I doubt that anybody is planting their blinking reindeer out in the front yard timed to when I write my annual column about sensible holiday gifts, but here it is anyway. If anything I’m a little late this year, but I resist talking about Christmas until the carved pumpkin on the porch has caved-in and the Burl Ives Snowman has started crooning. Retail stores, on the other hand, would compel columnists to start writing about “the perfect gift” in September if they could ram that legislation through Congress.
This year there may more motivation to make gift ideas count in ways both thrifty and thoughtful as the economy dictates making every exertion count. And after the BP oil spill, we should all review the carbon footprint of our holiday giving. While a solar outboard motor might leave you stranded on a lake at sundown, somewhat less grandiose gifts can be simple and useful (bamboo cutting boards) and include as a bonus their construction from renewable or even recycled materials. They can also support a number of worthy causes at the same time, although I’m often the first to question some of those “a portion of the proceeds will go to” gifts. A CD of music dedicated to raising funds for a clearly worthy cause can also have the unexpected side effect of encouraging Sheryl Crow.
Catalogs arriving at our home have been filled to bursting with gifts that appear to do something practical, although nowhere can I find a hand-operated catalog shredder. Many of the gifts featured seem to support a mentality of easing the strain during the least demanding tasks known to human endeavor. If you’re at the point where you need to open wine bottles with a device that uses four D batteries, then 2011 might be the year to review your overall wine consumption. And can we please stop devoting any more design technology to objects that hold pictures? A wooden picture frame with a photo taken by you and printed on recycled paper makes an acceptably ‘green’ gift and integrates your own creativity. A blue plastic hippo that holds the photo between the cheeks of its adorable backside may only have the undesired impact of editorializing on the photo.
Each year I attempt to make a few gifts myself. Some of these have been successful (a DIY Christmas card with moveable magnetic type so that one could make the holiday message more poetic or vaguely pornographic) and others have sunk like stones. Two years ago I built recipe card holders with some leftover wood, a wooden clothespin, and some small screws. I’ve yet to see one of them deployed in a relative’s home but even if they contributed to a roaring holiday blaze in the fireplace I at least had the fun of making them. Anything handmade by the gift-giver in this era of e-mail delivered holiday cards and iPod boom boxes makes a soothing statement and shows gumption.
Food gifts are both traditional and useful, but one might look for a way to deliver muffins and jellies without also giving the receiver a big rattan basket they will never find a use for unless they are involved with a children’s theater company running productions of “Little Red Riding Hood” in several cities at once. True, a steel pail filled with cheeses is somewhat less appetizing than a basket of cheeses but then you can’t later carry water to a fire in a rattan basket. It would seem to go without saying that fruitcakes of any sort never look appetizing in anything, but that probably won’t prevent you from receiving one. Or 27 of them. Do what I do, and re-gift any holiday fruitcakes by covering them with barley and donating them to a pack of wild mustangs.
Speaking of donations there are now online sites that can give you information regarding the efficacy of donations to charitable, environmental, educational and other non-profit organizations. One of the better ones is Charity Navigator.org, which provides star ratings for the charity reviewed based on such criteria as how much money is used for fund raising and overhead and how much ends up actually helping those in need. You can feel good about donating on behalf of someone on your Christmas list knowing that the money will literally be well-spent.
Some still struggle with that tiny voice that whispers that a tangible gift is always somehow more appreciated. I recently had a birthday, and was given a donation in my name to Doctors Without Borders. I can say unequivocally that there was more joy for me in receiving that gift than in getting an electric corkscrew. I received notification of the gift by e-mail, which is green and saves the organization funds it can use in other ways. In this particular scenario, a birthday e-mail was the right way to go.
If you are shopping for gifts, try to steer some business toward local merchants. Here in Santa Monica, we need to ‘vote’ with our Christmas spending on more and interesting retail on our Main Street. Otherwise I fear we’ll get more cell phone stores and nail salons, not that cell phones and beautiful finger nails don’t play an important role in our overall economy. As far as how much one needs to spend, I’ll simply repeat my all-time favorite gift recommendation again this year: A jack knife. It’s portable, practical, consistently useful, and I can’t imagine any young person of the right age not growing up with one. Depending on just how bad this recession gets, we may all need to have one on hand. And most of them come with a corkscrew; no batteries required.