to achieve both happiness and utility.  This year’s major Chanukah gift for each boy will be a blanket – I had originally planned to make a large fleece blanket for Eli, who loves to wrap up when he’s tired, but the boys (who were at the fabric store with me) were so excited by the idea of homemade blankets that they begged for one for each of them as a gift – and for the chance to help sew them.    This is the sort of things mothers don’t complain about ;-)

The blankets should adorn their beds for many years to come, and if I’m going to buy something new, that’s generally my requirement – it should be something of lasting value.  For their birthdays, the boys have asked for kiddush cups of their own – they like to drink out of the fancy wine glasses or the delicate glass kiddush cups we have on Shabbos, but my antique wine glasses are, predictably, starting to decline in number.  I ruled that we would no longer use my grandmother’s wine glasses, but Isaiah asked me if they could have their own kiddush cups, and since I don’t plan to buy breakable ones, this is a good investment – something they’ll have into adulthood.

Otherwise, we give them small things – books, often purchased used, homemade things like mittens or treats, small toys I’ve found used over the year at yard sales and such.  They do get eight gifts over the nights of Chanukah (one of the gifts is the chance to give a Heifer fund gift to someone else – each year the children are allowed to choose an animal to donate in their names as one of their gifts) but not all from us – Grandmothers and aunts make up most of the total.

For the rest of the family, we’re giving the gift of meat chickens for everyone’s freezer, and other things from the farm – the chickens have already been delivered, and everyone else will get a basket of goat cheese, jam and other treats.  We give similar baskets to teachers and bus drivers and such. 

I do buy a few presents, mostly high quality toys for my nieces.  We’re hoping to get a digital camera and also give out our “Gleanings Farm Alphabet Book” with pictures for each letter.  I try to knit things as well, but I’m constantly behind on that front ;-)

I really like Crunchy Chickens “Buy Handmade for the Holidays” Challenge - it focuses on making our gifts the best possible kind – homemade, if we can, locally handmade if not, or bartered or used.  I’d encourage all of us to join in on this one – frugality doesn’t have to produce fatigue, it can also produce joy and excitement.  I’d also add that giving gifts of service, charity and celebration have an important role – if you can’t buy something, offer your time, or your skills or your company for some hard job. 

So what are you making or doing for your holidays?  How will you celebrate, and make the festival what it should be?