Friday, October 15, 2010

The best gifts come from paying attention

When I look around my home, I catch glimpses of the gifts my family and I have received from my nieces and nephews—the star-shaped jewelry box made in an art class and given to celebrate my 30th birthday, a decoupaged egg, and brightly colored hand-knit scarves. Virtually everything is handmade. The small clay sculptures one of my nephews crafted, for example, are each in a shape befitting the recipient. Mine is in the shape of a carrot as a nod to my love of gardening; my husband’s is a football to represent his affinity for the game.

Each gift bears the stamp of the giver. One of my favorite gifts is a laminated bookmark with a picture on it of a cow jumping over the moon. On the backside, the giver signed his name. Below that is a wayward bug that got caught up in the craft project, smooshed flat in plastic laminate and forever serving as a reminder of the boy who gave the gift.

These treasures, simple as they are, embody the true spirit of gift giving. These are gifts given without compulsion or guilt. And they reflect the givers’ careful thought, the power of their keen observation, and their ability to work within the resources available to them. If only we were all so adept at that kind of gift giving.

Instead, we tend to give gifts out of compulsion, worrying that they won’t seem like enough. Or we choose the most expedient or more expensive option, for the sake of time or appearances. And too often, we fail to work within our resources and end up overspending on gifts.

Before the Christmas shopping frenzy begins, I want to pause and view gift giving through the eyes of a child. I never once had a conversation with my young nephew about loving my garden, yet he was in tune enough with my interests to make me a handmade gift that literally said, “I know you.” I want to do the same for the people in my life.

If you haven’t already, start paying close attention to what the people on your gift list want and like. What are their goals and hopes? What excites them? It’s a simple exercise that sometimes gets overlooked. When you have this information, you can start thinking about the type of gift that makes your gift recipients feel most alive, and will be most satisfying for them to receive.

By intentionally looking at your friends’ and family’s hopes, dreams, talents and hobbies, you could come up with a wealth of gift ideas that will truly please those on your Christmas list this year. If finding gifts that fit your loved ones’ goals and hopes seems too overwhelming, start smaller. Take your cues for gift ideas from favorite colors, foods or music, for instance.

Gifts given with thought and intention don’t necessarily have to be expensive. In fact, they can run the gamut from store-bought to thrift-store finds to handmade goods. For the people “who have everything” and seem impossible to shop for, consider a gift of time or service. Give the gift of tickets to a concert you’ll attend together, or a gift certificate to wash your grandparents’ car, or the gift of babysitting for a busy mother.

Now, before the full crush of the holiday season is on us, start thinking about your loved ones and begin formulating gift ideas. Next week, I will talk more about how to plan your budget and shopping carefully to give gifts from the heart without overspending.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Festive kids’ birthday parties start with colorful traditions

This is a busy month at our house; three of our four children were born in October. This means lots of celebrating and potentially lots of extra expenses. Our life is plenty complicated and our budget amply tight, even without hosting three birthday parties in one month. So we aim to keep things as simple as possible, while creating traditions and rituals to honor our children.

Drawing on tradition helps our children anticipate their birthday celebrations, giving them something to look forward to year after year. Our family’s traditions are designed to give our children a sense of stability and continuity. What’s more, creating traditions teaches them that, while gifts may be a part of their celebration, presents are not the focus of the entire day.

We’re still building these traditions, and we have plenty of room to embrace more as they grow older. Right now, the day of their birth starts with a special-request birthday breakfast, served on a special breakfast-in-bed tray. Anything goes, though they tend to stick to typical breakfast fare, with a few twists. Our soon-to-be 6-year-old asked for chocolate chip banana bread in the shape of a butterfly (easy enough to do by using a butterfly cookie cutter on an individual slice of bread) and not-from-concentrate juice, for example.

After breakfast, we’ll hang our birthday wreath on the front door (made with a straw form and 170 balloons—that haven’t been blown up) as a signal to all passersby that we’re celebrating a birthday.

As for the party itself, we let our children each choose a specific color theme that we weave into everything possible – tableware, clothing, gift wrap, decorations, the evening meal and cake. I wish I could say our children weren’t taken with licensed characters (everything from princesses to Spider-Man), but they are. We might include one or two character accessories, such as tattoos or party napkins. Otherwise, we draw on what we have on hand as much as possible and buy a few carefully chosen items.

Last year, my 2-year-old son requested an all-orange birthday, which worked particularly well because his birthday falls close to Halloween. I served orange Jell-O blocks and small cans of orange soda. We ate off orange plates and enjoyed cake frosted in the same hue. In fact, our children start talking about the shapes and colors of their cakes long before their birthdays arrive.

This is largely because my mother-in-law has introduced them to her tattered cake book, with bright pictures of dozens of different cakes. She used the same book to create cakes for her own children and now continues the tradition by making birthday cakes for her grandchildren. My mother, too, uses her talents to help build tradition; she creates a handmade card for each of our children every year. Lovingly rendered, these cards will become part of the archive of my children’s lives.

My daughters are sharing a rainbow-themed party, complete with a rainbow cake with fluffy marshmallow clouds, a bunting banner in rainbow hues, a giant rainbow-colored number “6” piƱata, a fruit tray arranged in rainbow succession, and the requisite Jell-O.

There will be another party later in the month—for a boy who is smitten with red, and Volkswagen Beetles, and hitches. We’ll marry these three loves into what he has dubbed his “red slug bug hitch birthday.” His grandmothers, I’m sure, are already thinking about how they’ll render a red slug bug with a hitch into a cake and a card.

Imagination-laden parties offer my entire family the gifts of shared fun and warm memories. And that’s the best birthday present I can give any of my children.