Holiday Gift-Giving: Thinking Beyond the Box

boy giving his grandmother a...
boy giving his grandmother a...

What's the message we're giving our kids about presents? Does a gift really have to come in a box, have a fancy price tag and a designer label? With economic turmoil swirling all around us, I wonder if this would be a good time to teach our kids that we can think outside -- or, better yet, beyond -- the box when it comes to gift-giving.

I'm not suggesting that anyone deprive his or her child of the latest computer game, doll or CD (especially if you can still afford it! After all, they say spending is good for the economy). But as I've grown older I've realized that most of the "stuff" I've accumulated really doesn't amount to much. One of the best presents I ever received is hanging on my fridge: a paper coupon my son made when he was 10-years-old for "unlimited hugs: no expiration date." I still haven't needed to cash it in (he's 24 now, and the hugs keep on coming, even without the coupon). But it's good to know it's there.

This year, because freelance writers aren't exactly at the top of the economic food chain, and because I'm married to a classical musician -- another phenomenally un-lucrative occupation -- I've been thinking of ways to give gifts that a) don't seem cheap but are cheap b) are fun and possibly useful and c) will make the recipient happy, even if it doesn't come from an expensive store (or possibly from any store). Bottom line: no matter how bad things get in my bank account, I will find a way to make gift-giving part of my holiday season.

That said, here's a list of "gifts" that fit my new criteria. In fact, getting kids on board to brainstorm these ideas would be a great activity. (Just be prepared for the "Let's get Grandma a parakeet!" idea, which may not fly with Grandma.) You can find lots of tips about nifty things to make with the kids on various websites. But here's my low-budget shopping list, which contains some ideas you may not come across elsewhere.

• Free lessons. What are you good at? Offer it as a Christmas or other holiday gift. Can you knit, play the harmonica, do yoga, paint, or lift weights? If you know your stuff you can offer your talent; give your friends or family an opportunity to learn from a pro. A tie-in: tutoring. If you're a writer, musician, graphic artist, or whatever you are -- offer to give a friend or a friend's child a one-on-one tutorial.

• Babysitting. Sure, you can babysit any day of the week, but why not offer it during the holidays, when couples may want to go to a grown-up party without worrying about what to do with the kids? One of my favorite gifts ever was breakfast out with my husband while my best friend and her hubby sat for my newborn.

• Along those lines -- cat, dog, bird, or gerbil sitting. Offer to take care of your friend or family member's pet when they go away (you can give a coupon to be used at the recipient's convenience). This is a great gift for kids to give. (You may have to help out a bit on this one, depending on the age of your child.)

• If you're artsy-craftsy (which I am not), a cool gift is always a framed photo, drawing or photo collage. My son gave all his relatives line drawings from his architecture class and they were big hits. If you are really artsy-crafty you can knit or sew a present. That is not something I'll be doing any time soon, however.

• Make a DVD from an old home movie. Last year my husband borrowed a video-to-DVD converter and is giving his sister a DVD of her wedding. He also made DVDs for various members of the family of events that we've documented in our old home movies.

• Offer a meditation. I recently completed a 40-day meditation/prayer for the men in my life. You can offer to do a meditation or prayer for someone you love. It's not a physical, tangible gift, but I guarantee they will feel the effects. Amazing things can happen when you put your heart and mind to mantra or prayer. Mantra is a big part of Kundalini yoga, which I practice. You can find more info about it online or on YouTube (i.e. "Ra Ma Da Sa" is a beautiful healing mantra for someone who is ill).

• Yard cleanup, snow cleanup, car or closet cleanup. Computer cleanup/help is also a welcome gift for grandparents, parents or friends who aren't computer-savvy.

• Cookies -- an oldie but goodie. You can think beyond the box with this, too. How about pickled green beans, home made soup, or tomato sauce? My niece -- a baker -- sends me awesome holiday cookies, but you don't have to be a pastry chef to have a culinary specialty you can share. One year she sent me an amazing package of cubed bread for making stuffing.

• A poem. A song. Or an actual letter penned on real paper (remember those?) These are great gifts, especially from a child or teen to parent.

• A book. A playlist. A plant. Homemade bracelets or earrings.

• Last but not least, a coupon for infinite hugs or back rubs, my all-time favorite.