Christmas decorations pop up in stores in September; relentless television advertising pushes consumers to empty wallets for a “perfect” holiday; the irony of rushing around buying gifts right up until Dec. 24, only to see prices deeply discounted on Dec. 26; the economic hardship so many dealing with the season of pressured spending — all this contributes to a collective spirit of de-emphasizing materialism in lieu of meaning.
I’ve spoken to many who long for a simpler holiday, focusing on the important things of being together and gratitude for blessings.
My first inclination was to bag the whole gift-giving thing. Although I don’t enjoy shopping, I do enjoy celebrating the people in my life with gifts that will make them smile and know they are loved and thought of, so eliminating gifts altogether wasn’t the answer. So I sought gifts that were useful, communicated appreciation or furthered a greater mission.
Here are some:
• For books, I highly recommend “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” by Greg McKeown, which unwittingly started me on my journey to simplify by filtering the trivial from the vital.
Another good one is “More or Less: Choosing a Lifestyle of Excessive Generosity” by social entrepreneur Jeff Shinabarger, who includes exercises in the book to stretch the reader’s ideas of how much is enough, such as seeing how long you can live without going grocery shopping by eating only what you have in the pantry, and counting the number of clothing items you own. I’m anxious to read Shinabarger’s new book “Yes or No: How Everyday Decisions Will Shape Your Life Forever.”
• Know someone who loves bacon? Buy a symbolic pig through Oxfam. Your $50 provides a pig to a family in need in a poverty-stricken area of the world, and the pig can provide fertilizer and even garbage disposal for the family. Your recipient gets a card through the mail or email explaining the gift. Oxfam offers opportunities to buy other animals, like goats and chickens, or school meal programs and emergency supplies.
• Here’s a different twist on a gift card — from Opportunity International, an organization that provides microfinancing in 22 countries around the world. Gift cards come in any denomination starting at $10, and the recipient can choose which loan or project to fund.
• Concerned about your carbon footprint? At CarbonFund.org, calculate your carbon footprint and plant trees to offset your use, or buy a gift card for someone else to do the same. One promotion to plant 25 trees for $25 earns a $50 Restaurant.com e-gift card. Other denominations are available.
In a similar vein, at Amazonia Reforestation you can fund the planting of 10 trees, from seedling to harvest, in the Orinoco River basin of Vichada, Colombia. The cost is $100, and after those trees are harvested and sold in 10 years, they will buy the trees back from you for $340. I can’t speak to the soundness of this investment to recommend it one way or another, so please read the disclosure information on its website to make an informed decision about the risks and potential reward. With this program, you do plant specific trees and can actually visit them if you’d like.
•For promoting world peace, Nebraskans for Peace sells an annual calendar “Cat Lovers Against the Bomb.” From War to Peace sells jewelry made with an alloy they call Peace Bronze, created from copper from disarmed nuclear weapons. Some items are 50 percent off for their holiday sale, like their “Beers not Bombs” bottle opener key chain and peace-themed pendants and earrings.
• In the United States, Plywood Peopleshop employs refugees in Clarkston, Georgia, through the Billboard Bag program. They offer training, mentoring, and English language lessons, and employees create bags and billfolds from upcycled billboards and coffee sacks.
• Imagine Goods sells handcrafted items created by human trafficking survivors in Cambodia. It’s a self-proclaimed sustainable supply company, because it ensures the entire chain of people involved in its products are earning a living wage and are being empowered. Its goods can be purchased online and also in some stores around Lancaster.
• Closer to home, Emma’s Friends Soaps and Lotions in Tamaqua was imagined in the heart of Lynn Elko, who started the company to creatively employ individuals with disabilities like her daughter, Emma. Its soaps and lotions are all handcrafted and smell so good. You can always find Emma’s Friends lavender soap in our office bathroom, as well as its lotions scattered in every room. You can visit them in person at their shop in Tamaqua or order online.
• Did you know your Christmas card purchase can help humanitarian efforts? Buying your cards from organizations like UNICEF or Bread for the World further their causes. We use UNICEF’s greeting cards in our office; they are high quality and beautiful. UNICEF sells other gifts as well.
• How about the gift of memories? Organize family photos for your parents, or have home movies preserved on DVD. Create an heirloom video with a company like The Big Montage right here in Bushkill.
• Finally, a gift that doesn’t cost anything — a handwritten, heartfelt note or a simple drawing from a grandchild is the best and most treasured gift I can receive (hear that kids?)
Wow, some of these ideas take the usual holiday season’s selflessness to a whole new level. Contributing with money is crucial, but my favorite way to gift someone is volunteering. That’s because directly investing my time and energy is more engaging and personal than a 3-minute bank transfer. Sometimes volunteering is not possible, and you have no choice, but still, I think it’s much nicer when one’s volunteering and donation come together at some point, not separately.
Nevertheless, these are all great ideas, thank you!