11/24/2012 7:00 AM
By Jennifer Hetrick Southeastern Pa. Correspondent
BOYERTOWN, Pa. — With a family that all works in the landscaping, hardscaping and garden center business — an industry hit hard, like many others, since the economic downturn began a few years ago — my siblings and I have been grateful to shift how we approach Christmas each year. We now spend almost no money on gifts but still give plenty.
We still meet on Christmas Eve, as we always have. Instead of a formal meal, we’ve made it a bit more casual with the food supply. But we’ve also agreed to change how we handle gift-giving, and the dwindling burden is its own present to our consciences.
There are 16 of us in the family and we used to purchase gifts for everyone. But as retail sales began to drop off in the recession, we all knew it would be too hard to keep up with our old habits at Christmas.
While most people probably have an unspoken shame about not having enough money to keep Christmas the same, because our family is all in the same business, we were aware of how hard times were affecting each of us.
So, instead of letting the pressure and unreasonable costs weigh us down, we adapted.
The children in our family now do a Pollyanna gift exchange for no more than $25 per person.
But what’s great about how we have changed our gift-giving tradition is that we no longer allow anyone else — other than the children — to spend “new money” on anyone in the family. That’s how we help each other out, and it is a huge relief every year as winter rounds the corner.
The main rule is that you can give as many gifts as you want as long as you don’t spend new money. And, there’s no obligation to give any non-spending gifts to anyone; it’s just an option.
So, in our family, you are welcome to give away as a gift something you own that is in good condition that you know you can’t make use of but that might be helpful to someone else.
For example, if you have a $25 Staples gift card and know you don’t shop there often, passing it along to someone else in the family who has a home office or who uses office supplies often is a thoughtful and even efficient idea.
In the past, I have tied together plastic hangers and given a handful of them to my siblings. I have also prepared small baggies of Q-tips and medleys of teabags as my presents.
Last December, my oldest brother wrapped home movies of my childhood, which I had completely forgotten existed, and he gave them to me as a surprise; I responded gleefully once I finally realized what they were.
Free calendars for the next year are also something exchanged at my family’s Christmas get-together.
Since some of us have a lot of DVDs of movies from years ago, interest in them over time can die down. We like to use this as an opportunity to give the movies a new home where they can be appreciated again.
Some years, old Christmas ornaments from many years ago show up as nostalgic gifts.
One aspect we love is memories of our mother. Having worked at the Kmart in Phoenixville, Chester County, Pa., she constantly bought whatever she could on clearance at unbelievably low prices. And she adored stuffed animals and dolls, too.
An avid lover of America, our mother bought American pride dolls that spoke “The Pledge of Allegiance” when you pushed the button that made them talk, and she had smiling soldiers and veterans in doll-like form, too.
Each year, someone else unwraps decorative paper to find one of these figures that we’d never buy on our own. Whoever opens up their present and sees this vibrant and a little-over-the-top doll often responds with “Darn!” while everyone else gets a kick out of it. And the next year, someone else gets to enjoy the amusing gift.
Re-gifting is optional and even encouraged.
Last year, I received the infamous Christmas Gumby that my mother won out of a claw machine many years ago. For this coming year, I haven’t decided yet who I will surprise with this stuffed Gumby who proudly dons a red sack of toys like Santa.
A few months ago, I stumbled upon some snowflake window decals of our mother’s when I was going through old boxes in my house. I passed a few around to good friends I know she’d be happy I have today, tucking them into snail-mail cards I often send. But I also plan to give some of these decals to my 4-year-old nieces who never met their grandmother.
And since our mother bought so much on clearance, I get the chance to give my nieces brand new presents from their grandmother. Last year, I gave them goggles and Hello Kitty bags that they loved. It quells my heart to know I can weave my nieces and our mother together in some way.
What I like best about how we’ve changed our tradition each Christmas is that it has lifted the financial guilt off of our family while helping us to think more creatively and thoughtfully about what might be a nice or especially useful surprise to someone else. Consider the non-spending approach with your family this year, too.