We were sitting around the conference room table a couple weeks ago, talking about this year's gift guide and what it means to give gifts in hard times. It might mean thinking more before parting with a dollar, for sure, and we've got our thoughts and suggestions on scads of ways you might do that. But it might mean a gift that represents the giver's time and handiwork as much or more than its market value. We talked about gifts that we have or could give in lieu of buying.
You could make a dinner or can food, offer to help with or head up a home improvement project (paint a room, maybe), volunteer at a soup kitchen in someone's name. You could issue an IOU for a lawn-cutting or snow-shoveling, for baby-sitting, dog-sitting, watering a garden or feeding fish when your giftee is out of town. You could offer your services as a personal chronicler, tape recording and transcribing a family history. You could compile a small book of family photos or of those handed-down family recipes.
As we riffed on ideas, we also thought about gifts that had meant a lot to us in difficult times past. I thought of my own family. I remember one of the tight Christmases when my dad had been laid off temporarily from his General Motors plant job in one of those Detroit downturns (déjà vu). I must've been in my early 20s — out of college, didn't really need anything. But the giving was about ritual when it wasn't about need. And my gifts that year included cassette tapes that Dad dubbed from a couple of his favorite records. I can see him now, in the swivel chair by the stereo doing it old-school: hand-winding the tape past the plastic leader, inserting it in the recorder, setting play-record-pause, starting the disc, checking the levels, dropping the needle again, hitting the pause button before the needle finds the first sounds in the groove, listening through the disc — enjoying his music one more time, as I imagine — and hitting the stop on the recorder before the needle scratched against the label. It was a little more involved than burning a CD is today.
Whatever else I got that year is long forgotten. But three decades later, I relish Dad's handwriting of Burning Spear Live and Natty Christmas — the latter with all those Yuletide classics done to a rub-a-dub beat. This year marks 20 years since he passed away. It's a gift that keeps on giving when others have been forgotten. Come the day I can't replace my cassette player, well, there's still one of my few mementos of his personal scrawl.
What follow are some of the other memories that discussion triggered of gifts and giving, and the invention of tradition. —W. Kim Heron
THE CHRISTMAS SWEATER
My Aunt Ilo — my father's sister — was a meticulous knitter, a "hobby" she did with eagled-eyed aplomb after retiring from her job at the Pentagon. Each year at Christmastime — and I can remember probably 12 of these — my father's sister would send a giant cardboard box postmarked Vienna, Va., affixed with lovely little green-and-red labels that read "Do Not Open Till Christmas" or something similar. Inside the boxes would be individually wrapped presents, Christmas images of little-kid anticipation. Each gift was a handmade sweater — a lovely woolen pullover, vest or turtleneck in elaborate designs and colors, such as a reindeer in russet and crimson or a steam engine in ginger and mauve, for me, my parents and my four siblings. The sweaters, which must have taken Aunt Ilo months and months to complete, would sometimes be too snug a fit — the five Smith children were growing at weed speeds then — and the idea of so much eye-straining and finger-aching love directed into each knitted pattern didn't break my heart until years later, in reflection; probably not until she died a few years ago, that night my father called me sobbing.
I wanted to tell Aunt Ilo how much I loved her, how much her selfless, from-another-generation efforts gave so much warmth and helped to define what "family" meant to me, though I could never articulate it then, not as a kid anyway. And I never really got to tell her that. That warmth — her warmth — keeps us cozy and alive in so many dark moon nights. —Brian Smith
MESSAGE IN A ...BALLOON
During the recession of the late '70s, a friend of mine on unemployment gave everyone in his large family — mother, father, brothers and sisters — a balloon with a dollar bill inside. Imaginative, I suppose ... and I don't know how he got the bill inside the balloon, but it does sort of desperately scream: "I have no money!" In the past, my rock compilation tapes and, especially, my Christmas rock 'n' roll tapes were gifts of some national renown ... though you'd burn CDs today instead, if people still even give burned CDs.
Some of my most treasured gifts came from my nephews and niece, especially when they were very young. I still have a ceramic pen and pencil holder, with my name scribbled in paint, on my desk at home, and I'm staring at a snow globe as I type — one of those things you shake and it "snows" — my niece made for me out of an old bottle. Never been quite sure what the figure inside is — I think it's a snowman, but if so, it's on its side (give her break; she was 6, for godsakes ... and has developed into quite a little artist since then; her favorite song, at age 7, was "Wouldn't it be Nice," says her proud uncle). Some of us would give up every gift we've ever received just to spend five more minutes with loved ones no longer here. All of which proves it is true, that it's the thought that counts ... although an amazon.com gift certificate is always nice too. —Bill Holdship
A CHRISTMASPALOOZA TALE
When you're 15, there are not many options for gift-giving — babysitting and allowances don't equate to a lot of cash in hand. But 'tis the season for giving, so my friends and I — broke, underage, stuck in the burbs — decided to have a party instead of exchanging gifts. We made paper snowflakes and hung them from the ceiling of my friend's parents' basement (dorky, but self-aware dorky, so actually cool). We opened bags of chips and made punch — virgin, of course. We christened the event Christmaspalooza. Ten years later, we are still broke, and, though not confined to the basements of our parents' suburban ranches, we're scattered across the country. But Christmaspalooza lives on — albeit a lot more drunkenly. Old friends have come and gone, new ones show up every year — but the gift of tradition lives on, and the only cost is the booze. —Megan O'Neil
As I got old enough to know just how important choosing a Christmas gift was, getting something for Dad became a quandary. What do you get for the guy whose tastes are simple and whose needs are few? A union carpenter, he did like his tools, and he'd often spend Saturdays in the garage, working on projects, finding a sort of solitude in there, since we kids hated the ear-splitting whine of the circular saw as it continually tore into lumber. But I had no budget for tools. The little money I made on my Press & Guide paper route barely covered the few frills of my preteen life. I knew I'd have to cop out and get him some resale store tie for church, or maybe a box of nails.
The thought hung heavy in my head as, a few days before Christmas, I trudged along my Thursday paper route, pulling my wagon of newspapers over the salted sidewalks, watching the traffic whiz by. My peers had morning paper routes for the dailies. For them, it was all about speed; their parents would even drive them before going to work. But I delivered the weekly afternoon paper, while my dad was still at work; for me, a paper route was a slow, methodical thing. I pulled the wagon deliberately, lost in thought over my problem. In fact, I was so preoccupied, when a garbage truck drove around a nearby corner, it's a wonder I saw what I did: something falling off the truck and into the inch-deep snow on the turf by the curb. I walked up and reached into the snow, marveling at what was hidden there: a sleek, black crowbar. Setting it in my wagon, I finished my route with pride, knowing what I'd give my dad on Christmas. After finishing up, I wrapped the bar in a garbage bag and hid it under the couch by the Christmas tree. I was so relieved by the luck of it, I even played a carefree game of football with the O'Sullivan boys across the street, though one of the older boys threw a tough spiral at me that stung my thumb when I tried to catch it.
On Christmas morning, as usual, my pajama-clad siblings and I approached a wealth of Christmas gifts under the tree, hardly realizing that Santa was especially good to a union household. After the blush of ripping open Milton-Bradley board games and battery-operated gizmos wound down, I approached my dad, who sat looking tired on the couch. I asked, "Are you ready for your gift?" He looked at me with a doubtful fish eye.
Reaching under the couch, I presented him with the bagged bar. He pulled it out of the bag and stared at it dumbstruck, examining first the hook end and then the pry end, before laughing. "Where did you get this?"
"It fell off a garbage truck," I said as I sat down next to him. He laughed and wrapped his arm around me, looking down at me.
"What's wrong with your thumb?" he asked.
"It's all swollen up," he said.
"I hurt it a little catching a football a few days ago."
He took it in his massive paw and pressed on the bulbous finger. I winced in pain.
"Well," he said, smiling at me a bit, "that's broken. Get dressed and I'll take you to the hospital." Normally, Dad would be irritated by this sort of errand, but that Christmas Day, I believe he was at least a bit mellowed by pride over his son the trash-picker. —Michael JackmanSend comments to [email protected]