Lowering the gift-giving curve

Friday, November 30, 2012

After all these years of trying to outdo ourselves seeing how much we can spend on the perfect Christmas present, I would humbly suggest that it may be time to take a step in the other direction.

I don't mean that you should give your loved ones intentionally lousy presents - the bathroom scale that goes up to 300 pounds and is on sale at Bomgaars may not be the ideal gift for your wife... who knew?

And then there's the one guy in the neighborhood who brags about giving his whole family handmade "coupons" for the holiday - as if he's the first person in the universe to come up with that one. You know, "redeem for a free hug," "redeem for a free backrub," "redeem for a free turn in which I'll help with your homework, mow the lawn, do the dishes, " whatev.

Is there any better way to say "Ha, I spent zip for the holidays and I know you'll lose this crappy piece of paper long before I actually have to do anything!" Might as well write on the back of that coupon, "Oh, and rest of the year I'll continue being a thoughtless slob who does nothing for anyone."

I was slightly taken aback by our second grade class during a visit to Santa's Castle recently. Usually there is one kid at the back of the line to see Santa who rescues my faith in the holiday by asking for someone they know to be happier, or healthier, or for someone to come home safely from the middle east, or for starving people to be able to eat or just for - you know - things to be better in the space around them. The same kind of things used to show up every so often in the letters to Santa that kids from around the area would write and we'd print in the paper. It's been a while since I've seen anything aside from a list of expensive wants, and that makes me a little sad.

"I'll be needing the iPad, 32 gig of course. Already have the iPad and the laptop and the Xbox," a kid tells Santa. I smile politely, but inside I cringe. I'm not sure whether it's the fact that it now takes several hundred dollars worth of gift to satisfy a seven-year-old, or because, darn it, that's what I really wanted too.

Does anybody remember stuffed animals, board games, a football, or Barbie back when she was eight bucks and didn't have to come with a mansion in Malibu, her own cosmetology studio, a Corvette, and a personal assistant doll to handle her breast enhancement and rehab therapy group appointments?

Judging from the advertising I see, Christmas gifts aren't warm scarves, good books, a funny coffee mug or a plate of cookies any more.

They're boats and cars and luxury appliances and diamonds and $1,599 computers and 90-inch TVs, bigger and better things to replace the things that we mostly already have. It's not the thought that counts, or whether the recipient actually needed that item, it's how much you spent on it.

Heaven forbid you don't cough up enough getting something you actually thought the recipient would like. They'll thank you to your face, but as quick as the value can be calculated in their head, you will enter the doghouse for at least the year to come, and your faux pas will be the fodder for evil gossip the moment you are out of the room. They are NOT laughing with you, sparky.

If you're not still making payments on it next August, you just didn't love 'em enough. And good gosh, don't forget the gift receipt. Because if it didn't cost enough, they'll have to haul it on back.

It's not a case of begrudging people what they are able to buy. If a BMW convertible or a townhouse on the golf course is what you can afford and you want to give, congratulations on your success and your generosity.

I'm only saying that it doesn't have to be about more, more, more; bigger, bigger, bigger; and ultimately, about money.

I'll tell you what - a tank of gas (with an invitation to come visit you) or a nice cut of meat (with the promise of a candlelight dinner to be shared) would be a heck of a nice gift, in these economic times. Forget the iPad, I'll take 18 ounces of Beef iJerkey and be a happy iCamper.

I've got kids, I know how easy it is to get caught up in the Christmas arms race. What if you don't buy them the best computer, and they flunk out of school and sleep on park benches for the rest of their lives and talk to squirrels and wear out of fashion hemp clothing? What if you don't buy them the most advanced and expensive smartphone, and they are shunned by their peers and become outcasts or worse, members of Congress?

Nothing wrong with that high-dollar stuff. In fact, if you have some extra of it laying around, feel free to stuff it in your beloved editor's stocking.

But I wonder if the best gift under a child's tree may not mindlessly entertain them every moment, but wring some imagination out of them... Something that's special, and means something between the two of you, so nobody else could have thought of it. (And something that requires thought on your part above and beyond typing in your credit card number on the Apple computer shopping website.)

Six dollars for a skimpy roll of giftwrap?? Bah!

Get yourself some cheap white paper and a tube of red lipstick and make lip kisses all over, for a gift your boyfriend will never forget. (Note: this doesn't work well for your bowling buddies, fellas, unless its a special kind of league.)

Heck, wrap a gift in a gift - use a nice set of flannel sheets or their favorite college's t-shirt as wrapping. In a pinch, use whatever you've got. The newspaper, a leftover scrap of wallpaper from the basement, wrap up a comfy pair of woolen mittens in your heat bills from the past year. Creativity's cooler than expense.

Those who come from big families know the "$15 limit" trick. We all knew it was there because no one had enough money to go around, but in fact, it was genius. It forced thought and creativity and good humor over pricetag. Those gifts were still being talked about when the next holiday season rolled around, not being replaced by the next gen of high-dollar gadget.

Okay, it's going on December and lets face it, Martha Stewart you're not. A fabulous handmade gift may not be in your wheelhouse. So what?

You probably have a basket around, or the local charity store will. Assemble a gift basket of entirely items available at Storm Lake convenience stores on Christmas eve an hour before closing. Or get every member of their family to kick in some little memory item for their basket. Whatever - make it uniquely you, and uniquely them. Lottery tickets for stocking stuffers? Shut up. Show you listen - get the music they always sing along to when it comes on the car radio, the book about the place they dream about, frame their favorite snapshot, get tickets to a show they've talked about.

I challenge you this year. Whatever you give for presents - be it expensive or cheap or free - make it about the thought first, not the money.

Give your time, give your heart.

Let's start this year, getting back to a place when the term "gift" wasn't synonymous with "how much?"