Ho ho ho… Happy shopping! (really)

By Eva Murray | Dec 08, 2011

More than likely I am preaching to the choir with this one. The issue is, or will be: Can we make it stick?

Can we engage in holiday shopping that we at least occasionally enjoy and feel good about?

This isn’t supposed to be torture; it isn’t even supposed to be a ridiculous amount of work. See all those pretty little lights in the store windows and wound around the Main Street trees? Maine’s local merchant associations aren’t saying, “Get in here and struggle, you saps, because your spoiled little rank-mouthed nephew and that pompous moron at work require you to spend money on them and they are keeping score!” (I say, give people like that the 12-pack of thin white socks and the rock-hard third-generation fruitcake, anyway.)

Giving gifts isn’t supposed to be a burdensome obligation; that’s the description of a “tribute payment,” like a powerful ruler would exact, in the old days, from a small-town headman in exchange for not wiping out his little sub-kingdom.

Shop where they know your name. Shop in stores that are pleasant to be in. Buy things from the artists, artisans, writers, builders and growers who created them. If you need something not made around here, work hard to find “Made in USA.” If that’s out of the question; for example, if you’re giving coffee, or Scotch, or spices, buy from a small-town retailer. Shop at owner-operated businesses. Buy from start-ups, from seasonal businesses, from farmers, and from hobbyists.

Don’t spend more money on wrapping, and containers, and decorations, and silly trinkets for acquaintances, and on-sale gadgets for yourself than you do on decent gifts for close friends and family. You will undoubtedly feel better about your shopping if you get home having spent your money on stuff the people closest to you will like and use. Don’t set yourself up to feel like you’ve been wasting your time.

Give gift certificates for professional services; these are great for luxuries like massages, but you can be creatively practical if you are tactful. A plate of Christmas cookies to the right person could have a discreet little note tucked in that says, “We pre-paid your furnace cleaning, Auntie — Love, The Usual Suspects.” A word to the wise, though: If you give your sweetie a gift card for an oil change, you’d be well advised to also give her that sea glass bracelet. Same goes for snow tires.

Even for the able cook with time, creating homemade gifts for everyone is harder than it used to be because a lot of people don’t want sweets anymore, and homemade gifts so often mean cookies, jam, or the like. However for those not on strict diets, who just don’t wish to be overwhelmed with more excess in December, consider something they can eat later, like frozen (homemade) cookie dough. Form the dough into logs, wrap in wax paper and then aluminum foil and then an airtight bag, and freeze. The recipient can slice off two or three cookies and bake them in 15 minutes for a midnight snack, or save the batch for Super Bowl Sunday, or some bleak day in late winter.

Food gifts, by the way, don’t have to be sweets and fancies all the time. My mother-in-law used to give an elderly friend a nice roast beef each year. I think that is a terrific idea. A membership in a CSA, a gift certificate to a (hopefully locally-owned) food store that carries both treats and necessities, a couple of nice steaks or a big frozen lasagna— again, for later — may be more appreciated than another box of candy.

Of course I was raised, as most of us were, to worry about the price of things, but we really have to compare apples with apples if we’re going to talk about the price. A cheap, mass-produced item may or may not be the same quality as what the guys over in Appleton make on their farm. Also, if the idea is to minimize stress and enjoy the gift-giving process as part of the holiday celebration, thinking about extremely underpaid Asian laborers may not be the mental image you wish to cultivate. There is more to cost than sticker price. Sorry, you knew that already. Lecture over.

Give yourself the gift of doing it for fun. Your family or coworkers will appreciate your better mood. Don’t spend a real lot of money, just don’t. If you don’t like going to the mall, don’t go. If you do go, for heaven’s sake, don’t do it in the rain when half the universe is there; don’t take small children unless the trip can be all about them; do take drinking water; do treat yourself to a real sit-down meal in the middle of the afternoon, and spend the quarter for a locker to put your coat in. If you’ll have to make the trip in a screeching hurry, skip it entirely.

Trade a product or treat you make with somebody else who makes good things; you give their item to your friends, and they do the same with yours. If all your friends already have bottles of your homemade limoncello and all their friends already have their hand-painted mailboxes, trade a half-dozen each way.

Buy used, if there is no reason not to. You can find never-been-worn treasures in second-hand clothing stores (and shopping in second-hand bookstores is just plain fun!) Small children are perfectly delighted with gently-used toy trucks and the like. One word of experience: I’m not sure I’d recommend this should you happen to be planning to give appliances.

Give gifts of time and labor rather than things; babysitting and yard chores are generally big hits. Give elderly, overworked, or injured neighbors gifts like dog walking, snow removal, or running errands, and then really do it! That’s the thing, you have to really do it.

Go in together with family or friends to give one really nice gift instead of multiple inexpensive things.

Give school-age children experiences, rather than objects. Take them for a train ride or ice skating or to a concert they'd like or to a big sporting event or whatever. If they are the sort of kid who wouldn’t enjoy anything like that, and only wants pricey electronics, they’ve got bigger problems than you can solve. Give them socks.

If you're giving to a small child who will be impressed with lots of packages to open, remember that they won't care how much you spent on the contents, so wrap up lots of simple, inexpensive things in pretty packaging (and that wrapping doesn't have to cost a lot, either.) A collection of little toy boats or cars or animals could be the favorite present for a three-year old.

If you're exchanging with adult acquaintances, don't overdo it and make them feel awkward because they didn't reciprocate equally. Most people don't want this to be a contest. Keep it simple. You'll be giving your cousins and coworkers the courtesy of low-stress gifting. If the deal is a “$10 limit,” for example, but you know that Sally Show-off will really give something too expensive and make people feel weird and then it will snowball, perhaps agree to $10 gift cards. They don’t all have to be the usual ones, either. Main Street shops and local small businesspeople can usually be convinced to issue a gift certificate. You can think of one that will be original. Coworkers can trade them, too.

By the way, as regards the much-maligned gift of socks: They can be an excellent thing to receive. Thick, soft, cushy socks are actually a favorite of mine. Handmade ones, colorful silly ones, or top-quality hiking socks are worthy gifts. Socks get a bad rap.

A few other thoughts: Write physical letters to old friends. Take high school and college kids out to eat somewhere nice after exams. Send Maine balsam wreaths to people who live where there is no forest. Show up at a friend’s place and just do some yucky job they’d never think to ask about, like cleaning under the refrigerator or turning over the compost. Have somebody’s old piano tuned. Make somebody a batch of homemade ice cream. Keep your exasperation with all this holiday excess to yourself. Go to one of the local concerts. Smile and thank the delivery driver. Tip well.

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