A New Years Reflection on Gift-Giving

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January 6 is the “twelfth day of Christmas,” which for many people around the world marks the end of the Christmas season. It seems, therefore, a reasonable time to reflect upon the whole gift-giving aspect of the holidays, especially because of its connection in Christian tradition with the story of the three kings who presented the Baby Jesus with their gifts of “gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

When children are small, in families that enjoy those few precious years of their believing in Santa Claus, there’s no way to avoid at least a bit of frenzy before Christmas. But the joy on their faces on Christmas morning makes it all worthwhile, and after all a certain amount of “frenzy” is a major and unavoidable part of parenting young children, period. It’s just a little more intense in the weeks before Christmas.

In recent years, with my boys both now adults, I have been very happy that our family has been able to minimize and sideline the importance of gift-giving, which to me takes the pressure off, and makes more room to enjoy all the other wonderful things the season has to offer: the music, the food, the gathering together; and for many people (including me) the religious aspect at the heart of it all.

Downplaying the importance and centrality of gift-giving takes a great deal of stress and also financial anxiety off of everyone, and really does allow time to enjoy everything else about Christmas, whether it’s the decorated store windows,  seasonal concerts, or just time spent with each other, baking, ice skating, reading Christmas stories, or visiting a hospital or nursing home to share Christmas cheer with those who could really use some.

We usually have a few presents under the tree that we open on Christmas morning, and there are stockings filled with either big or small treats, plus the requisite orange and walnuts in each stocking, a nod to the gifts my Mom received in her childhood years during the Depression, a tradition that she passed on to me, and I have passed on to my sons. It’s not a bad way to recognize and appreciate some of the everyday blessings of our lives that we tend to take for granted, and know that not everyone, everywhere has always been so lucky.

Then we go shopping together after the holidays, and are able to benefit both from a less frantic atmosphere in the stores, the lack of time pressure, and great sales. (Also, for the most part my sons pick out what they want, rather than having to exchange the things I thought they might want, and was wrong about.)

But it wasn’t always so.

Quite a few years ago, before I had children, I found myself in the Macy’s store at Herald Square a few days before Christmas, unhappily looking for a gift for someone. I had no idea what to get for them; the frantic crowds and the overworked, impatient clerks seemed to be all pretty unhappy too, or at least under great stress; and much as I love all kinds of Christmas music, the music playing over the loudspeakers was NOT cheering me up, it was enervating; all I wanted to do was get OUT OF THERE as soon as I possibly could.

But I couldn’t, because I had to find a present first. I was so miserable!

In that moment, I quite clearly remember thinking, “If I don’t find a different way of going about this, I’m going to end up hating Christmas.”

That is when I started doing most of my shopping by catalogue, and for the most part staying out of stores as much as possible, especially in the weeks prior to Christmas. And for the most part, this has solved the problem, and I have been able to retain my deep love of Christmas and the Christmas season.

I have mixed feelings about minimizing the aspect of gift-giving, though. I know how thoughtful and caring it is to spend time looking for meaningful gifts for friends and family, and I certainly appreciate the thoughtfulness of those who have done so for me and my children. On the other hand, generally speaking the whole mad rush has gone into some kind of insane overdrive, hasn’t it?

So what can any of us do? How can we retain the custom of thoughtful gift-giving, without driving ourselves crazy? Here are a few tips to consider for next year.

  1. Buy throughout the year. A friend of mine recently wrote about how this is what she does. Throughout the year, whenever she is out shopping and she sees something that she knows so-and-so-would like, she makes the purchase and puts it aside. (This is probably not going to work very well for me, since shopping is one of the things I really do not like doing. However, I could at least take some time to browse online from time to time without making myself miserable, and I intend to try to do that this year, so that I will be sure to be prepared with a few special things for the special people in my life when December rolls around.)
  2. Buy after Christmas. As described above, this is what we (mostly) do now in our family. It’s less expensive, less stressful, and a better way for people to get the things they really need/want/can use. (I’ve always found the spectacle of people making all those returns and exchanges the day after Christmas to be just a little depressing, don’t you?)
  3. Give gifts that make a difference, as outlined here, in our last post.

In the last few weeks, we also came across some thoughtful essays written by people who have found ways to celebrate the holidays with either no gifts at all, or minimizing them, and we shared them on Facebook and Twitter. In the weeks ahead we’ll be focusing on other topics, like organizing (it’s National Organizing Month now, you know!), spring cleaning, and other topics related to downsizing and decluttering.

We hope you’ll consider liking us on Facebook, or following us on Twitter this year if you haven’t already. It’s a great place for us to share articles that we know our audience will enjoy, and we love hearing from you in the comments on our Facebook page too.

With all best wishes for a happy, healthy, peaceful New Year!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

 

 

 

 

 

‘Tis the Season to Give…with Gifts That Make a Difference

You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.  ~ Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

In this season of giving, there’s no better gift than giving back. Keeping in mind that most of us have too much stuff, really, way too many material things, we relish the idea of giving gifts that can be consumed, or used up, or ones that will help others.

Here’s our guide to what we call alternative, maybe subversive gift giving – subversive in that they don’t accumulate in your house later.

Family items

One of the people we interviewed for our book, Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, told us how her mother gave family items, family heirlooms, as gifts for birthdays and anniversaries. She said she didn’t want her family members to wait to inherit them from her and preferred that they enjoy the items now. We agree, and think it’s an idea worth considering for the holidays. And don’t forget to share the stories behind the objects.

Food and drink

We love to receive gifts of homemade food or something we wouldn’t necessarily buy for ourselves. Things like good chocolate, wine, home-baked banana bread, homemade pickles, a jar filled with dry ingredients and a favorite soup recipe, a make-your-own spice mix, an assortment of tea or coffee, a hot chocolate kit. Who doesn’t love food made with love.

And you could make a recipe book, a compilation of family recipes handed down over the years, for each member of your family.

Experiences

Giving a gift of an experience lasts far longer than a new scarf or gloves. Gifts of outings such as a camping trip or dinner at a lovely restaurant, a horseback ride, a massage, a museum membership, a bike rental, a yoga class, music lessons, or a workshop in their field of interest.

Sharing your talents

Use your skills like knitting, crochet, and woodworking, to create one-of-kind gifts. Or, your skills are more modest, you could frame a loved one’s wedding announcement or diploma, get seeds or bulbs for an avid gardener, or create a photo album commemorating a family event this past year.

A gift of time

Homemade gift certificates allow you to offer to help others in a festive way – and you get to spend time with friends and family while getting some chores done. You could offer to help with yard work or planting, make a dinner, bake a cake for a special occasion, offer babysitting to new parents, or take your grandkids out for ice cream, or help someone sort through their clothes or books.

Adopt a family

You can help those less fortunate by purchasing gifts of clothes and food for those in need, or adopt a soldier who is serving overseas and send notes and gifts.

Make a donation

Donating to a worthy cause is a gift that gives back. There are so many places to give but here’s a list of a few to consider.

A good place to look for creative programs is New York Times’ columnist Nicolas Kristof’s annual gift guide. Here’s this year’s list.

Reach Out and Read is a literacy program for the disadvantaged that uses doctors to encourage parents to read to their children. During checkups, doctors hand out free books and “prescribe” reading to the child.

The Environmental Defense Fund helps to find climate solutions. They “create solutions that let nature and people prosper.” Their $1-for-$1 gift match offer, in effect until the end of December, doubles the impact of your gift.

The National Audubon Society’s Adopt a Bird program will send a plush toy bird as a gift for adopting a bird.

Heifer International helps make an impact on world hunger and poverty by finding sustainable solutions. You can donate an animal, help promote women’s empowerment, provide basic needs, or fund a project.

Help domestic animals by giving to the ASPCA.

It’s difficult to feel festive when you’re hungry. Feeding America supports a nationwide network of Food Banks and is the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief charity. For every dollar donated, the Food Banks help provide 11 meals to people in need.

The best way to celebrate the season is to practice gratitude. Be happy and thankful for what you have. Recently spotted on a T-shirt: “Happiness is homemade” and I think that’s a great attitude for the holidays. Someone will always have more than you do. You could always have more than you do. But studies have shown that being thankful for the things you have, for friends and family, is mentally freeing, makes you calmer and more loving, and leads to a more peaceful life.

Wishing you and your family a peaceful holiday season.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Thanksgiving and Giving Tuesday

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Thanksgiving is almost here…

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. I love the fact that despite vigorous and unrelenting attempts to do so, to me it seems to have largely resisted the attempts to commercialize it, and has retained its quintessential purity and simplicity. It is really fundamentally about gathering with friends and family and being grateful for the gifts, the blessings of our lives.

For that reason I have never really liked the nickname “Turkey Day.” I love to linger on the word “thanks-giving” and, much as I love turkey and all the trimmings, I prefer to keep the focus on the giving thanks.

The very next day the commercial world goes into high gear with Black Friday: and while I understand the appeal of the opportunity to save big going into the holiday season, I have never understood why it has to start so early in the day. Why should people have to get up at the crack of dawn the very next day to shop? What, the bosses couldn’t give both shoppers and store employees a break, and start the sales a little bit later in the day? Give people a little bit of time to enjoy the afterglow of Thanksgiving Day?

Well, who knows, perhaps that will evolve in time. Certainly in the last few years there has been some pushback to a day that was becoming a bit frenzied to say the least. Many stores have begun reversing the trend to start the big sales on Thanksgiving Day itself; many parks, and cultural and community centers have begun offering alternative things to do, all of them wholesome, many of them free, for those who may decide that they’d like to avoid all the crowds, and make the day after Thanksgiving a “Buy Nothing Day” instead.

There is also Small Business Saturday, the day after Black Friday, when shoppers are urged to support small local businesses. And there is Cyber Monday, which gives everyone a chance to get some great bargains online going into the season.

But what is Giving Tuesday, and where and when did it start?

Giving Tuesday is relatively new: it began in 2012, and it is the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. Giving Tuesday is a day to focus on supporting educational, humanitarian, and cultural organizations around the world.

Like so many other wonderful things, Giving Tuesday began in New York City, specifically at the Belfer Center for Innovation & Social Impact, at the 92nd Street Y.

This link will take you to the part of the Giving Tuesday site that tells you what you can do as an individual to become involved in supporting organizations near you—or halfway around the world.

Giving Tuesday happens to come at a time of year that is advantageous both to the organizations  that need support, and taxpayers  who want to increase their tax-deductible  donations before the end of the year.

So all around, it’s a win-win situation—especially for those who benefit from others reaching into their pockets, or giving of their time and talents,  to help make the world a better place in a variety of ways.

Here’s wishing you and your loved ones a very Happy Thanksgiving–and, however you choose to spend the days that follow–a safe, healthy, and joyful start to the holiday season.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gift-Giving for Minimalists & Downsizers

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Our Charlie Brown Christmas Tree (“All it needed was a little love…”)

Last month I wrote a post with gift-giving and other tips for the holiday season, which can present a challenge for those who want to celebrate the season and share joy with others, but who are also seeking to simplify their lives, minimize clutter, and “live with less.”

It is sad that for some, maybe even many people, the frenzy that surrounds gift-giving at the holiday season can actually destroy the joy that it is meant to inspire. In talking about this with a friend whose means are limited, another aspect of the problem was revealed. “I like to give gifts,” she said. “But I just can’t afford to give everyone the nice things I would like to. It makes me sad.” She added, “Also, sometimes you feel bad receiving gifts when you know that the person couldn’t really afford to give what they’re giving. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t feel good.”

I wondered what Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, aka “The Minimalists,” would have to say on this subject. “To stay focused, we must first focus on the right things: we must change our focus from consumption and obligation to love and support,” they wrote in one of the posts on their blog. Much of their advice is similar to advice we, and others, have given, and is fairly obvious: give gifts of time, consumables (wine, food, soaps, candles, etc.), give “experience” gifts (theatre tickets, trips, outings). But they also address the matter of how to deal with the expectations of others at holiday time, and they dig into the psychology of gift-giving in an interesting way.  “Gift-giving is, by definition, transactional,” they write. “But love is not a transaction. Love is transcendent: it transcends language and material possessions and can be demonstrated only through our thoughts, actions, and intentions.” It’s a thoughtful essay, well worth a read.

One of the challenges inherent in the alternative to  giving “stuff” for the holidays is following through on the alternative of “experience” gifts, the kind where you offer the gift of time spent in some special way with a loved one, or a favor you will do for them, or a promise you intend to keep. The easy part is making the promise: the harder part is making it really happen.

And since the holiday season conveniently includes the tradition of making New Year resolutions, maybe that’s a good resolution to make. Make sure that those promises you write down and present to a loved one during the holiday season really happen in–or even before–the New Year. Now, there’s a resolution well worth keeping!

Wishing you and yours warm, wonderful, meaningful holidays–with lots of joy, and not too much stuff!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

A Conversation for the Holidays

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The holiday season presents families who are gathering together an excellent opportunity to have a conversation about family plans and what the future holds for the older generation. Or does it?

You can’t make your parents talk about what may be a difficult subject for them – how and where they are going to spend their later years.

You can’t expect your siblings to fall in line with your plans just because you think it’s the right time.

You can’t get rid of clutter or divide up family items, unless everyone is on board with the idea.

What can you do?

Remember that all-important conversation – the one that’s so difficult to initiate – is about what’s best for your parents. It’s at least as hard for your parents to talk about this as it is for you. You’ll want to begin the conversation slowly, and be considerate of their feelings as you go.

  • Start now. Whatever your parents’ age, it’s time for them to start talking about the eventual disposition of their belongings. Encourage them; let them know you’re ready to have this conversation whenever they are.
  • Listen more than you talk. Let your parents do most of the talking. Make the discussion a dialogue, not a lecture.
  • Ask how you can help. Your parents may have their own ideas about how to get the process started, and how they would like you to help. They may, or may not, want your opinions: they may, or may not, want your physical help.
  • Be prepared with your suggestions. If your parents are at a loss as to how to start, have some concrete suggestions for them. Even if they don’t accept your ideas, hearing about them may help them to formulate their own.
  • Ask questions. As you talk about specific items, discuss your parents’ feelings about them, and ask about any special memories they may evoke. You may be surprised at the details of family history that will emerge.

So what can you bring to the family table this season? Wear a big smile, have an open heart, and bring along a copy of our book Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

Happy Holidays!

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Holiday Preparations for Downsizers & Minimalists: Tips for Gift-Giving & More

 

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As the end-of-year holiday season draws near, now can be a good time to take stock of how to plan ahead, especially for people who are trying to acquire less “stuff,” or who are trying to get rid of all the things they’ve already acquired.

First, the matter of gift-giving: how does one reconcile the lessons learned in downsizing–one of the main ones being not to acquire so much to begin with–with the joy of giving gifts at the holiday season?

Of course there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. In past years we’ve discussed a few ways to think about this, including this post on five different kinds of gifts that won’t cause clutter.

Over the past couple of years I’ve also seen a number of blog posts that discuss the “four-gift” concept. The idea is to limit the number of gifts children are given down to a minimal four, which is partly to reel in gift-giving madness, and partly to teach children not to be quite so materialistic, and to enjoy a few nice things as much as a bunch of them. The idea is to give each child

1. Something they want

2. Something they need

3. Something to wear

4. Something to read.

I’ve also seen some bloggers suggest giving five gifts, with the fifth gift sometimes being “something they don’t know they want but you do,” and sometimes a gift given to a charitable organization in the child’s name, perhaps chosen by the child.

When my children were small and starting to walk around the house circling items in toy catalogues, I found myself often repeating the words, “Remember, Christmas is about giving too…” (One day my son Sammy caught me off guard by altering the script,  as he sailed through the room with this off-hand remark:  “Remember, Mommy, Christmas is about giving too…so you have to give ME something!!!”  )

I know to some people the four-gift idea may seem stingy and Scrooge-ish. Certainly there can be an awful lot of joy in the faces of children when they see an abundant pile of presents under the tree. And there’s certainly no need for everyone to follow this rule, or even to come close to it.

But for those to whom it appeals, or whose budgets it fits, it can be a helpful way of teaching children to appreciate a few nice gifts along with the other joys of the season–singing, being together, enjoying special meals, baking cookies, sharing with others (aka as “giving too”)–all ways of focusing on the true meaning of the season–while avoiding the perils of overconsumption as well.

One thing that happened in the home I was growing up in is that often very practical, inexpensive gifts would be wrapped and placed under the tree, or in our stockings, along with the more special gifts. Since part of the joy of all those beautifully wrapped presents is precisely that–the sight of all those presents–why not do this? There can be thoughtfulness in choosing simple, practical gifts as well as the special ones, and why can’t the presentation be part of the present? (And surely everyone has had the experience of watching a small child enjoy playing with the boxes and the wrapping paper as much as with the toys themselves?)

When the pressure of gift-giving (thinking of and then finding the gifts; affording the gifts; acquiring and wrapping the gifts in the pre-holiday rush) threatens to take away from the enjoyment of the season, it may be time to step back and think about other ways to celebrate. There are many ways to do this, from giving gifts to charitable organizations to visiting people who need visiting–the old, the lonely, the sick–and spending some of the time that might be spent shopping, or wrapping presents, with them. This too can offer children a very important example.

Of course it’s good to talk with your family, whether they are children, or adults, about how you all want to decide to approach the matter of gift-giving beforehand. And now is a perfect time to have these conversations.

Second, as you plan to entertain or celebrate with family and friends, you might want to take a look at posts we’ve written in past years about ways to enjoy the holidays (and cleaning up after them) in less-consumer-focused, more ecological ways here.

Finally, the holidays can be a good time to plan as a family for downsizing projects. if your family is at a decision point about dismantling the family home, or you think you should be, and don’t quite know how to get started, you may find some help here.

And so as the season approaches, here’s wishing you and your loved ones all good things during the holidays–starting with a peaceful and happy Thanksgiving.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

 

 

The Wisdom of Gratitude

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It’s getting to be that time of the year where we are supposed to count our blessings, but expressing gratitude year round, each and every day, has many benefits say experts on the subject.

“For many people, gratitude is difficult, because life is difficult…[but] acting grateful can actually make you grateful,” says Arthur C. Brooks in a New York Times article. That may be true, and acting grateful may help people, but it’s still difficult for many of us to incorporate the expression of gratitude into our lives.

Robert Emmons, a leading scientific expert on gratitude, explains that gratitude has two key components. “First, it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received,” and secondly, “we recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves…We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.”

In John Tierney’s article on gratitude at a family Thanksgiving, he notes an experiment at Northeastern University that showed that students who had been helped were more likely to volunteer to help someone else—even a complete stranger. He quotes Sonia Lyubomirsky of the University of California, who advises, “Say thank you for every thoughtful or kind gesture.” So it’s good to remember that helping others and saying thank you will help us be more grateful.

And gratitude is good for us. An article in Psychology Today states that “Studies show that we can deliberately cultivate gratitude, and can increase our well-being and happiness by doing so. In addition, gratefulness—and especially expression of it to others—is associated with increased energy, optimism, and empathy.”

For hands-on help in cultivating gratitude, you can check out “A Practical Guide To Gratitude” at Unstuck. It acknowledges that when “it’s hard to see positive forces when obstacles are blaring,” that is just the time to be grateful, to appreciate what’s not stuck about our lives.

Having read all these articles in a short time makes me feel more ready to express my gratitude. Here’s my thank-you list.

  • With all the cleaning out and decluttering we’ve been doing, I’m thankful for the stuff I have to give away, both to those struck by disaster and to those who are simply in need.
  • I’m grateful for my friends. To my best women friends, my group of women, my extended family of friends, the women I work with and the women I volunteer with, thank you to all of you who have helped me and supported me through this most trying year.
  • I’m thankful for my family, to my husband for being here, always, and to my kids for their love and care and concern.

What are you thankful for this year? How will you incorporate gratitude into your life?

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

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