by ANN M. COLFORD & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & N & lt;/span & ot everyone goes along with the shopping fantasy vision of Christmas that fills pages, airwaves and Websites. Giving a gift of presence, rather than presents, can be more rewarding than all the gift cards in the world.
Environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben tackled the consumerist nature of the holidays in his 1998 book, Hundred Dollar Holiday. In a recent chat with members of the New American Dream online simple-living community (www.newdream.org), he urged people not to abandon the idea of giving gifts, but simply to reconsider how it's done. "Gift-giving is one of the great pleasures in the world, both for the giver and the recipient," he wrote. "The question is what should those gifts be."
Locally, Carey Hughes, associate pastor at Christ the Redeemer Church in West Central, has tackled the topic of holiday excess within his own extended family. "Our family buys one gift for another relative's family," he says. "So we're not trying to buy for each of their kids -- we do one gift, something like a family game, or a puzzle, or even a gift basket with all kinds of goodies." The emphasis, he says, is on gifts that encourage spending quality time together.
He and his wife have also worked to protect their own time. "Christmas morning is our family time, just the immediate family," he says. "Our Christmases are generally slow and easy. And my wife doesn't cook on Christmas Day -- on Christmas Eve, we have all kinds of goodies, and then those are out again Christmas morning. It becomes just another workday if somebody's got to cook."
Linda Kobe-Smith, a former pastor who now works with the disabled at L'Arche, grew up with family traditions that emphasized relationships and community over materialism, and those are the principles that she and her husband Dan drew upon when it came time to make their own family traditions. "Our kids never got a gift from Santa Claus," she says. "We wanted them to know that gifts come from people -- people who sacrificed money, time and work so you could have something."
Another tradition they started when their children were young was to select one special book for each person. "We figured if they're reading, they're all quiet," she laughs. "We all love to read, and our biggest activity to this day is finding books for people."
Much of their time around the holidays is spent visiting casually with family and friends. "We figure we have two weeks to do simple things with people instead of getting a whole bunch of fancy stuff," she says. They make a huge batch of scalidi -- Italian honey cookies -- together, and Dan likes to make pies. "It's all about having people over, not a fancy meal," she says. "Usually everybody pitches in and brings something over, and then it's not overwhelming for any one person."
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he darkest days of the year invite us toward reflection and gratitude, I think. After all, what's most important: the size or value of a gift, or the simple fact that another person thought about me long enough to consider my needs and to choose a gift for me?
Among a group of my friends, we have a year-round tradition called the Birthday Ball. The ball is actually a silver Christmas ornament about two inches across that opens and closes with a little clasp. On my birthday, I receive a gift from the person whose birthday precedes mine. The gift must fit inside the Birthday Ball and must cost no more than $10. Then I get a token gift for the next person on the calendar, and so on through the year. But the true gift is our presence in each other's lives.
It's not easy to break out of the cultural expectations of holiday insanity -- peer pressure remains a strong force, especially among families -- but it's not impossible. And most people are happy, even relieved, to ease up on the holiday pressures in any way possible.
"It's certainly possible to make deep impacts on one's own life, and there's a place to start, anyway," says Bill McKibben. "Even if the rest of the world doesn't come along, you will have had the pleasure of a different kind of holiday."
Travel items have become more popular as holiday gifts. Some families forgo the giant stacks of presents in favor of a family trip to a warmer place. They find the time spent together is more valuable than the stuff they'd give each other. Opening one modest present on a beach can become a great holiday memory. If you're buying for someone who enjoys travel, About.com recommends daypacks, money belts, global cell phones, journals and (for European travelers) rail passes all as valuable gifts. Or you can just foot the bill for the travel costs. Most -- if not all -- of the major airlines have jumped on the gift certificate craze, allowing you to buy certificates or gift cards in $25, $50 or $100 increments. Others allow you to buy miles toward free airline tickets. Now if they'd just start selling certificates guaranteeing they won't lose your luggage...