Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Poor Person's Guide to Gift Giving

I wrote this post back in 2004 as a response to a woman who was quite depressed about being poor at Christmas time while having a young son whom she wanted to provide at least some gifts for. Having faced that situation as a poor single parent when I raised my daughter, I felt I ought to share some creative ideas with her and anyone else out there who might need some help, inspiration and practical solutions.

So, here it is, in slightly edited form.

Why 'Christmas'?

I grew up Catholic, so Christmas is the holiday I'm most familiar with this time of year. I gave up Christianity as a teen and I am now a convert to Buddhism. However, I'll share my perspective as a child, a mother, and a grandmother on the difficulties so many of us experience dealing with the capitalistic pressures this time of year because the celebration of Christmas is the driving force behind this annual December madness. My appeal is to all of you to help me make this Christmas special for those who could use a positive boost and great ideas about gifts for the kids in their lives.

Why is Christmas important to me?

My beautiful daughter was born December 3, 1977. On December 23, I developed a viral infection and an extremely high fever. I was delirious and was hospitalized. I had already given up Christianity by that time but I did still celebrate "Xmas" with my family. I missed my first Xmas with my daughter. It was heartbreaking. I vowed then, no matter what, that we would always spend Christmas day together and that it would never be about presents - it would be about family.

And that's the way it has been - most years. Sometimes, life and misunderstandings got in the way. At times like those, you can spend the time with the "family" you create or have around you.

Meet my father: the alcoholic dentist... or: why traditions are vital

What do you think about when you remember Christmas as a child? I can recall perhaps 3 presents. One was an orange teddy bear that I so badly wanted in 1967. I still have him. I can't tell you how incredibly happy I was to find him under that ugly ass, silver tin-foil, 60's trendy tree we had. I also remember Baby Magic - a doll that came with a magnet that made her arms move up and down. Beyond that, one of my brothers, Mike the Hippie, used to buy me Beatles' 45s so he could listen to them too. So much for the importance of presents.

What I recall in far more vivid detail are the traditions.

Christmas went like this:

* hang around with family Christmas eve drinking egg nog and eating treats
* go to Midnight mass
* come home and pig out on buffet food
* go to bed around 5 am
* get up later and open presents
* play with stuff
* eat turkey dinner

My mother, who tried to be Martha Stewart even before Martha Stewart was Martha Stewart, put out a fabulous spread for our buffet. We always had tourtiere (we're French Canadian), mincemeat tarts, shortbread cookies, little fancy finger sandwiches, chocolates, wine, french bread, various cold cuts, more cookies, deviled eggs and on and on.

My father, the alcoholic dentist who disappeared when I was 12, spent most of his money on booze. So, our family of 6 kids had to grow up knowing what thrifty meant. We never asked for much and we never got much as far as presents went, but we knew our traditions and that's what we looked forward to. Christmas celebrations were predictable and that's what we counted on. That schedule and all that went with it were important. All parents know the importance of consistency (some of us learned that the hard way), so I encourage all of you to define and celebrate your own traditions. That's what today's kids will remember as adults.

On to the presents...

(I'm long-winded. Sue me.) Okay, now it's time for gift ideas. I raised my daughter as a single parent from the time she was 2 months old. Dealing with poverty became a condition I knew well. And now, being ill and unable to work, in the same financial boat, I rely on lessons learned from my younger days.


If you're poor, the first step is to admit it. No, really. Many people tend to think they're not that poor. 'Those charities serve people who are a lot more poor than I am, even though I have no money', you may think. Well, stop thinking that way. Charities exist to help people like you and me. Put your ego in the drawer and make some phone calls. Even if it's a week before Christmas, it's not too late. Do it for your child and yourself. You deserve help and that's what they're there for. As they say, check your local listings. Call now. One of my most memorable Christmases was when my daughter and I were sponsored by a car dealership as part of the local adopt-a-family campaign. We were overwhelmed by their gifts, huge amounts of food, a tree, lights, and decorations. I cried for a long time and she was overwhelmed by the generosity.

Practical ideas requiring no money

Use what you already have.

* coupon book: I made one for my daughter when she was around 8 or 9. It included coupons for days off chores, pizza (when I could afford it later), lots of hugs and kisses, etc. She loved it. No computer back then. I did it by hand.
* photo collage: I made one for my granddaughter a few years back. Cut old photos in fun shapes. Paste on some special paper. Write the kid's name on it and maybe add some pic captions. Voila! Instant tribute.
* scrapbook: Same as a photo collage idea but in book form
* collage: My daughter does this as a hobby year round. Cut out interesting pics from magazines and make a collage. Easy and very creative.
* write a book: No, I'm not kidding. By hand or with the aid of a computer and printer, along with free clip art, write a little story book for your child.
* easy bath beads: If you have epsom salts, just mix them up with food colouring, put them in a container, and there you go.
* play dough: I always made this as a child. Plenty of recipes online.
* puppets: Make a puppet show. Use old cardboard for the theater. Spice it up with colour. Make puppets from old material. Put on a show.
* "why I love you" book: Write about the most important things about your child, things you've done together, places you've gone, favourite pets etc.
* travel diary: I made one of these for my granddaughter when she went on a road trip. Write in sections for things seen ie. animals, people etc. Leave room so they can paste in mementos. Throw in some riddles and jokes. You get the idea.
* knit, sew or crochet something There are tons of ideas online that are quick and easy. Use your scraps.
* give a book: Project Gutenberg has free, downloadable books. Print one out and fancy it up with your own title page. (Just don't sell it!)
* be artistic: Draw, paint, doodle a picture for your child.
* comic book/strip: Create a comic strip with your child as one of the characters.
* joke book: There are so many joke sites online. Why not use them?
* jewel something: Use old, broken jewellery to spice up something like a boring picture frame.
* build something: Got boxes? Build a big castle or house. Paint it up.
* easy art: Download and print a pic you like and frame it.
* paper mache: Make a mask or a dish. The possibilities are endless.
* tea party: Set up a tea party with your fancy dishes on Christmas day.
* wrapping paper: Use the cartoon section of your newspaper. Brown bags and old material and pillowcases can be stamped with a potato cut with a design dipped in paint or even rubbed with ink from a pen. Old wallpaper works well too.
* tree: Check with your local tree lot to see if they have branches they're discarding. Make your own tree.
* decorations: Make a popcorn chain like we did in the old days. Cut out pics from old Christmas cards or online clip art, add string and hang. Challenge your kids to make the decorations.
* miscellaneous: join an online group like Freecycle. Last year I gave away some old coins to a mother who was putting together a collection for her son and I also got my tree through my local group. It's a great resource all year round.

Well, that's a start. Most importantly, give yourself as a gift. Do something out of character on Christmas day: dance, sing, have a pillow fight, be silly, make a snowman, stand on your head, run around outside, go out and enjoy the lights and decorations in the neighbourhood (my daughter still enjoys being the bad Xmas lights police). Be happy! Fake it if you have to. Be a kid again. Your kid will love you for it.

One Last Thing...

Teach your child to give. Let them experience the true joy and humility that comes with giving something to others. One year, I packed up old clothes and my daughter surrendered some old toys which we took to the Women's Shelter. That meant something to her (and me, of course). There's always someone in the world who is in need. Do what you can when you're able to and you'll always feel much better about yourself and your situation.

Feel free to share your ideas in the comments. You never know who you may help as a result.

Have a great holiday season! It is possible.

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