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?

64 Responses to “Toys R Not Us: Making a Homemade Holiday”

  1. Deb says:

    We dont do much in the way of gifts in our family. Everyone in my family over 18 goes into the gift pool and we draw names. We do give small gifts to the kids, usually a book or small toy. I usually give a basket of preserves to the adults-jam and canned fruit are a big hit. One year we did some locally grown grass fed beef. Another was some venison from a deer my husband got. another year my husband made popcorn bowls for everyone and I included some locally grown popcorn.

    Last year I knit hats for everyone, kids and adults alike. It was fun but time consuming-especially when you dont start until November!

    This year everyone is getting a set of wristers to go under gloves. I found some alpaca that was pretty inexpensive and it’s really warm so they will get alpaca wristers. The kids will be getting embroidered mittens-3 rather than a pair so if they lose one they still have another-plus a book.

    My husband and I usually get something for the house or shop we need. Both our birthdays are close to Christmas so we pick a evening in January and go out for a quiet dinner alone as a gift to ourselves. Since we almost never eat out it’s a huge treat. Our kids are old enough that a gift certificate to Goodwill or a used bookstore is appreciated. They also love, love new socks and underwear, a 6 month supply of shampoo and deodorant or, for my daughter, a pound of loose tea.

    Deb in Wis

  2. Deb says:

    I forgot the recipe book tradition!

    In my mother’s family all the new brides made themselves recipe books out of notebooks. They used them to keep the tried and true recipes in rather than use a card system. I inherited 4 generations of recipe books when my mother passed away a few years ago. It’s more precious to me than my mother’s pearls or my aunts dishes. 4 generations of wisdom!

    The year after she died, I made recipe books for all the younger generation in the family. I took the recipes my mother made often, some that I make alll the time, some from my grandmother etc and put it together into a binder with index tabs and notebook paper to add to it. I put in a couple of notebook folder sleeves so they have a place to put things they cut out of papers etc and added a section for misc stuff like my playdough recipe and my mother’s laundry soap recipe and my grandmothers furniture wax recipe.
    For roughly $10 each they were tickled to death and have since told me they use them all the time.

    I have a niece who will be getting a recipe book this year since she is old enough now. And one for my daughter.

  3. ex consumer says:

    MEA: What I have been “doing” for gifting is taking old clothes such as dresses, etc and turning them into personalized and meaningful pieces of art with scraps of (old) material. For instance, I took a plain old summer dress and made daisy appliques by hand with some funky old material. My gosh, I loved it. Another young doll loved it too yet had no summer dresses at all, so I left it as a “Blessing” for her.

    Another young woman I know takes recycled clothing and turns them into altogether different items, yet makes certain the design reflects it’s former usage. She makes vests from old corduroy pants and worked on making a drum bag for a young man out of a woman’s blue sweater (he called it his ‘girlfriend’). Last I heard, the plan was to take things from free boxes, revamp them and then leave them in other free boxes to PAY IT FORWARD. :)

  4. Anonymous says:

    Replying before reading other responses:

    Suddenly I may be going for an extended-family Yule, and hence have an expanded gift list. The basics for much of the family are seasoning mixes (spaghetti & chili), gift-in-a-jar mixes, cider jelly, or lemon-sugar hand scrub. I basically plan on making a batch of each, wrapping in fabric pieces, and doling out as seems appropriate since I haven’t seen some of these folk for years.

    Gift for the more immediate family are actually the same, plus some homemade fruit leathers and a Twister game for sis’s small kids. Two people are getting mixed baskets of homemade jellies. DFH & DD will be more personal and decided later, but I am making a small pillow from a favorite outgrown shirt for DD.

    We’re trying, DFH and I, to move away from gifts and over to the celebration. I agree it’s for the better, and I remember the celebrations from childhood better than the gifts.

  5. Lorri says:

    *sigh* forgot to add info, so Anonymous above, making the Yule trip, is me.


  6. MEA says:

    ex consumer


  7. nika says:

    Was laid off Dec 3rd last year so any chance of christmas spirit then utterly shut down.

    I remain unemployed and am having a hard time getting into the spirit of any sort of fall holiday. I try, for my kids, but my preference would be for all of it to disappear. Mind you, we were never big on holidays to begin with, being 100% a-religious - xmas was always an odd hollow experience (once you get past the santa age). Our extended families live 1,000s of miles away and rarely or never visit. Skype and email is how we keep in touch. This might sound odd but as the descent continues, this will be the way of things for many people.

    The event that has most honest meaning to us is the winter solstice. We celebrate with a sun cake and candles and a moment at sunset to appreciate that the sun will be returning, even tho we know that winter has hardly begun for us (weather inertia pushes the worst of the -20 F days off to Jan and Feb). I try to help the kids learn a bit of historical context for this holiday but its certainly not about gods or spirits for us .. its about the very real and concrete reality of the sun.

    Beyond this, the gift giving holidays represent expectations we can not meet. My kids do not know it but our present to them is barely holding on to the house, month after month. I hope we can still say that at christmas.

  8. Brad K. says:

    @ nika,

    Year before last I gave pecans for presents.

    I don’t have any trees, but a neighbor let me gather under his trees for 1/2 the nuts; this worked out pretty well for me. Something like the 120 pounds of my share took care of a *lot* of gifts.

    What I like about this approach, is that 120 pounds of nuts went to my neighbor - that he wouldn’t have had to eat, to swap and barter with. I gave a couple of times, probably 30 pounds or so, to the local women’s shelter.

    Last year there were no pecans in the region; this year the ones I have seen fell early, and were black and hollow inside. So this will likely be the second year I don’t give pecans.

    Pecans, acorns, hazel nuts, walnuts - offer to gather nuts for neighbors that aren’t used to gathering their bounty. Turning over half of 5 pounds of nuts seems harsh, for a whole half hour of picking, checking for shuck worm holes, etc. But spend a couple hours, several days a week, and you accumulate enough that the effort pays well. Nuts can be a big source of calories and treats over the winter.

    The recommendation for best storage for pecans, that I found, was to shell them right away - check for shuck worms, blighted meats - and freeze them. Cleaning first reduces the volume taken, as well as the weight and number of parasites “preserved”. Unless you have someone crack the shells first, be prepared to sweep up scattered bits of broken shells. The shells are meant to protect nature’s bounty, after all.


  9. Carole says:

    Found Sharon’s sites today.My husband and I used to do food storage. After he died I got sloppy about putting up/away. So, how I came to Sharon’s was new hints and a fresh start.

    Today, my daughter suggested for next year making Christmas gifts to be homemade or second hand. How timely your blog was today. My mother used to make almost everything for gifts. My eldest son started doing the “swap” of a gift not to exceed $20. What fun and joy and isn’t that along with sharing and giving in the community what all our holidays are supposed to be?

    PS I adult children will be receiving Mom’s Cookbooks this year. Didn’t get them finished last year.

  10. MEA says:

    Dear Nika,

    I can understand why getting into any sort of holiday spirit would be a real effort.

    My thought on the Solistic (which has no relgious sig for me, so I may be talking thought my knitting woolie hat) is that it comes before the very cold weather as reminder that though the cold gets stronger as the days get longer, the days are getting longer and spring will come.


  11. namakemono says:

    for the past couple of years, I have given dried lemon grass to friends to use as herb tea. A friend has a couple of huge lemon grass plants (bushes??) in her garden that she doesn`t use much of, so gives it to me when it is cut in the autumn and I dry it and then pack it up in small ammounts at Christmas. My kids love helping to cut it all up and pack it.

  12. Are Americans Experiencing Frugality Fatigue? | says:

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  13. anime pillow love says:

    for the past couple of years, I have given dried lemon grass to friends to use as herb tea.

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