Raise your hand if you haven’t made a gift run to Starbucks on the morning of the last day before school break begins, to CVS at lunchtime on the way to the office gift swap or to Toys “R” Us after work on the way to the family Holiday party.
Just thinking about satisfying everyone’s gift expectations is overwhelming. It’s no wonder so many of us end up in a last-minute gift-buying sweep that exhausts our spirits—and our bank accounts. Buying gifts for tots, teens, sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews, parents and aunts could bankrupt you before you even begin to think about your list of service providers. Never mind your legion of co-workers, neighbors and acquaintances.
Where do you draw your holiday gift-giving lines? Do you give your kids presents each night of Chanukah or make a big deal on Christmas Eve? Should you drop something off for the dry cleaner who did the rush repair on the bat mitzvah dress or the hairdresser who squeezed you in when your roots had you under house arrest?
Don’t get me wrong. I love giving and receiving gifts. Who doesn’t like to get a present? Something you couldn’t or wouldn’t buy yourself. A pair of shoes you’ve lusted after. An afternoon at the spa. Killer earrings. Better yet, what can make your heart melt faster than a child delighted by a first trip to the circus or a brand new puppy?
What I don’t love is falling victim to the gift-giving trap that ensnares so many of us at the holidays. Whether Chanukah sneaks up after Thanksgiving or comes roaring in at Christmas, it’s impossible to avoid the frenzy. Merchants—both the brick-and-mortar and electronic variety—seduce us with dazzling gifts and deep discounts. The kids clamor for the latest toys, gadgets and designer duds. Who hasn’t heard, “But it will make me happy, and I’ll never ask for another PlayStation, iPad, pair of Rag and Bone jeans ever again in my life”? (We all know how long that promise lasts.) Lovely cards arrive from the newspaper delivery person, the lawn-mowing person and the mail delivery person wishing you and your loved ones a lifetime of peace and joy.
It’s time to put the fun back into the holidays. It’s time to slow down and practice mindful giving. But how? Here are my strategies:
Start planning well ahead of the holiday season. The critical first step is to be realistic about what you can afford. Make an overall gift budget and resolve to stick to it. Then draft a comprehensive list of all the people in the world whom you might possibly want or need to give a gift. Ruthlessly edit the list. Unless you have a true feeling for the receptionist at the dog groomer, you are not obligated to bring her a gift. The same is true for the once-a-year mechanic.
If you’re Excel savvy, make a spreadsheet. This will allow you to keep track of who is on your list, what you give each year and how much you spend. Over time, this will save you big time on shame, if you are a “re-gifter” (we’re not judging); scorn, by avoiding gifting your snooty aunt the same style of scarf three years in a row; confusion, if you can’t remember how much you tipped the super last year and don’t want to unwittingly under- or overdo this year’s gift. It will also help you keep a running tally of your gift expenses. If you’re not Excel savvy, make a gift file on your computer and keep lists there. (This is a smart procedure for more than holiday gift giving.)
Talk with your family, near and extended, about how you would like to celebrate the holiday season and approach gift giving. Begin by talking about the meaning of Chanukah and the traditions you value. If you have kids, this is a great time to discuss how the winter holidays have spun out of control in a material way. Brainstorm ways that you can make the holidays fun and meaningful for everyone.
There are infinite ways that families choose to celebrate. Perhaps your family will choose to simplify the holiday by giving gelt (chocolate or silver), making latkes, playing dreidel games and lighting the menorah nightly. Or your family may choose charitable giving and volunteering over exchanging gifts.
Remember, I said I love gifts, and if kids are involved in the decision-making, my bet is the vote will be for presents, or for presents and some form of giving outside of the home. (Let’s face it: Unless you live in a predominately Jewish community, Chanukah presents can help Jewish kids cope with the Christmas onslaught. As a child, Chanukah gift giving was my way to join in the fun and be part of the popular culture. Chanukah was ballast for Christmas.)
But presents serve another function. This is a great time to teach kids about “how” to give a present. Point out that gifts come in all shapes and sizes: gifts purchased, gifts made and gifts experienced. Encourage them to think about what their friends and family might like, and then have them help you select or make the gifts. It’s also a great time for them to use some of their allowance or savings to buy presents.
How many nights of gifts?
When my kids were small, we gave them one big present, something they desperately wanted on the first night. This was followed each night with a token gift. Things they needed, like new socks, underwear and rain boots. Our main goal was to treat them with presents that would bring pleasure, but our secondary goal was to show the difference between a want and a need.
Getting relatives (and friends) together for Christmas or Chanukah adds to the joy of the holiday. But extended family members come with different means and values, and purchasing gifts for everyone can present logistical and financial challenges. While a generous and well-heeled aunt or uncle may not think much of giving nieces and nephews pricey Bloomie’s gift cards, this can raise an uncomfortable bar for other family members with lesser means. A good policy is to get it all on the table, have an open and frank discussion and coordinate gift-giving policies.
Consider any or all of the following: Limit your gift giving to those under 18, set a one-gift-per-person limit by assigning gift buddies or putting a cap on the amount spent per gift. If you’re a logistical genius, use this as an opportunity for the entire extended family to do a tzedekah or tithing project together: Go to a retirement home or a shelter and help make and serve a meal, read books, listen to stories or distribute gifts. Then come home and have your own family party!
Do you worry that a gift won’t be nice enough or be liked? Are you trying to keep up with the neighbors? It’s time to get over your gift-giving insecurities. Everyone wonders about how much to spend on a gift. The right answer is whatever comfortably fits your budget. If your sister-in-law is obsessed with price, labels and status, you can’t change her. While it might make finding a gift she’d like easy—a Coach wallet, Polo key chain or Juicy sweatshirt—never feel that you must spend more than you can afford. And just because your son’s Hebrew school buddy is getting a new iPad and new skis and is going to Aspen for the holidays, you aren’t a failure as a parent if you don’t follow suit.
Simplify Gifts of Obligation and Appreciation
For years, one of my main trip wires during the holiday season was keeping track of all the people outside my family circle I needed to recognize and fretting about what to give them. Over time, I came to the conclusion that steady service providers most appreciate a cash gift and a lovely card. And if there is someone I am particularly close to, I add a personal item like a favorite fragrance or a home-baked goodie.
What about the neighbor, acquaintance or workmate that gives you a present, and you don’t have the desire, funds or time to look for the right reciprocal gift? Then there are the others: the piano teacher, the Pilates coach, the dog walker. Choose a few simple gifts that are sure to please everyone, and make or buy them in bulk.
Make pickles, jams or relishes. Bake cookies, a cake or a torte. Infuse vodkas (now we’re talking). Head over to Costco and buy a few industrial-sized bottles of Kirkland vodka. Save smaller decorative bottles or buy new ones and infuse the vodka with herbs or a horseradish root. We spent the summer tending bottles of “bitters” guaranteed to be the most unique gifts we’ll give this year.
Not a baker or handy or crafty, but love to shop? Look for local crafts fairs and spend the day hunting for interesting gifts. (A note of caution: Go armed with a set budget and the number of items needed.) Or stock up on bags of interesting loose teas; boxes or tins of chocolate (Taza is my favorite); a case of wine; or $5 or $10 gift cards to Starbucks, Pinkberry or Red Mango.
Now that you’ve got an organized list, know your budget and have gifts at the ready, it’s time to focus on giving gifts to the people you love.
Share a Special Experience
Do you remember your favorite aunt, cousin or family friend taking you to do something special on your own, just the two of you? Maybe you went to the zoo, spent an afternoon at the museum or a baseball game, or went canoeing or hiking. For me, it was a B’nai B’rith trip with my favorite aunt to see Fiddler on the Roof with Zero Mostel. We took a long bus ride, shared a room at the old Edison Hotel and ate at the Carnegie Deli. I’ve never forgotten it. It was the first time I went to New York, and it was the first play I ever saw.
Take your kids, grandkids, nieces and nephews on their own special excursion for their Christmas or Chanukah present. They’ll never forget the experience—or you.
Give the Gift of Tradition
There is no better gift during a holiday than one that celebrates and passes down family traditions and memories. Are there things that you remember doing with your parents or grandparents? Did someone teach you to knit, sew or cook? How about making an instructional YouTube video to share with your kids, grandkids and nieces and nephews? Put together a cookbook of all your favorite recipes, along with your mom’s, grandma’s and aunt’s, and have it printed for everyone.
Each year when my kids were young, they would spend time over the holidays with my mother. She would cook with them, making recipes her grandmother had taught her mother and she had taught me: coffee cakes, strudels and blintzes. I wish that we had videotaped those sessions.
Dig through old family photos (both the piles in boxes and that one large file on your computer) and go to Shutterfly, Flickr, iPhoto or CVS. Make a new photo album and have it bound. We did this with photos from a family trip, and it’s the most thumbed-through volume sitting on our coffee table.
In the same spirit, now that you’re planning ahead, keep your camera or iPhone handy and start snapping pictures of your friends and relatives. Then have a calendar, poster or note cards made for their presents.
Don’t Forget Your Partner
If you’re in a relationship, make your gift to your partner meaningful, something that you can share. Learn a new skill together: Sign up for dancing lessons, cooking classes or a weekend yoga retreat.
Ultimately, practicing mindful gift giving isn’t only good for your wallet, it’s good for your soul.