By Danielle Harder
The plan hatched quite accidentally last July while visiting my sister and her family. My three-year-old son, Pete, couldn’t bear to part with his cousin’s collection of plastic toy food when it was time to leave. Since it had been gathering dust in the bottom of the toy bin for several years — all 200 pieces — my sister offered to send it home with us.
Then, as if in a cartoon, with a light bulb literally glowing above me, I looked at my sister and said, “Wrap it up for Christmas. He won’t know the difference.”
Well, that got us going. What else could our children, ranging in age from three to 10, exchange? Computer games, toys and books — the list was endless. The idea really got wheels when we brought the kids on board. They came up with a long list of gifts they could make, such as T-shirts, scrapbooks of holidays spent together, comic books and so on.
Even the adults got involved. In the past, we’ve drawn names to limit spending, but this year it seemed appropriate to lead by example.
The idea came at a time when both families were feeling a financial crunch, which proves that necessity is the mother of invention. My sister and her family were saving for a huge home renovation; we were struggling as I tried to build a business from home. We have always tried to get our families together at least once a year, a major expense with them in Alberta and us in Ontario. We would have to make financial concessions and Christmas gifts would be one of them.
As we got closer to December 25th, we were getting a little skeptical that the kids would buy in on Christmas Day, when they realized they were getting “old” toys or their cousin’s idea of a “gift.” Still, we were hopeful they would all learn a lesson in giving, with the added environmental message about recycling.
It felt strange, at first, not to be rushing from store to store. While friends were taking time off to shop, racking up credit card debt and worrying about what to buy the teenage niece they hadn’t seen all year, I felt what I can only describe as lightness. I actually worried that perhaps I was being just too laid back about this whole Christmas affair. After all, my shopping was limited to my parents and my own children, as even my husband and I had decided to stick to stockings only.
Then, with just days to go, I suddenly felt a pang of guilt, a feeling that somehow I was denying my family a treasured experience in my quest for a less consumer-driven holiday.
Well, when Christmas Day arrived, Pete was not only thrilled with his faux food (I must have had plastic pizza a dozen times before the sun came up), but he absolutely loved the Mickey Mouse hat and mittens wrapped up and handed down by his six-year-old cousin, Erika. I remembered Erika in that hat, mouse ears poking up under her snowsuit hood, so the pleasure was doubled seeing Pete wearing it. Now that’s a memory!
Even the older boys got into it — and no one seemed to notice or care that nothing came in packaging. Six-year-old Jack loved his underwater creatures book, and my eldest, Thomas, 8, was grateful for the basketball shirt handed down by his admired older cousin, Tyler. We made my sister’s children “Team Cousin” T-shirts and gave them books that we had read enough times to memorize.
My sister gave me a collection of books she thought I would enjoy; I gave her seven jars with recipes and spices to make seven meals. My husband Dave gave them a photo album of landscape shots he had taken on their farm. My brother-in-law wrapped up some CDs he thought Dave would enjoy.
Best of all, we avoided the “galloping greedy gimmies,” as they were famously called in the Berenstain Bears book. No one suffered Christmas morning because they didn’t get a $50 gift card to a store they occasionally shop at or a toy wrapped up in Fort Knox-style packaging.
What has surprised me is the reaction from others. People have either perceived this negatively, as a kind of Christmas garage sale, or applauded the idea but suggested they would never have time for it themselves.
Truthfully, it took less time. We avoided shopping malls, hunted around the house for presents and worked on gifts, such as the photo album and T-shirts, together. Christmas stopped being a bill to pay and started being about the people we were giving to. Sure, it was a little more difficult because we had to be innovative and thoughtful, with few resources. But maybe it’s time we stopped looking for quick fixes everywhere, including Christmas.
Whitby, Ont., writer Danielle Harder is already well into the search for this year’s gifts. The first present was found accidentally while she was spring cleaning.
“We buy for the kids but only pick one adult name during our Thanksgiving dinner. It gives us lots of time to hunt for deals.” –Connie Del Basso, expectant mom, London, Ont.
“Like us, many of our neighbours that we are good friends with have two kids. Each family buys two gifts worth $10 each, something that either a boy or girl could use, and then the kids pick a wrapped present out of a bag.” –Kristine DiCecco, mom of Jonathan, 6, and Samantha, 2, Mississauga, Ont.
“I shop online. With the cost of gas, the time involved getting to the mall and how busy they are during the holiday season, I find it so much easier to stay home and browse the Internet. Many stores also offer free shipping and deliver the items gift wrapped.” –Rebecca Graham, mom of five-month-old Scott, Toronto