Depression Holidays: Thinking About Presents, Ecology and Hard Times

Sharon October 7th, 2008

During a three month period, between September 29th and December 29th, we have Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, the deadline for the edited manuscript of _A Nation of Farmers_, Sukkot, Simchas Torah, Asher’s birthday, Halloween, my synagogues Environmental event, Simon’s birthday, Thanksgiving, the due date for my new book _Independence Days_, Isaiah’s birthday and eight nights of Chanukah.  Besides my looking at the next couple of months with total panic ;-) , I’m definitely getting into holiday mode here – and since I was crazy enough to have 3 kids between Halloween and Chanukah, about gifts.

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. 

 On the other hand, I also think gifts are 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.  That gift giving has been perverse and excessive is bad, but it doesn’t erase the value of all gifts.

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, trash picked, 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 (toy) along with a couple of books I want them to have each for Chanukah.  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, at not-quite 7 and 5, they are a bit too young not to wreck them and a bit too young for this sort of comics.  But in a couple of years, 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 as 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 my son rides a bike his aunt and uncle saved from the dump and restored.  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 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.  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 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.


51 Responses to “Depression Holidays: Thinking About Presents, Ecology and Hard Times”

  1. homebrewlibrarianon 07 Oct 2008 at 6:58 pm

    I’m single and don’t live near the rest of my blood kin. When we are around each other during a holiday or birthday, I’ll engage in the giving of gifts but only then. Gifts tend to be consumables or service related or both (I once gave my sister and her husband “dinner and a movie.” I cooked her favorite supper (lasagne) and my other sister and I watched their three children so the two of them could go see a movie. I think that was the best present I ever gave them ;-) ).

    Last Christmas, I told my sister’s four children that I would donate $100 for each of them to the Heifer Project. All they needed to do was tell me how they wanted me to spend it. Except for the 2 year old, the other three spent a great deal of time checking out the web site and seeing how much their $100 would buy. Afterwards, I printed off some gift cards from the Heifer web site and sent each one their own card with what they had donated. My sister told me later they loved getting the cards. We’ll be doing this again this year.

    For my local community family (or tribe), last year I gave everyone a loaf of locally made organic chocolate cherry bread during the holidays. I gifted one friend, who has a herd of goats, with three bales of quality hay and a knitting friend with a bunch of assorted yarns (picked up from thrift stores). My gift giving is practical in nature and I enjoy the creativity of figuring out what would be appropriate for who.

    But then to be completely contrary, in years past I would only give gifts to friends and family at random times. While I respect the tradition of gift giving for certain events and holidays, receiving a small unexpected gift (something the person enjoyed doing or needed) can be a mood lifter. So many people I know have problems in their lives that a little joy now and then is appreciated. To do this requires keeping a vast mental file of information about friends and family which I used to be able to do. I wouldn’t actively be searching for anything but every now and again I’d find a book or item or a service someone I knew could use. I rarely bought new and never high priced but was constantly surprised at what I could find in second hand places, garage sales and even antique stores. Now that there’s eBay, Freecycle and craigslist, the possibilities for terrific affordable gifts is endless.

    And then there’s the ultimate in wishbooks – the Lehmans non electric catalog. Mmmmmm. Oh? We’re not talking about gifts for me? :-)

    Kerri in AK

  2. LeeAnnon 07 Oct 2008 at 7:24 pm

    I have four children too, two with autumn birthdays, so I sympathize.

    I lucked out and found a giant pile of various colored cloth napkins marked for clearance at something like 25 to 50-cents each. I bought a bunch and will be wrapping these nicely for Christmas gifts. Practical and usually long-lasting. These are for the folks at church who always give me thank-you gifts for teaching Sunday school and whatnot.

    In the family, we adults usually pick names from a hat if we are all getting together. This year, I think we are skipping grown-up gifts. We’re mostly practical-minded though. One year, we received a bucket, wash mitt and bottle of car wax from an aunt. Kind of funny, but we’ve used it lots and always remember her practical generosity.

    For our own kids, we practice the “Jesus got 3 gifts for Christmas and that’s good enough for you” guideline. We also celebrate St. Nicholas day (on Dec. 6) with small religious-themed gifts, but these are usually inexpensive books, holy cards, candy & fruit and maybe one small toy.

    I’ve enjoyed your recent blog posts–came here via Rod Dreher.

  3. New Mamaon 07 Oct 2008 at 7:58 pm

    Good post, Sharon. My late MIL would give the kids in the family OBSCENE amounts of presents — it would make me sick to see the huge piles of cheaply made toys in the living room on Christmas morning. And this would be merely one celebration my stepkids would have — that one, their other extended family, their mom’s and our house. (One year after opening the simple but carefully thought-out gifts we bought for my stepkids my stepson said, “Next year, could you get us better presents?”) This was before my DH and I had our son, but we’ve still found holidays with our extended families to be too overwhelming.

    This year we’ve decided to stay home for Christmas. My son just turned three and while I appreciate the importance of family (and he sees some extended family regularly) I want to scale down and have a simple holiday this year. I bought some wooden toys second hand (but in perfect condition) and will probably seek out a few books, too, since I’m also a book person. We’re thinking of inviting our Jewish neighbors over to share a meal and just have a nice mellow day at home.

  4. ctdaffodilon 07 Oct 2008 at 8:09 pm

    We have been slowly ramping down the gifts at christmas….its been nice. I think that this year there will be another step down with the inlaws. Not that that is a bad thing. Now my kids are old enough to make gifts for my siblings it is nice – my sibs like handmade better than the store bought since they know how much the kids like making stuff.

    I will be making the kids flannel sleep pants for christmas this year – I like to have them have new pj on christmas eve. I think that they will appreciate them because I’ll make them for them – they appreciate the halloween costumes I make every year – they actually get into the trips to Sal.Army store and Goodwill for materials to use as a basis.

  5. Paula Hewitton 07 Oct 2008 at 9:08 pm

    we have been buying less and less each year – the kids only get toys at christmas and birthdays (we refuse to buy into the current trend here- Australia – of celebrating halloween), but i give them books (like you cheap/secondhand/heavily discounted) throughout the year – just ’cause presents. I agree with Kerri and am more likely to give someone a gift outside of the b’day/xmas thing – something they like when they need it. mostly gifts between adults and non family gifts have been phased out – we get together with friends to celebrate but have agrees to stop the gift part – mainly because every one has so much stuff anyway.
    my biggest sticking point with gift giving is wth the gandmother who prefers quantity over quality and prefers to give the children a quantity of cheap plastic fall apart toys from $2 shop, rather than one quality gift (and then complains that the kids dont value the toys when they break) aarrghhh.
    This year will be less than before – we have decided not to give each other presents but to save the money – much as you mentioned in your post.

    We have also cut down on the quantity of food and *treats* over the xmas period. something special for the day (although these days the idea of special fetival food seems dilute when really we eat exotic special food all the time :) ) but not masses of the stuff so we still have a pantry full of junk three days..weeks… later.

  6. Christy Oon 07 Oct 2008 at 9:19 pm

    All the gifts I’m giving this year will be crocheted. I’ve been making small crocheted animals and have the right one picked out for each person. My son is getting a goat for Christmas and is so excited about it.

  7. Andreaon 07 Oct 2008 at 9:45 pm

    *For our own kids, we practice the “Jesus got 3 gifts for Christmas and that’s good enough for you” guideline. *

    I love that!!!!! We may start implimenting that guideline in our own home, although at this point, we’re practically there.

    I feel like I’ve found a home here on this blog. I sleep in a trash-picked solid brass bed, with yard sale nightstands. The majority of my wardrobe is either hand me downs, tag sales or Goodwill finds. My kids favorite mittens are made from recycled woolen sweaters-shrunk a time or two. My SIL makes little snarky comments about me being the ‘yard sale queen’ but I think I’ve managed to outfit both my home and my children quite nicely without racking up ridiculous debt.

    The majority of our Christmas gifts this year are either significantly marked down sale items that we’ve picked up over the course of the year, or homegrown and handmade; liquers, jams, breads, small quilts, herbal blends and teas etc. While I used to subscribe to the quantity over quality approach to shopping, my kids have helped me to get over that! I see over and over that they’d rather play with some timeless wooden blocks rather than the ‘it’ toy of the holiday season. They prefer books to video games, fuzzy homemade jammies to namebrand clothes. What a blessing.

  8. Maeveon 07 Oct 2008 at 10:19 pm

    Money is tight this year, and I’m pinching every penny because I think things will get worse. So, knowing in advance that things like Christmas stockings that look nice and fat are touchstones in our traditions, I’m planning ahead.

    Case in point, the stockings. We’ll be keeping the house colder this winter, and January is really the coldest part of the year here. So, I’m going to make personalized “rice socks” for each of us, and those will go in the stockings. That will leave a bit of room for a small toy-ish bit and an orange or something. I’m thinking of making them more exciting than just a tube filled with rice.. maybe sew on some floppy toes at one end.. heh.

    The rice socks will be nice to warm and tuck into bed at night, or to warm and tuck under a blanket while curled up reading or watching movies. And personalized ones will mean no longer will I wonder if I grabbed the one that someone else warmed their feet on.

    I haven’t investigated if there are other microwavable fillers than rice that would work well for this, that would be cheaper than rice.

    I’ll be paring down the holiday card list as well. Last year I sent out a TON of cards. All the usual extended family ones plus cards for an online bookclub community exchange. Insanity. It was fun, but I don’t really have the extra money in my budget for that kind of postage this year.

    I love those library book sales. There’s one coming up later this month. If you like to do crafts, look for magazines with lots of great pictures and font types, fun to make collages and such with. And I’ve found some great gardening magazines at the sales as well.

    One of my fond memories of childhood is my grandmother showing me how to play paper dolls. You need a brown paper grocery bag, and magazines/catalogs that have people and clothes and furniture etc in them. Cut off one of the large sides of the bag so you have a “room”. Cut out furniture and carpets and things, and after arranging to your heart’s content, glue them to the inside of the bag. Cut out people, and you can glue them to the cut-off side from the bag for extra stability. Cut out clothes and accessories for a wardrobe. She’d let me have the previous year’s big catalog, like Sears and Montgomery Ward. HOURS of fun.

  9. TopazTookon 07 Oct 2008 at 11:16 pm

    Since you mention tools, thrifted gifts and giving to charity, I thought I would chime in that Habitat for Humanity has tools/building materials thrift stores in some areas. They’re called “ReStores”

  10. Rosaon 07 Oct 2008 at 11:51 pm

    My son is 3, and we just don’t buy him gifts, because we can’t stem the tide of grandparent gifts. He doesn’t seem to notice the lack of gifts from us (or “Santa”, who gives his cousins lots of gifts – at some point his dad is going to have to man up and explain to *his* mother why Santa doesn’t come to our house, but he’s procrastinating.)

    If I ever find a source of toddler sized long johns (anybody got some help, here? I need 2-piecers in 3T, not union suits, and Target is only carrying union suits this year) I’m getting them for every little kid in our circle, plus some for the kids on the angel tree at work. It’s a crying shame that people don’t put their kids in warm underlayers, especially with energy costs going up like they’re predicted to this year.

    And, finally – my family is fine, mostly with a near-total absence of gifts (my brother can’t really get mailed packages, and my mom has a stuff moratorium.) My partner’s family is not fine, but there’s nothing I can do about it.

    I have a lot of respect and admiration for people who make handmade gifts, but they’re not me – I used to put together “gift baskets” of various preserved & local foods, using thrifted baskets, stuff I put up, and wild rice/maple sugar stuff from White Earth Land Recovery Project. But that was before I had a kid and a fulltime job.

  11. Anion 08 Oct 2008 at 5:23 am

    RE: gifts- I only buy something for my son- who has a Nov birthday as well- I never went crazy with gifts for him- not even when he was little- well I was so broke then I couldn’t have if I wanted to- but didn’t think it was a good idea in any case. Now I give him gift cards to spend as he pleases which he likes just fine…..

    Otherwise my gift-giving is mostly just for friends getting married or having babies- I tend to buy nice used baby gifts- clothing, books , etc- scored some of those wonderful wooden puzzles with the little knobs, etc at the thrift store and gave several of those away last year. Some friends got married recently and they requested I make a donation to the food shelf which I will do. Other friends got married last year and we all chipped in to buy a heifer calf that they wanted as they are starting to farm.

    I have always been amazed and appalled by the gift-giving orgy that happens this time of year- seems to me that people are trying to accomplish some psychological work with their gift giving- some of them are trying to recreate either their own holdiay memories or what they wished they had, make up for something they feel is lacking in their lives; fill the “hole” with stuff-I don’t know. It has never made any real sense to me- and I find it scary that people seem to measure how “good” their Christmas is in particular by how much stuff they can buy. The really bad thing about this of course is not only the debt people amass doing this, the ecological disaster of stuff- have you ever seen the recyle bins that take boxes, wrapping paper, etc after the holidays??- that is just the wrappings!- but also how our retail economy is based on having these sales- what will happen this year may be interesting as I have real doubts many people will want to get into more debt…..

  12. Karinon 08 Oct 2008 at 6:50 am

    My husbands family has this Secret Santa tradition. There are 5 siblings and spouses, so they pick a name and then provide a very detailed list of their wants and the monetary limit of spending 50.00. HUH? So, I have been the rebel bucking the system ever since. I always give something handknit and practical and a nice chocolate bar. It just seems to me that the system is set up for the getting and not the giving.

    For the wee one in our house, I have some special toys I had saved from when the teenager was little so several Christmases are covered. I like to get books for the kids and the hubby and every one gets handmade under the tree. And then there is usually a family gift for everyone to use like a 1000 piece puzzle or game.

  13. margareton 08 Oct 2008 at 7:54 am

    While I am kind of depressed about the whole collapsing economy thing, I am strangely excited about Christmas. I have planned better for my 6 year olds gifts than I usually do, and found treasures at the library used book sale and in the clearance bin at Rite Aid. I have chosen a couple of new items I will purchase for her (a child sized weaving loom and a CD she really wants), and that’s that. For the rest of my clan, it’s the service gift, or homemade canned goods. I feel free to relax and enjoy the togetherness of my family in a way I haven’t in a long time. Good riddance to the Christmas morning gift orgy!

  14. andyon 08 Oct 2008 at 8:15 am

    i’ve been thinking about making a new website: or somesuch, so this topic is relevant to my thoughts over the last few weeks.
    anybody want to help?

  15. [...] Casaubon’s Book » Blog Archive » Depression Holidays: Thinking About Presents, Ecology and Hard … During a three month period, between September 29th and December 29th, we have Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, the deadline for the edited manuscript of _A Nation of Farmers_, Sukkot, Simchas Torah, Asher’s birthday, Halloween, my synagogues Environmental event, Simon’s birthday, Thanksgiving, the due date for my new book _Independence Days_, Isaiah’s birthday and eight nights of Chanukah. Besides my looking at the next couple of months with total panic ;-, I’m definitely getting into holiday mode here – and since I was crazy enough to have 3 kids between Halloween and Chanukah, about gifts. [...]

  16. Traverse Davieson 08 Oct 2008 at 8:43 am

    My son just had a birthday. I got him his hearts desire… night vision goggles. However, other than the obvious night vision thing he and I have an arrangement. Nothing expensive, nothing new, nothing that can’t be easily modified into something else. This was his idea (he loves to tinker) and it is great for me as well.

  17. Don 08 Oct 2008 at 9:12 am

    This is a great post, Sharon – something that needs to be addressed (over and over again, everywhere!) even if the economy wasn’t going down like the Hindenberg. However, one thing that seems to be missing from a lot of discussions of trashpicking and buying used items is the problem of bedbugs. If you’ve ever had them, or know someone who did, you know how horrible they are – that they will live in *anything*, not just upholstered furniture, and that they are incredibly difficult to get rid of once they get established. They have been found in every state in the US except Alaska (I think – it actually might be Montana, I don’t remember for sure right now). Where I live, in a mid-sized city in the upper Midwest, they are an enormous problem.

    Anyone who picks up used furniture, books, toys or clothes, whether from the curb, a second-hand store, or a place like Ebay, runs the risk of bringing bedbugs into their home. This is particularly true if you live in a bigger city or a college town (i.e., somewhere with a very mobile population), but they’re getting around quickly, so everyone should be aware of the risk. Getting rid of them yourself is rarely effective and a tremendous amount of work and expense. And for people trying to live sustainably, it’s a nightmare whether you treat with pesticides or not. My husband and I picked them up this past spring and spent our entire summer living out of plastic bags, washing everything we could in hot water and drying it in the dryer on the hottest setting – and this was after we had thrown away %90 of our belongings. And we didn’t have a lot of stuff to begin with.

    The plus side for me personally is that I began planning my holiday gifts in July because I knew I would be making most of them. ;) Seriously, though – I strongly recommend that everyone who is not familiar with these things educate yourselves about them so you do not inadvertently infest yourselves or someone you love. Or anyone, really. This place has probably the most accurate information out there right now: .

  18. Don 08 Oct 2008 at 9:32 am

    Actually, let me clarify what I just posted: I’m not suggesting people shouldn’t buy used, rather that you should exercise caution about what you buy and where you buy it from. I do suggest, though, that people *not* trashpick. Which sucks on a lot of levels…but so do parasites. ;)

  19. Elizabethon 08 Oct 2008 at 9:37 am

    I just watched “What Would Jesus Buy” on Monday night, so this has been on my mind. My husband and I will usually exchange one larger gift (like a new robe) and one or two smaller gifts (like a favorite, slightly pricey toiletry. Hemp Hand Protector from the Body Shop, anyone?). We give our neice a gift card for $20 that she can spend as she pleases.
    Last year my mom made vegan baking kits for my sister-in-law and I, which was a neat idea. She included a vgean baking cookbook, a new silicon spatula, vegan chocolate chips, and various other baking goodies in a nice basket.

  20. MEAon 08 Oct 2008 at 9:40 am

    We’ve alway been real cheap about presents — to the point where this year my elder dd gathered the worn out flannel nightdresses and took them to my mother’s where she made them into hot water bottle covers for everyone for presents. Last week it was my housemate’s birthday, and my mother had made her a nightdresss out of some flannel very similar to an old nightie of my younger daughters. She saw the nightdress being back into a bag for my housemate and said, “That won’t fit her; you have to give her one of mum’s old ones.” She thought we were engaged in our common practice of recycling things as gifts, and though her worn out nightie was being pass on to housemate as a gift.

    However, I have to confess, while I give my children and most of my family and my friends homemade, recycled, trashpicked and other odd gifts, I alway buy something (ususally spending more than I want to) on gifts for the children of my very picky SIL. Since I always get a detailed critique of what was wrong with the gifts, which makes the fact I spend real money on them even harder to take I was delighted when some of that fabric that is printed with motifts so you can just add a lining and batting and do a bit of machining and have a quilt turned up in some fabric I was given. This year, almost free gift that will look like I spent money (and, honestly, that’s how she measures the worth of a gift).

    This year, for Christmas, my mother is making me some knickers. I’m making her 100 yards of crocheted cord out of some rather harsh grey nylon yarn, a garbage bag full of which was donated to the church knitting group for the school and health kits she’s making. (I’ve done almost 75 yds — need to get cracking. DD the elder has made her hot water bottle covers. My dad and brothers and sils get homemade jam. My nephew gets a reconditioned Lincon log set, my niece and other nephew get their quilts. Housemate gets three hours of my time dedicated to helping her sort through her books. DD the younger makes us all cards.

    Can’t wait to see what else I get.

  21. Sarahon 08 Oct 2008 at 9:42 am

    Last year I gave Heifer gift certificates, especially to those relatives I only see once a year. I mean, they’re nifty people and I like them, but I don’t want to get them something random just for the sake of gifting! So giving them proxy chickens seemed perfect. I gave my dad a little jar of olive oil-packed home-dried tomatoes, and all year my mother has been telling me how much she liked them and commenting that, you know, they make bigger jars… so she’s getting lots of tomatoes this year ;-) And many other people are getting jam or pickles. I like that foot-warmer idea! I may have to make some of those. My family is very well-trained at this point to give me fiber, and has even been great about respecting my request to find it from sustainable and/or small-scale farms. And then it turns into yarn which I give to my sister, and then often whatever she makes with it becomes a present for someone else :-)

  22. Lanceon 08 Oct 2008 at 10:21 am

    I agree that gifts should be separable from holidays. Who needs a holiday to justify giving someone a gift. Who needs to necessarily give a gift on a holiday.

    However I don’t think the cycle of holidays are ridiculous. People are meaning-seeking and pattern-seeking beings. It gives us markers in life, something to look forward to, an organizational method to the year. I like the wheel of holidays, for the nostalgia and for the pattern/meaning…the wheel of holidays, whether Christian, secular western, Jewish, neopagan, or natural events, makes me feel more secure in perilous times.

    And if you go the root of most holidays, they are tied to the natural events of the year, the sun’s journey, the moon’s phases, the reproductive cycles of animal, plant, and of the productivity and activities on a farm.

    Yes, let us separate consumerist gift-giving, or rather empty gift-giving, from the holiday and subsistence cycles, and look at the roots again… give chicks for spring to grow into hens and eggs to feed us, give greenery during the winter’s dark depths to remind us of the hope for life and spring’s reawakening.

    -Lance Foster

  23. Danon 08 Oct 2008 at 10:24 am

    “I tip everybody!”

    “You don’t tip FBI men..”

    “Sure ya do.”

    Steve Martin and Rick Moranis in “My Blue Heaven”

  24. Andreaon 08 Oct 2008 at 10:30 am

    Anyone else have the creepy-crawlies after the bed bug talk???


    Good point though.

  25. Heather Grayon 08 Oct 2008 at 10:56 am

    My family mostly just sends cards (some paper, some electronic). I have one niece who I usually send a gift card to now, since we’re on opposite coasts. My husband’s family does a lottery, one for the adults and one for the kids. Of course they get some gifts from the grandparents as well, but good sturdy ones. Last year L and I got to do the shopping for Grannie for the youngest ones, so we got things from the local science store, A2Z.

    Price limit is $25, although I think sometimes people go over the limit by a little bit. To the person who was amazed at $50, that’s nothing compared to a guy I used to work with, who easily spent a few hundred on just stocking stuffers. OTOH, he didn’t have a huge family, just the wife and two kids. Still…

    I’ve been introducing a few cloth gift bags into the mix each year — sometimes they get re-used for packaging and sometimes they get used around the house for holding other things. Last year the family started saving the bigger pieces of wrapping paper again, so trash from Christmas was greatly reduced. There are always food leftovers but they get parceled out and sent home with everyone — nice to have a couple of easy meals! Largest amounts usually go home with the oldest and also the youngest w/little kids.

    Sometimes we make things and sometimes we buy — depends on what’s appropriate for the recipient. Most of the guys are mechanically-inclined so good hand tools are always appreciated. The year of Katrina I brought up giving to charities and a number of folks agreed to donating to charities instead of getting gifts. Hasn’t happened too much since then, I think because gift-giving to charities went up outside of the holidays.

    Money definitely isn’t the key thing for L’s family though — this year my MIL would like us to get her a simple watercolor painting set so she can highlight cards and things :D

    Between me and L over the years our gifts have been everything from a hug and a wish to homemade coupons (for chores, massages, etc.) to expensive but long-term investments. One year I got him _the_ book on medieval bookbinding research because he does bookbinding and had been borrowing the library’s copy for over a year. Years later it’s still one of his best reference books. Usually if we get something pricey it’s something we both want and/or need, so then it’s just the one thing. Same thing for our wedding anniversary as to monetary scale, and if we get something the gift is almost always something joint — definitely not him getting me diamonds (thank goodness!).

  26. Heather Grayon 08 Oct 2008 at 11:03 am

    Agreed that gifts should be separable from holidays. My favorite part of holidays is celebrating and spending time with friends and family, catching up on news, etc.

    One of the things that happens at all of L’s family’s gatherings is various games come out and people spend time playing and laughing together.

  27. Shandyon 08 Oct 2008 at 11:35 am

    We’re very strapped for cash this year–really, for the first time in my life since moving out on my own–so this holiday season will be a challenge. Truth be told, though, I’m rather looking forward to it. I’m sick and tired of the materialism; I was never into it to begin with, but now I feel like a have a good excuse to encourage some cutbacks. Our extended family tried the homemade gifts approach one year. I loved it! Others were less than enthusiastic and refused to do it again. Now we have a no-gifts-between-adults rule. Still, the kids get a ridiculous amount of stuff. I have a stepson and his mother’s side of the family showers him with really expensive buying-your-love kinds of gifts. Tragically, that works all too well. We refuse to get roped into the competition, however, and stepson’s reaction this year to even less will be interesting indeed.

    Right now, I’m thinking about putting up a ladder instead of tree. My goodness, we’re atheists, after all! I can decorate anything I want. :-)

  28. Rebecca Schwarzon 08 Oct 2008 at 11:53 am

    Oh, you’re definitely preaching to the choir with me! I’ve always felt like acquisitiveness is learned and we do our children no favors by providing them with masses of cheap toys and gadgets. I recently read an article (who knows where) that, developmentally, children benefit from bonding with a few favorite toys. You know, playing and replaying their imaginary scenarios with a favorite rag doll, and when they are constantly bombarded with new toys they never get the opportunity to form a meaningful attachment to that special toy.

    I’m just diving into the world of blogging and you are going to be the first site to go on my blogroll! Love your site!

  29. Ginaon 08 Oct 2008 at 1:17 pm

    When I was at the library this week I saw that they were having a withdrawn book sale and picked up 22 children’s books, 20 of them hardbacks for $2. Not $2 each…$2 total for 22 books. All those books would have easily been over $200 new. I felt like I had been given a gift! I think I’ll be giving these books to my son for birthdays and Christmases for the next few years.

  30. homebrewlibrarianon 08 Oct 2008 at 3:08 pm


    One does not need a tree to celebrate. Once I started bringing a cat or cats into my household, the desireability of having a tree decorated with lots of little glass ornaments dropped considerably. A pair of cats actually knocked a tree over once and, thankfully, the room was fully carpeted and there was little loss. Years earlier with my first cat (that had a tree fixation), I pressed the mannequin I owned into service as the holiday decoration. This mannequin was for women’s underwear – bras, underwear, slips, etc. – and did not have a head or lower legs. I put a zip front dark green velour bathrobe on her then wrapped lights all around her body and legs (yup, mannequin in bondage…) and positioned her arms such that I could drape a net around them and her to which I hung ornaments. She was very fetching and quite the conversation starter. And completely ignored by every cat I’ve had ever after. I’ve since gotten rid of every bit of Christmas frippery so the mannequin just hangs out these days.

    Of course, to be really in the spirit of nonconsumption, you could celebrate Festivus. Yup, it came from a Seinfeld episode. Go to:

    I’ve been tempted to celebrate Festivus but haven’t gotten organized enough to do so. Looks to be a pretty popular celebration in some circles.

    Kerri in AK

  31. Rosaon 08 Oct 2008 at 3:43 pm

    Andrea, just thinking about bed bugs makes me itchy. But I checked out the web site and one of the bed bug cures (2 weeks at 23 degrees or lower) is something we do with used furniture already – it’s also a flea and meal moth killer – so that made me feel better.

  32. Rebeccaon 08 Oct 2008 at 5:41 pm

    I’ve always been a fan of consumable gifts myself. There’s nothing like a pan of brownies or a warm pie. ;-)
    Homemade presents are second on the list, however.
    If someone was going to buy me a gift, I would rather have one gift, thoughtfully picked out by someone who cared about me, than half a dozen random presents picked up at the last minute like so many people do these days.

  33. Shauntaon 08 Oct 2008 at 6:22 pm

    My son’s birthday is December 12, my daughter’s is December 8, and my husband’s is December 23. Yeah, December is that crazy in our house.

    We’ve decided (including extended family) for adults not to exchange gifts this year. I’ll probably bring pumpkin bread and some cookies for everyone and I expect that we’ll bring home similar food gifts.

    We have two teenagers and the daughter with the December birthday will be four. Books are always a gift here. We will be having what I’m calling a more authentic Christmas this year. Less crap that won’t be looked at after the New Year. More thoughtful gifts that mean something. Each of my kids will have a crank flashlight in their stockings. I’m also planning on making each of them a fleece blanket, or possibly a wool blanket made from thrifted and shrunk sweaters.

    What a great post today Sharon :)


  34. CatHerderon 08 Oct 2008 at 7:21 pm

    For years we had to endure buying holiday gifts for my husbands parents, siblings, and their kids….THOUSANDS each year in gifts. When we told them we really needed to scale down since I lost my job, their answer was “well we still have plenty of money, we will keep spending, you dont have to”…so i put my foot down and stopped altogether. There is only one child left (age 8), so we will buy for her…and hubbys parents. I stopped buying birthday gifts for all the kids when they reached 18, even though mine are only 16 and 17 i stopped the holiday swap two years ago, its ridiculous. My sister and I swap a “family” gift that is kept to the bare minimum, and its something we work on with creativity, and something that they will use, usually food. In our home, we usually buy something each teen has really wanted, and then a couple things they really need…for each other we keep it to a minimum, and its stuff we can enjoy together. I personally cringe at the price of wrapping paper and cards alone…i think its just ridiculous….i would appreciated a jar of homemade jam much more than some 40 dollar box of toiletries from the mall……the latter is what got our country into this problem.

  35. clewon 08 Oct 2008 at 9:20 pm

    The one family I know that has a great time with the ‘Secret Santa’ thing spends a lot of time trading present-ideas, but it isn’t the receiver who lists them, it’s everyone else; so the person who draws the name has a barrage of possibilities.

    Seems nice because everyone has thought about everyone else for a bit.

  36. Kation 09 Oct 2008 at 1:39 am

    I’ve always tried to keep gifts for our one kiddo to a minimum. I read somewhere when she was about a year old, the phrase: Something they want, something they need, something to wear, and something to read. I’ve tried to limit her christmas gifts to this. Birthday gifts, the hubby and I have tended to get her only one (most of the time) or two gifts, and that one gift is something she’s tended to find pretty valuable: a pair of heelies, an Ipod. My parents, on the other hand, have always, always always gone WAY overboard. But now that all gifts have to be shipped, they’re starting to back off in favor of gift cards.

    As much as I have liked to GIVE hand-made (crocheted, esp.) goodies, I’m rather stuck with a family of inlaw’s who don’t care much at all for handmade goodies. In fact, the couple of times I’ve made something for the SIL or MIL, I got a snooty attitude in return. I’ve never made them anything since. My parents and middle sister are good with hand-made gifts, but my baby sis is also one who’d rather have cheap plastic garbage, as long as it’s store-bought, than anything hand-made. I’ve given up with her and send her gift-cards. I’m really starting to feel as if it’s pointless, this gift giving. Everybody has gotten so danged greedy, that it’s pointless any more. And as my FIL says, he doesn’t NEED anything, and anything he WANTS he can buy himself. Makes giving gifts rather meaningless when the attitude is such as that.

  37. DecaturHeelon 09 Oct 2008 at 8:03 am

    Kerri had a great idea in her post: Festivus is a very un-materialistic holiday that can be played for fun. (Of course, you can also spend money on Festivus stuff.) But it’s like a stripped-down Christmas. Good idea to keep in mind for lean times!

  38. Pine Ridgeon 09 Oct 2008 at 9:47 am

    We are doing a “partly” homemade Christmas. You know, the things I can get away with, lol. I also have two December children, so it gets fun.

    For my 6yo dd I am making her a cradle for her baby doll, I knitted a couple of little blankets already, and have a small quilt and a few bibs I will finish up for her. If i get brave I might try to make the doll clothes, but really it might be better if I get some newborn clothes from the thrift store :)

    My 10 yo (she’ll have just turned 11 by Christmas) is getting some store bought things, but I am also making her a sewing box. I’ll put in thread, needles, fabric scraps, small jar of buttons (I saved from old clothing) and her own shears so she can know why I yell when mine are missing.

    The boys are harder. But if you let your children play with toy guns (mine play army constantly, though I know some folks don’t agree with guns as “toys”) You can cut out reasonably good looking wooden guns with a little saw. I did this after my boys kept losing or breaking their plastic ones, and let them paint them black.

    For my copious neices and nephews, (all toddlers or infants) I am making stocking out of some Christmas themed fabric from a flannel sheet. If I get creative I might sew their initial on them, and I already bought cheap stuff to fill them up (crayons, playdough)

    Everyone will also get at least one book from me too. Yep, I’m that aunt, lol.

    If you have kids in elem. school you can get really good deals on books when they do the scholastic orders. Cost more than used or library sales, but the school does get some money from it. I just ordered several for my kids to save toward Christmas.

  39. Shauntaon 09 Oct 2008 at 11:50 am

    I just remembered that both of my teenage kids had really awesome gifts that my toddler plays with now.

    When my older daughter was about five, I made her the most awesome dollhouse. It was super easy and easily one of the most successful gifts ever. All I did was buy some plywood at Home Depot. The wood is cut to 1 foot by 2 foot pieces (two of them. A notch is made in the middle of each going halfway up the wood. The pieces can then be fitted together in the shape of a plus-sign, making four one foot by one foot rooms.

    This is the perfect dimension, because you can buy 1 foot square linoleum tiles for like a buck each. Get eight different designs. Peel off the paper and stick two together, sticky sides facing. Now you have four double sided floors for your doll house. I wallpapered the walls with samples from the wall paper section of Home Depot and spent several weeks gathering thrift store doll furniture to go with it. Voila! The whole thing breaks down, too, and can be stored in a box.

    My son was given a gift that actually was first given to my brother twenty-five years ago. It’s a big plywood platform on wheels. Maybe three feet wide and five feet long, an inch or two deep, on casters. The whole thing is painted black and on the top there’s a whole little town (it’s Russelville, because my brother is Russel!) with school, bank, grocery store, houses, a train track and roads. My toddler is the third kid to run a toy train and Hot Wheels on this thing. I’d call that successful!


  40. Colleenon 09 Oct 2008 at 11:54 am


    My first heated pillow was locally-made out of cherry pits. It was probably 6″ x 18″ and somewhat lumpy. I do not know if they would scale down well for a ‘rice sock’ size.

    You can also add some lavender or other dried herbs to the ‘rice sock’.

    If you have youngsters in the house, you may want to make an extra to keep in the freezer (if you have one :-) for bumps and bruises.

  41. Meadowlarkon 09 Oct 2008 at 12:39 pm

    When the kids were little, we put out the word to family members that we were making a family treasure box. We asked them to send along whatever might be fun for little kids to wear while playing “pretend” (boys included) along with the story behind it. We ended up with an aunt’s old prom dress, great uncle’s suit coat, grandma’s wigs, tacky jewelry, hats, purses, walking sticks, an uncle’s old holster… you name it, they sent it. On Christmas morning these were all in an old trunk with a big old lock. We opened it, read the different stories then let them “have at it”. We got quite a few years out of that one!

  42. Molly Doveon 09 Oct 2008 at 5:52 pm

    This year I want to buy handmade things. Hand made once-removed? I applaud creativity and want to give my $$ to local (or regional) artists, craft people, and entrepreneurs. I am not quite crafty enough to think up these things and do them myself, though I have made a few modest successes that way. This year I plan to attend a craft fair and do it all at once. Then I will cruise through the rest of the holiday season focusing on the other elements of the holidays that I enjoy–music, lights, good food.

    Last year holidays had a complicating factor–my husband’s injury, disability, and illness, and a major surgery in November and again in December. Looking back, I’m amazed I managed with all the stress and extra work. How I did it, sadly, was to treat it like a work project, and not expect or seek any joy or pleasure in it, except the pleasure of getting the job done.

    The thing I take from that is the satisfaction I felt in getting the gift part done early.


  43. Fernon 10 Oct 2008 at 1:37 pm

    We don’t do a lot of gift giving – well, *I* don’t do a lot of it, I’m trying to break my husband of the habit. I’ll get long underwear for his mom and her boyfriend (both are in their 90’s and chronically cold), I’ll have fruit delivered to my mother (who is in her 90’s and pays for college for my son, but doesn’t eat each fruits and veggies), and for my husband and son I’ll get them some needed clothes “oh boy, underwear!” and some sort of expensive favorite foods – wild rice, or vanilla beans, or mallomars, or Lindt chocolates, or blood oranges, etc. But most of the gifts will come from a used book store.

    Full bookshelves against outside walls counts as insulation, right?

  44. Ailsa Ekon 10 Oct 2008 at 4:15 pm

    We’re Jewish, so no Christmas here. When I first started celebrating Chanukah, I gave my daughter eight small stacks of presents tied together with ribbon, and she got to choose a different one each night. Since then, I’ve had it pointed out to me that this is not at all traditional, so I’ve cut way back. One gift a night (everyone still gets to choose), grownups as well as kids, but the gift might be flavored hot chocolate or a batch of homemade cookies as readily as a DVD (and if it’s a DVD, it’s from Birthdays, I like to get everyone a present or two, but again, they’re not likely to be lavish. My son gets excited about gifts of clothes, so that’s when I give him his new sweater for the winter.

  45. WOW Traineeon 10 Oct 2008 at 7:10 pm

    Fern, I hope full bookshelves against outside walls count as insulation. Especially, when there are green plants on top! If nothing else, these are insulation for the inner me! Helen

  46. tasterspoonon 10 Oct 2008 at 7:53 pm

    For what it’s worth: when I was very small, my family moved overseas bringing very little with them. For my third Christmas, my parents took one of those square cardboard moving boxes, put in some cardboard dividers, and MADE a dollhouse. They cut in little windows, used carpet remnants and wallpaper samples, made beds out of boxes, mirrors out of aluminum foil and tables out of wooden spools and matchboxes. I cannot overstate how much I loved that dollhouse. When we moved back to the States, my parents bought me a real wooden dollhouse, and I have to admit I never really cared for it, it never felt homey. In fact I can’t think of any bought present I enjoyed so much. When I think about it now, I realize they must have spent HOURS creating it. I’m 35 now and it’s still one of my favorite presents of all time.

    If I were to do this for my daughter, I might even consider giving her the component parts for her present – and then creating it with her.

  47. [...] Thinking about Presents, Ecology and Hard Times [...]

  48. Maeveon 11 Oct 2008 at 1:53 pm

    Thanks for the idea about using cherry pits! We’re well past cherry season here, but I’ll stockpile pits next year. :)

  49. AnnMarieon 11 Oct 2008 at 4:16 pm

    Me again! As you might have noticed, I’ve been reading a lot of old posts this week. Some things came to mind later on that I hope you might answer in future blog posts:

    1. Could you tell us more about the unheated porch you use for cold storage? I’m intrigued, as I thought our unheated porch would be too cold for this. I struggle with using our basement as it isn’t cold enough for most things and probably too damp (we run a dehumidifier almost 24/7/365 due to dampness). If I could use our front porch instead….

    2. Regarding storing water: Can (home)canned juices count in place of drinking water? I have lots of grape, apple and tomato juice we’d happily drink. Especially since we have almost no stored water at this time and it’s really hard to justify buying water in this day and age. We hope to go the route of filling up pop bottles, except DH has been drinking from cans lately. He’ll switch, but not till he finds some on sale.

    thanks for the fantastic blog! If nothing else, it got me to buy a first aid kit the other week and start a bug-out bag. Oh, and buy some BOGO solar flashlights. Probably more as the days go on, but that’s pretty good so far.

  50. Heather Grayon 11 Oct 2008 at 6:45 pm

    Just finished up the first day of Ashfield Fall Festival (I’m a craft vendor and L makes maple cotton candy). Part of the proceeds go to a local scholarship fund, which is cool.

    Anyway, just wanted to note that it seems like there were a lot of people out and about, socializing, etc. I did all right in sales although I suspect profits may be somewhat uneven — people are choosing more carefully what they’re purchasing. Interestingly I’ve been selling more of my more expensive items than usual this year, including two scarves. I think I’m hitting a mix of people who want to support local artisans and people who want to get nice, durable gifts without having to pay an arm-and-a-leg for them. Will see what tomorrow brings.

    Oh, and for anyone who lives near here, the library is having its annual book sale — lots of interesting books for reasonable prices!

  51. [...] Depression Holidays: Thinking About Presents, Ecology and Hard Times from Casubon’s Book [...]

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