The gift that keeps not giving
December 6, 2010 5:57 PM   Subscribe

What have you given to (or done for) friends and family as an alternative to standard christmas gifts?

My partner and I would like to do something special for as many of our family/friends as we can this holiday season. We are also hoping to avoid adding any more clutter to the lives of our loved ones, so activities or gestures win points over objects. We are open to giving small, personalized DIY gifts- especially if they are consumable and/or useful. We've donated to charities as a 'gift' in the past, but it didn't go over all that well with everyone, plus we're looking for something more personal than that this year.

The range of people we are thinking of runs from open minded mormons in their 60's to siblings in their late teens, and all the stages in between. Most of them are local, a few are in other states.
posted by palacewalls to Society & Culture (21 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Easy, consumable, DIY gift - I made peppermint bark for people last year, which went over really well with everyone. (Tip - use a hammer and a butterknife to chip it apart, kind of like a chisel. Super easy, you'll quickly see how you can control where it breaks, and it won't get your chocolate all fingerprinty. And you can skip the oil. Don't skip the peppermint extract.) They sell cellophane candy bags at the craft store. Stack some chocolate chunks up inside and tie with a nice ribbon.

If you want to give something more than a little bag of chocolate, maybe also include a gift card personalized to each person's likes as well? It doesn't have to be a lot of money. Good gift cards that will get used: iTunes, Amazon, movies, dinner (for a couple), nail salon, I can go on and on. I will say that I come from a family that loves and gladly exchanges gift cards/certificates. We treat it as fun money we wouldn't have otherwise spent on something we enjoy. (Sometimes we are too frugal for our own good.)
posted by AlisonM at 6:14 PM on December 6, 2010

I really liked this recent comment on the blue about how the tradition of giving gifts at a predetermined time takes away some of the meaning: we give people objects they might not need or want because it's designated gift-giving time, instead of giving them something that they really need or want when they need it.

It got me thinking that maybe I should give my loved ones "future gifts" - either a nicely-presented handwritten IOU or small amount of cash with an explanation that there will be something, at some point, that they will need or want more than whatever I could think to give them right now, and might not get for themselves, and I'd much rather give them that than a trinket they might not use.

I couldn't figure out how to do that non-awkwardly, so I bought stuff instead. I might still do it anyway.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:01 PM on December 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

Necessary car maintenance (new tires, oil changes, that sort of thing) were standard parental gifts for the Holidays when I was in college.

Also, if you are a frequent flyer, you might be able to facilitate a cool trip for someone without much cost: A relative of mine who travels frequently for work offered her air-travel points in leiu of a gift one year. It wasn't an offer to transfer (I don't think they can do that?), rather, I got to specify the destination and travel dates, then she bought the ticket in my name. It's maybe not that sexy to give, but as a person who never has the cash to go *ANYWHERE*, boy was it sweet.
posted by Ys at 7:02 PM on December 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

Offer babysitting to the people who need it. Not a vague unspecified promise, but something specific like "I'm happy to take the kids next Thursday so that you guys can go out to a movie together" (plus give movie tickets). Or for people you know really well (siblings or close cousins) offer to take the kids for a whole weekend.

I don't really recommend the approach mentioned by Metroid Baby - my Dad always does that on Xmas or birthdays ("I didn't get you anything, but when I see something that makes me think of you, I'll give you it then") and I don't think he has EVER followed up. It's just an excuse not to do any gift giving, in his case, and it could come across like that to other people even if you don't intend it to.

Another non-traditional gift I have given people (and been given) is a nice photo that means something to us both - my parents once had a big print and framed copy made of a family portrait from when I was little; my parents-in-law did the same with a picture they took when visiting us on holiday. Also, my husband once gave me a short-story he had written especially for me. That was one of the best gifts I ever received.
posted by lollusc at 7:17 PM on December 6, 2010

Some ideas:

Food gifts are always welcome. There are many suggestions for things like baked goods and "food kits" like cookie-ingredients-in-a-jar or baskets in AskMe with an easy search.

My immediate family has a tradition of taking a day-after-Christmas excursion together. We have gone to do museums in NYC, gone ice skating, gone to a big retreat-hotel kind of place for brunch and hiking...stuff like that. Very happy memories from the time together and the specialness of the experience.

Magazine subscriptions are a great gift- they don't necessarily add to clutter since they are highly reusable and there are usually many places to pass them on. Senior centers, for example, and gyms. They come all year and it's a real pleasure to get something other than bills.

How about a session with a professional organizer?

How about massages and/or manicures or other spa appointments? The teens might love that stuff.

I've made bunches of stuff as DIY gifts. One really popular one was sachets made from cedar shavings. I got the shavings free from a boatbulding shop (but you could even buy the kind they sell for guinea pigs for $4.99 a bag), and sewed tiny pillows out of pretty fabric. Added a ribbon, and there you go. Really nice for popping into a sweater door or blanket chest. You could do the same with balsam needles or potpourri.

One year when my family was super broke my Dad made me personalized letterhead. IT was really special because this was before the desktop-printing era; he had handlettered it. Very memorable. But you could even create a nice letterhead on a Word document and then print a set of letter paper or notecards.
posted by Miko at 7:27 PM on December 6, 2010

I'm pretty broke this year, but I also had a lot of yarn that I needed to plow through. So what I've been doing is just making a huge collection of hats, all different colors and styles, and when the whole family's assembled, instead of everyone getting something to individually unwrap I'm dumping the whole pile out onto a table and everyone's going to get to pick the one they want. (Actually, people may be able to pick twice at the rate I'm going.)

If you are crafty and can make a bunch of different styles of some one thing, this may also be an option. I figured hats are small and generally useful.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:32 PM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

My SO and I planned out two full menus for gourmet meals, printed them up on pretty scrap-booking paper, and presented them to my parents to choose their favorite to be cooked for them at a future date. We are good cooks, but not professionals or anything. The recipes came from My parents ended up picking and choosing between the entrees and side dishes from both meals, so if I did this again I would probably just offer a few salads, few appetizers, few entrees, etc. to choose from instead of spending so much time trying to compose perfect meals. This was last Christmas and we are finally cooking for them next weekend. Don't make our mistake -- any kind of certificate or IOU needs prompt follow-through to avoid seeming like a cop-out.
posted by vytae at 7:33 PM on December 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

Memberships - museums, health clubs, dog park, health food co-op, parks (state or national), movie or game membership

Continuing education course of his/her choice at a local college

Lessons - music, art, new sport/activity

Unusual XXX of the month club - food, drink or plants, something for a pet
posted by Agatha at 7:47 PM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've started increasingly giving to charity. So, I'll think about what charity/cause my sister and her boyfriend are really into -- then give to a charity that does that kind of work. For example, my sister and her bf are avid cyclist commuters and are well traveled folks concerned about the lives of immigrants in the states. So, this year I went to a local nonprofit bike shop, Park Hill Bike Depot, (they rebuild donated bikes then let kids earn those bikes) and bought one of the kids bikes they fixed up ($50 and it looks brand new) -- then gave that bike to the African Community Center along with a helmet, lock and soccer ball (all are items they requested for their gift drive this year). My sister and her bf will get photos of all the loot and information about the Bike Depot and the ACC. They will be totally psyched. Oh, and I picked up some cycling socks with Park Hill Bike Depot on them so they'll remember their gift every time they wear them.

I'm totally over giving material gifts for people who have the means to buy their own crap. Everyone I've done this for has loved it.
posted by fieldtrip at 7:57 PM on December 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

Couple years ago, we bought a bunch of five-dollar half-pound measures of weird pastas from the farmer's market, and just let people have at 'em. Everywhere we went, we had a shopping bag full of pasta, and for months afterwards, relatives and friends came up and told us how much they enjoyed the default recipe we stapled to each bag.

This year, we're bringing artisan cheese from from the milk of some very happy goats.

(I can't wait to see the look on some of the more American-cheese-Miracle-Whip-wonder-bread family-members' faces - "Holy shit, cheese can be *this*?")
posted by notsnot at 8:48 PM on December 6, 2010

fieldtrip - that is the most thoughtful presentation of the charity gift trend i've heard. such a brilliant execution!

i have to say, food gifts are not always welcome. we've done very complicated and not cheap food gifts that never got eaten (interesting fruit compotes for ice cream, flavored oils, etc.) and when we get jams we often don't eat them. we even gave ideas for use but for most of the people it didn't go over well or they just forgot about them. i think it can be very difficult to nail the food gift.

lately i've become a big fan of giving/getting experiences and sometimes that can be easily accomplished with gift cards. my husband is crazy for cheese and so a family member gave him a $25 gift card to Whole Foods and he loved it. I also love Fandango gift cards or other movie theater gift cards. also seconding the manicure/massage idea.

for older folks, spending time can be the best gift. i love vytae's idea of doing a custom fancy meal.
posted by lvanshima at 9:18 PM on December 6, 2010

My family and friends have all stopped exchanging gifts. We were stuck in that cycle of not needing or wanting anything, having to come up with ideas for other people who don't need or want anything, then seeing those gifts go unused.

Now we make an effort to spend time together at the holidays and still decorate, eat, drink, be merry, etc. but no gifts. The first year was awkward, but since then it's been freeing. I no longer dread December and the shopping crowds, but look forward to spending time with my loved ones without the stress of gift giving. I highly recommend it.
posted by cecic at 9:27 PM on December 6, 2010

Services. For my friends with kids, I've given babysitting coupons in lieu of monetary/present exchanges. For my parents, I've offered to cook dinner one weekend while I visit or wash both of their cars, etc. For my little sister, I offered to do her laundry for her during finals week. You can basically think up anything for homemade coupons.

My favorite present was a "survival" kit for college. It was a big banker box with nutrition bars, batteries, deodorant, a spare toothbrush, one roll of toilet paper, and a few odds and ends that were geared towards my personality and major at the time. My Dad also made me a survival kit for my car that had everything you needed to basic car ownership plus a hammer, first aid kit, a screwdriver, lighter, a poncho, and a flashlight. I can't tell you how many times I have used items from both kits and how they truly helped me in a jam. It's very personal for people to seriously think what one would need given certain situations, so I know the people that made them for me took a lot of time.
posted by penguingrl at 9:40 PM on December 6, 2010

I received a day of labour from my sister. It was amazing. She cleaned and did chores and helped me with my on going projects! I have asked for that again this Christmas!
posted by saradarlin at 10:05 PM on December 6, 2010

We make donations in each others name to a Family Fun Fund, maintained by the Elders of the family. Then every couple of years that money helps us get together for a vacation at an interesting place, not too far from home.
Rosarita Beach
Santa Barbara
posted by SLC Mom at 10:15 PM on December 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

Custom DIY recipe books are nice. Maybe a collection of everyone's favorite recipes thrown into a book? If you just start e-mailing everyone for their favorite recipes, you could end up w/ quite a collection. I got one years ago from my Dad and I just keep adding to it. Since I don't have a wedding album to grab as I run from my burning house, I'll grab that recipe book (and my laptop) :)
posted by Lukenlogs at 12:45 AM on December 7, 2010

SLC Mom - what a great idea! I am totally going to adopt that in our family.
posted by widdershins at 6:02 AM on December 7, 2010

My husband is not a fan of more "stuff" (probably overwhelmed with mine) so this year I've used Groupon and gotten him two things: An all day flying lesson where the last part is him flying the plane himself (with instructor) - he's often mentioned how much he'd love to take flying lessons but the cost was prohibitive. This was a $150 value halved down to $75. Then I saw a cool thing - five laps around a track with a NASCAR driver. $60 down to $30. I snagged one for husband and one for his best friend so they can go together. (

And I got him slippers because he asked for those.)

I am on a couple of those Groupon/Jasmere/Living Social lists and love the stuff that's come through it. Try it and see if you can find a great idea for an adventure!
posted by Mysticalchick at 6:41 AM on December 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Spend some time with them. Have a memorable day out together with them, that you have planned yourself so they don't have to do anything. If you're feeling flush you can do spa day, posh meal out, that kind of thing; if not, you can cook for them or pack a picnic or find an unusually lovely walk to take them on.

If you have some unusual skill that can play into this that's even better - someone I knew would take me shopping for some particular clothing item I wanted, since she was into fashion and knew where to go, and I was pretty clueless.

You can present a voucher if that's your kind of thing, or just give them a small gift that's somehow related to your planned expedition.

Find some time on your outing to get to know them better, ask them questions about their childhood, or whatever else would bring you closer together.
posted by emilyw at 12:30 PM on December 7, 2010

Combine the charity and magazine subscription gift ideas by buying them a membership in an advocacy organization that they would find appealing. Many of these groups have monthly or quarterly newsletters/magazines that contain photos, essays, stories, and so forth; contrary to your title, this really is a gift that keeps on giving! Organizations run the gamut from the Sierra Club (magazine: Sierra) to the NRA (magazine: American Rifleman). Just think of something they like (history? outdoors? Civil War? animals? art?) and find a group/charity/organization that promotes and supports that.

I gave a friend a subscription/membership to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and she's thanked me many times.
posted by math at 6:07 PM on December 7, 2010

I've blogged about a lot of gift ideas intended to avoid clutter: consumables, experiences, etc. This post with some suggestions will also link you to the others from this year (and from prior years, if you continue to follow the "related post" links).

What have I done, personally? I don't do many holidays gift exchanges, but I just got a friend with a new baby a gift certificate for Snapfish, the photo service she uses. I've given my dad and stepmom various food gifts, the latest being Jeni's ice cream, a gift that went over VERY well. (The salty caramel seems to be popular with everyone who tries it.)
posted by jeri at 6:03 PM on December 11, 2010

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