by Nancy Martin
As the Christmas season approached, it became clear that our garage was falling down. It's 90 years old, built of brick and had a slate roof. (I live in Pittsburgh. During the steel era, nobody built anything that might catch on fire. Consequently, buildings are astronomically expensive to repair unless you replace the good stuff with vinyl and duct tape.) We invited a few contractors to give us bids, and despite the staggering estimates, we decided we didn't want several tons of brick and slate crashing down our cars on Christmas morn, so we settled on a very nice guy who said he'd tear off the whole roof (including trusses, which were the problem to begin with) and the back wall and start all over again, which was................a catastrophe in our bank account. But necessary.
THE DAY HE FINISHED THE JOB, the roof of the house began to leak, and I'm not talking about a little drip either. Also, the mysterious water that sometimes oozes up along one wall in the basement suddenly turned into a tributary of the Ohio River. And remember, it's Christmas shopping season.
In his book SHINY OBJECTS, James Roberts feels consumerism drives America now, and we're all the worse for it. We don't just keep up with the Joneses anymore---we want to keep up with the Kardashians and anyone else we see on TV, since we're too busy to have neighborly/competitive conversations over the back fence with people of our own socio-economic groups anymore.
Good thing my extended family decided years ago that giving lavish Christmas gifts was not only crazy expensive, but also.......crazy. So we stopped. It's no fun getting together on the holiday, though, without a few presents to open, so we started exchanging names. And the rule is, we give one book. Everybody gets a book! Beautifully wrapped, of course. (I like ribbons and bows, but also other little accessories on packages---tree ornaments or a clump of acorns glue-gunned together or a pretty pine cone. It makes a small gift look well-considered and festive.) The book exchange has turned into a wonderful family tradition. Everybody loves books, and who doesn't want a good one? (Really, if you don't have a Calvin and Hobbes, you'd have the best Christmas afternoon leafing through a new copy.) And we devote all our Christmas shopping hormones to finding that perfect book for the person whose name you have.
In case anybody needs an idea for me:
Mind you, we still give presents to anyone under 21, so I get to do the grandmother thing, although we've kinda figured out that nobody needs more toys if you already have one entire room devoted to plaything storage, so giving the registration fee for a class (arts and crafts, kiddie yoga, swimming lessons) or an activity (child choir) is just the ticket. Finding the perfect grandchild activity is a fun thing, too. Tickets to events, trips to the zoo--definitely worth the price.
So we're not Scrooge-y. Not totally adverse to spending a little cash on the holiday, but we're leaning toward thoughtful instead of Kardashian quantity.
At Christmas dinner with my family, everybody also gets what we call a "table gift." It's a small package that serves as your placecard, and the gift inside is always something a.) under $10 and b.) thoughtful and c.) hilarious. Last year, my mother was in charge, and she gave everyone pepper spray. Really, who wouldn't want a little cannister of pepper spray for Christmas? In the home of a crime writer (where the dinner took place) this was above and beyond in the hilarious department.
Sometimes it's gadgets. (Another hit was the flashlight that requires no battery, you just crank it for a minute or two and it stays illuminated for a while. Good for emergencies. Or keep it in your glove box.) Table gifts require creativity, ingenuity, a sense of humor, and a sense of the absurb doesn't hurt. Nothing crude, though. Lottery tickets will do in a pinch, but unless somebody scratches off a winner, they can dampen the mood.
Needless to say, if you feel like springing for the bargain hi def televisions or the latest e-reader, go for it! And if you're a gift card giver? Sure, why not. But how about sharing some good, thoughtful, unique--but not wildly expensive--gift ideas today?
I gave these to several friends. They're cute, right? And who doesn't need a meat thermometer? In barbecue season, having a set is fabulous.
What about a new handbag.....made out of . . . a book?
Feeling really cheap? Go for magnetic picture frames, the kind you stick on your refrigerator. Put a nice photo in it. I fond these at my local drug store for $2.
Fingerless gloves. For those of us who are texting in cold weather, what could be better? Also for plugging parking meters in cold climates. Target carries them, but Kohl's had some nice knitted ones ($18, but maybe they're on sale now?)
Have a cook in the family? I swear by these mixing bowls that are lined with some magic material that makes them super easy to clean. Honestly, these will change your life in the kitchen, and they're under $20 lots of places. Different colors, too. Add a muffin mix, and you're good to go.
Do you use a laptop? I gotta say, a lap desk makes things much easier, cooler, more balanced. Check out the cute colored lapdesks at Office Depot for under $13.
Now, if you usually receive a Christmas gift from my daughter Cassie (you know who you are) skip this paragraph, because this is the gizmo she's giving everybody on her list: A butter mill. She loves this thing. LOVES IT. She's giving it with a corn bread mix and a spatula. Cute, right? Also, I must admit, I used it when I visited her, and it's really slick. (That's a butter joke.)
If you must give a gift card, I'm partial to specific gifts, not the basic Mastercard for $25. Spa gift certificates show you care a little more. Or movie ticket coupons. (My husband gives these to his office assistants. Except the one who doesn't like movies, and he gets a case of beer!)
For the mystery writer on your gift list, Dead Fred:
Can I also say that one of my favorite gifts of all time was the small, elegant but not astronomically expensive evening bag my sister gave to me---I dunno--twenty years ago? It's still my fave. Thoughtfully chosen, much appreciated.
A trip to the hardware store is always worthwhile at Christmas. Bird feeders, bird baths, garden gloves, handy flashlights, little toolkits. (Or why not a sewing kit?) Or a rain gauge. Maybe I'm weird, but I love having a rain gauge. And those little thermometers that you hang outside, but the digital read-out is a little gizmo you keep inside on the windowsill? Useful. Seed packets. A bag of tulip bulbs. A nice trowel. (Every gardener needs a spare trowel. Don't buy a cheap one, though.)
My husband loves little tools and gadgets. The stud finder was a big hit with him. (And a delightful source of old jokes when we have to hang a picture together.) Electric screwdrivers--the perfect gift for just about anyone. (Yes, I hear you laughing, Margie!) If I'm desperate for a gift for him, I got to Home Depot, fill a bucket with gadgets and duct tape and little stuff that you always need when you need it, but don't have it on hand. Put a bow on it---done!
Also? Let's face it: Wine is a almost always a good gift. But do you have one of these handy bottle openers? They come in all price ranges, and the cork doesn't break off at the wrong moment.
Those of us who are writers usually send gifts to our agents and editors--sometimes enough to share with the rest of the office. I used to send quirky, memorable and lavish dessert baskets, but people seem to resent the sugar now, so maybe the box of fruit isn't a bad idea. (I just resent Harry & David, though, because I feel as if I'm paying a fortune for the boxes and packaging.) I'd like to find a company that does nuts, though. Don't you think nuts would be a nice holiday gift? I don't want to have to make them myself, though. Gifts should not come with food poisoning.
Of course, a great gift is a donation to a charity. Delightful. After 9/11 my agent's agency began donating to the nearest NYC firehouse, and when I opened that card, I burst into grateful tears. Who needs another gift basket, really, when you can be giving money to a worthy cause? I like literacy groups. My husband likes giving to charities that provide loans to women in other countries.
If you're looking for a great--er--stocking stuffer, here's my new favorite product: It's a roll-on for your feet that blocks blisters! Ideal for summer sandals or holiday heel-wearing. Okay, not exactly festive, but I guarantee this stuff is faboo and will be appreciated. But then, Santa always brings socks and toothbrushes in stockings at my house, so I--er--we---I mean, Santa has a practical side.
Office supplies! Really, who doesn't love office supplies? Post-It notes in fun shapes--Yay! Over the weekend, I found some great pink-for-breast-cancer-awareness pens at Target for $2. Or these screw pushpins for $4?
Okay, your turn. Please send your best gift ideas! I need a few more suggestions before Santa starts hitching up the reindeer.