Christmas is messed up.
Lots are jammed, malls are rammed, and we race around in giant plastic cars to fill giant plastic bags with of giant plastic toys to set under giant plastic trees.
Toss another box on the pile!
Now, I’m definitely guilty, too. But my wife and I are always trying to pull back, pare back, and get intentional about what we’re giving every year. Perfect’s over there, we’re over here, but still: here are ten unconventional gifts we have given or received in the past few years which have helped dial down the insanity while dialing up the intimacy:
10. Old jewelry. Most things in your grandma’s closet don’t age well. Socks. Pantyhose. Reading glasses. Pink track pants. But jewelry is an exception. The story of a specific bracelet or pair of earrings only deepens, lengthens, and intensifies with time. “It’s the ring you grandfather bought me on our tenth anniversary” or “I bought these earrings for my prom back in Timmins.” The story of old jewelry is the story of the milestones in your life. Also applies to hoodies, watches, or anything else special you think someone else might love.
9. A batch of your homemade spaghetti sauce. Whip up a big batch of the good stuff and dollop it into jars for all your loved ones. Also works with salsa, jam, or granola. For bonus points cut out some little checkered cloths with pinking shears and wrap them around the lids with string.
8. A travel water bottle. By some estimates there are now over a million people in airplanes at any given time. That’s like a lot. And I don’t know about you but running to my gate in the screen-n-perfume-n-dead-eyeballed tank that is The Modern Airport always makes me thirsty. So I buy some $8 bottle of water, chug it, and chuck the plastic brick it came in into the trash. Horrible! I may as well personally strangle a pickerel. But what’s the solution? Well, a travel water bottle that dangles on the outside of a backpack. Perfect for airport tap water fill-ups. And a nice reminder of a loved one when you’re far away.
7. A different version of their favorite book. When I interviewed my favorite bookseller Sarah Ramsey for 3 Books she told me she had four copies of Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume. What? Why? Well! It’s her favorite book, they have different covers, one of them is signed, you get the idea. Why is this such a brilliant move? Because you already know they love it. Now they get an edition that’s different because of the cover or format or signature inside. It also ups your gift giving cred if you pored through endless used bookstore bins to find the gem. I just gave my friend Mark an original hardcover I found of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace because I knew he was a huge fan. (Sidenote: Mark wrote The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck which is an incredible book. The wonderful Strand Bookstore in New York sells signed copies of it online.)
6. An upgrade of that free meditation or mindfulness app they already love. Do they Headspace? Are they into Calm.com? Do they use the Momentum Chrome extension? If you already know they love it then you can soup up their experience by buying the upgrade. They went freemium. You can go premium.
5. A mix tape or personalized playlist with the track listing printed inside the card. Every single Christmas I eagerly look forward to my friend Mike’s “Best Of This Year” CD he painstakingly filters, produces, burns, and mails to me. Yes, I still listen to CDs, and I also toss his mix tape into a Spotify playlist to listen to while I’m traveling. Music says what words can’t. And, in an era of infinite choice, the value of curation skyrockets. If you want to get hardcore you can record it on a cassette and pair it with a used cassette player to play it on. And, if not, then making a custom playlist and writing up a pretty track listing in the card also works wonders.
4. A gift certificate to your favorite independent bookstore. 2009 and 2015 is often called the “retail apocalypse” because of all the big chains that went belly up. But what happened to the number of independent bookstores in the US during that time? They actually grew by 35%. Ditch the screens and let’s get back into books. They’re back. With a vengeance! Now, I have a personal Life Rule when it comes to independent bookstores. Simply: I am not allowed to walk into one without buying something before I leave. That’s pushed my brain into all kinds of places I never thought it’d go. Bookstores are one of the most vital members of our local cultural communities and a gift certificate from one of them is the stocking stuffer of love.
3. A hand-written love letter. Sounds daunting! That’s why it sticks out. A few things up front: The paper don’t matter, the pen don’t matter, crossing things off and rewriting them again and again don’t matter. No need for rhymes. No need for anything fancy. Just try to remove all the plaque between your heart and fingers and let it flow. What you remember about how we met, a few favorite memories from this year, and how you make me feel. Now, I debated not sharing this next part since it sounds a little cutesy but it’s true so I’m sharing it. My wife Leslie and I have been together for eight Christmases. We’ve never bought a single Christmas present for each other. We just write a letter to each other and that’s it. What would you rather have in 50 years? A pile of dusty electronics in your attic or a treasured collection of fifty love letters? Leslie even photographs them in case of tornado or typhoon. Again, length, style, format – none of it matters. According to a study published in the Journal of Psychological Science, when we express gratitude for others by writing them a handwritten letter, we underestimate how grateful recipients feel, overestimate how ‘awkward’ it is, and underestimate how positive they’ll feel. Don’t think about it. Just go for it.
2. A homemade coupon booklet. I know you remember giving these to your mom when you were six and couldn’t afford to get her a sweater. “This coupon entitles the bearer to 1 free hug.” And those coupons were beautiful and sweet and I bet they made your mom cry and I bet she kept them. But then what happened? You started getting her muffin trays and sweaters. Lame! Bring back the homemade coupon. But now, as an adult, you can make it a whole booklet. We know experiences make us happier than things and the homemade coupon brings experiences to life. Foot massages! Homemade lasagna! Watching the kids! Two weeks of laundry! Make out sessions! Wait, I’m talking about your partner not your mom now. I should clarify. Hey, if you take the advice of bestselling author Kelly Oxford in GQ, then sexual favors in committed relationships are fair game, too. Spicing up marriages, strengthening relationships, getting right to the nucleosis of generosity, and saving money. Is there anything homemade coupons can’t do?
1. A photo or essay book from all their friends and family. Okay, this here is the jackpot. When my friend Fred turned 30 years old I got an email from his wife Jen asking if I would write a little essay about what Fred means to me. So I did. And she collected similar essays from all his friends and family and put them into a book which is still one of his most prized possessions. Now, maybe this gift is better for their milestone birthday, rather than, you know, Jesus’s milestone birthday, but I think it needs to be mentioned because it takes a lot of time and effort to put together this type of gift. You might start planning for it this year and then place it under the tree in 2023.
Christmas, Christmas, long grown from its religious roots straight and into our increasingly secular world. But how do we flee the pulsing dehydration headaches, endless Man Couches, and chop suey chicken ball stenches from mall food courts?
We do it by preserving the magical reminder of generosity and togetherness by choosing gifts easy on the environment, easy on the wallet, and extra on the intimacy … whenever we can.