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Gift-Giving: You Won't Find This in a Store

November 4, 1998
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Editor’s Note:  We asked some of our staff and volunteers to share their ideas on gift-giving:

Betsy Kocsis: We don't bother asking our dad what he wants for Christmas or his birthday anymore. We know the answer: he'll just say "peace of mind," "world peace" or something else equally impossible to pick up at a store, let alone give. Now my sisters and I "shop" for Dad's presents at Heifer Project International (HPI), a nonprofit organization that helps struggling families all over the world "find a sustainable way of providing food and income for themselves." For his birthday this past August my dad received a card in the mail saying that his three daughters had bought a goat for a family in his name. My sisters and I chose a goat because HPI reports that girls especially benefit when their families receive Heifer Project goats. Goat's milk feeds their bodies and the cash income from the goat products helps families extend their resources so the girls -- as well as the boys -- receive an education. My dad was delighted with his gift. I don't know whether it helps him feel any more peaceful, but we like to think so. [website is]

Abbi Eldridge: My grandmother has always had a need to buy us all kinds of things.  A collector who lived through hard times in her childhood, having material things is a sign of stability for her, and it is part of her way for expressing love for our family.  However, our homes started to get overrun with gifts from Grandma...clothes, sweaters, books, the list can go on and on. This year, when Grandma asked me what I wanted for Christmas, instead of sidestepping the question to avoid getting more things I don't need, I told Grandma that what I want the most is for her to gather up all of her old pictures, newspapers, and clippings, and put them in a scrapbook that the whole family to enjoy. I'm hoping that she will put this scrapbook together with whatever memories she chooses to write down to go along with the pictures, and give my children and generations-to-come the opportunity to know her well. 

Laura Jones: Sometimes I can't bear the idea of bringing one more item into my house – I know I will end up responsible for cleaning it, or storing it, or making space for it in some way! So for various occasions I have given my husband tickets to a concert or show. I know that he will enjoy the opportunity to go out on a "date" together, it guarantees that we will actually make the time to go, and I don't have to wander around the store wondering what he can use. Using the tickets later also helps to spread the holiday out a little and gives us something to look forward to. Tickets can be expensive - making them a gift helps me to justify the cost. 

Mary Beth Eye: It's so hard to find something to give my mom for her birthday, Mother's Day, etc.  My son's school has an Adopt-A-Book program, where you can donate a book to the school library in someone's honor or memory.  We have donated books in my mother's honor for several occasions now, and she loves knowing that the children are getting good, quality books to check out.  And it's tax-deductible and wrap-free! 

Cathy Myers: My parents used to ask me for ideas about what kind of gift they could buy for our children.  They knew we avoided the latest fads, and though they saw the children several times a year it wasn’t easy to keep up with their interests.  One year, I realized that what we all needed most was a chance to get out of the house for some exercise on those winter days of sleet and wet, cold playgrounds.  I asked my parents to buy each of the children a book of entrance tickets for the recreation center, and they happily agreed.  I put holiday stickers on each envelope, and for several months, whenever we enjoyed a swim at the pool, the children remembered that Grandma and Grandpa had given them this special treat. 

Annette Mills: A few years ago, my family began a new tradition that has resulted in some of our favorite gifts.  For the three nights before Christmas, we prepare some small slips of paper and pieces of ribbon or yarn.  As we sit quietly together around the Christmas tree, each family member writes something they appreciate about each other family member.  Then each paper is rolled, the appropriate name is written on the outside, and it’s tied closed and hung on the tree.  The next night, and on Christmas eve, we repeat the process.  On Christmas morning, we intersperse the opening of gifts with the unrolling and reading aloud of our ‘appreciations.’  The whole process – thinking and writing, then opening and reading the papers together, embodies the spirit of the season for me.  It’s become my favorite tradition.  [Note: we chose to do this for three nights since there are just three in our family and it’s really nice to have several ‘appreciations’ to read.  If we had a larger family, one night of writing would probably be sufficient.]

Maureen Wade: One year when Kathleen (my oldest) was struggling to see how she could fit into the newly expanded family picture, we gave her coupons for alone time with Mom and Dad. It wasn't like the "good for one hug" type thing but actual "dates."  There were twelve (one for each month), alternating parents. Dad took her to the Washington Monument one month (we live about an hour away), mini-golf another. I took her to Taco Bell (a place her sisters dislike) for lunch, to Borders to pick out a book and to the National Museum of Natural History.  We made sure there was a mix of quickie dates and more formal ones.  It took a little time to think of things both parent and child would enjoy so that the adult would actually commit to it and place it as a priority (my husband would have backed out of a trip to Toys R Us I'm sure!)  As it turns out the coupon book was by far the most memorable thing we have ever given her. She still mentions it now five years later. Come to think of it, maybe this Christmas we should try it again!

A very thoughtful gift we’ve all enjoyed came from my mother-in-law.  She sent the girls a beautiful book about the First Christmas, and recorded herself reading the book to them.   Other relatives have asked for ideas, and I’ve suggested that they give the kids gift subscriptions to magazines.  An idea I have dreamed about but never received is Babysitting coupons!  I would love to get a night out with free babysitting.

Eileen Doughty: I am a firm believer in giving gifts that can be used, and used up.  I came to this conclusion as my children grew older and their toys came with more and more parts (to be scattered all over the house) and as I saw all the things their teachers receive EVERY year.  My gifts of choice for teachers and other friends are either food items, or a beautiful handmade soap available at a gift store in my area. I remember making some gift items in this transitory category when I was a child.  One was a pomander, made by sticking whole cloves into an orange, and then tying a ribbon around it.  It smelled so wonderful! Older children can make designs with the cloves. (I also distinctly remember the dents the cloves left in my fingertips!)           

Wendy Taube: Our family, like many others, finds it difficult to always come up with the "perfect gift" for birthdays and holidays.  My children have enjoyed coming up with creative ideas for gift certificates (complete with expiration dates)!  I have received certificates for things such as "home cooked meals" by the kids themselves, manicures, movie rentals, breakfast in bed, etc.  If the item needs to be paid for, the money comes from their allowance savings!  It gives them a chance to think about someone else's needs, and it brings smiles and wonderful end results to the recipient.  I have even started giving them certificates in return.  The best part was when my daughter ACTUALLY put "gift certificates" on her wish list! 

Marybeth Connelly: Last November my Mom asked me, on a particularly bad hair day, what I'd like for Christmas. I wailed in desperation, "All I want in life is a good hair cut." "Perfect," she replied, "I'll treat you to a hair cut and you can get it highlighted, too." On Thanksgiving weekend she took care of my children for a whole morning while I relaxed in the beauty shop with a mindless magazine. Then, for the month of December I had extra energy because I had a good haircut and no more gray hair!

Marian Gormley: A few years ago, my parents kept saying that they were so excited that three out of four of us kids and families could all get together for the upcoming holidays. They kept commenting, however, how they wished Paul, my youngest brother who was serving in the U.S. military in Belgium at the time, could join us.  We all decided "What better gift for Mom and Dad? Let's surprise them and have Paul join us!"  We contacted Paul, urged him to come, and pitched in toward the cost of his ticket.  It was hard to keep the secret, but we did.  Paul flew into the US and stayed at our house, anxiously awaiting my parents' arrival the next day.  He hid in the hall closet when their car pulled into the driveway.  When they went to hang up their coats, Paul jumped out.  "Surprise! Merry Christmas!"  We'll never forget the tears and looks on my parents' faces as they hugged him, looking around at all of us and realizing that for the first time in a long time, they and all four of their children and families were going to spend the holiday season together!

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