By Fr. Michael Fones, O.P., co-director, Catherine of Siena Institute
I’m a friar with little in the way of disposable income, so when the Christmas advertisements begin to appear in the media touting the next, big thing, I’m reminded that I can’t afford to buy it for my loved ones. Or maybe, if I could buy it, it would be the only gift I could give that year. With the economy still recovering slowly, I imagine there are more folks sharing my predicament than is normally the case. In this season when we celebrate God’s gift of His own Son to us, how do we imitate Him when our wallets are thin?
First of all, we have to be realistic. Madison Avenue would have us believe that giving gifts purchased in a store is the only way to go. We have been conditioned to feel guilty if we either don’t give a store bought gift, or (horrors!) receive a gift or a Christmas card from someone who will not receiving one from us. We have to remember that this is also a season of receiving – as we received our Redeemer so long ago, and continue to receive graces and blessings from Our Father each day.
Think of it this way. If you love someone, you want to express your love by giving them something of yourself. A present is a token of that self-gift, and you hope it brings delight to the receiver. There should be no strings attached, or else it’s not a gift, but a bribe, or a kind of psychological extortion. I would be appalled if someone I loved felt obligated to reciprocate, just to make sure the score was even.
Here’s a rule of thumb to consider when you go shopping for Christmas gifts. The unspoken secular rule seems to be “the price on the tag is equivalent to the love you have for the individual.” In other words, the greater the expense, the greater the love.
Let’s reject that premise! When I receive a simple gift from someone I love, the sentiment associated with the giver makes me value it much more than an expensive gift from an acquaintance. When I was in first or second grade, I gave my mother a Christmas gift for the first time. It was a cylindrical pill container filled with sand and small shells, wrapped in red foil, with a short poem attached that read,
“Wider than the ocean,
deeper than the sea,
nothing can be greater
than my love for thee.”
I saw that trinket on her dressing table years later.
So, with that theoretical preamble, let me get down to some practical suggestions for gifts in a time of limited resources. Some of these are things I’ve done in the past, while others are things I’ve heard others do. Remember, the gift needs to fit the receiver. A current ad on television features NFL quarterback Peyton Manning giving a football mouthguard to a matronly woman, while a young woman presents an octogenarian with a walker a box of taffy. His response? “Let me get my teeth.”
One of the things I’ve enjoyed in the past is making small gift cards for people. They might include an offer of a ride to the store or the physician for an elderly person. Why not offer a trip to a basketball game to one of your kids? It could be a game at the local high school or university. Maybe it’s just the promise of a game of one-on-one! The point is that you’re telling your child you want to spend some time with him or her – just the two of you. You can use your imagination and make a gift card offering to do something with or for another person that you know they’ll want to use.
I am blessed to come from a family that lives pretty comfortably, and it’s often challenging to figure out what they might want or need. This is especially true for my parents, who, at age 87, are simplifying their life and don’t want things that simply become clutter. In years past, I have sometimes made a donation to a charity in their name; something like the Christian Foundation for Children and Aging, or Engineers without Borders (my dad’s a former engineer). Heifer International lets you purchase farm animals, fruit trees, and other useful sources of food and income for impoverished third world families and is another worthy cause that makes a real difference in lives across the globe. You might consider supporting an organization that gives out microloans to budding entrepreneurs in poor countries. These, too, can mean the difference between begging and self-support in some of the poorest of the poor.
When I was pastor of a Newman Center in Eugene, OR, our financial situation was tight. I wanted to show appreciation to members of the staff and significant parish volunteers, so my pastoral associate and I purchased an assortment of inexpensive baskets, decorated them with rosemary from the friar’s garden, and filled them with homemade cookies, fudge, mini-fruitcakes and herb or garlic infused olive oil in bottles we got from the dollar store. She and I had a great time filling the baskets (she’s an excellent Italian baker), and the recipients were truly grateful for the time, effort, and affection that went into the endeavor. I should also say the fruitcakes were the best ever, from a recipe I got from a dear friend in Salt Lake City. I’ve included that recipe below.
My sister-in-law’s brother is an excellent painter, and each year he traditionally gives Christmas cards with prints of a painting he made especially for that year. They were always beautiful, and often ended up being framed and added to the collection that people made through the years. If you’re an artist, a potter, or like to crochet, or know how to work with wood, what you produce with your own hands might be the gift treasured the most by someone you love.
For those on your shopping list who are spiritually oriented, or who have some serious need, like better health, a job, or patience with a difficult situation, you might offer a gift of prayer. You can have Masses said for their intentions, or, more personally, promise to pray and fast on their behalf. Such a “spiritual bouquet” can be quite personal and more meaningful
A family I know with five children under the age of twelve has a tradition. Every year the kids sort through their toys to determine which ones they’ve outgrown. Toys that are broken are discarded. Any toys that “don’t make the cut” are cleaned and taken to the St. Vincent de Paul Society. This might also be an option for those gifts that you receive that you know you’ll never use. Rather than “re-gifting” them, take them in their packaging to St. Vinnie’s or the Salvation Army. Someone else may treasure what you find useless.
Actually, I think these ideas make sense when our economic prospects look pretty good! Perhaps they will spark some ideas for creative gift-giving alternatives in your own mind. If so, feel free to share them on the Catherine of Siena Institute blog, Making Disciples.
If you follow this recipe, you’ll get delicious, very moist, fruitcake. Normally, I can’t stand the stuff, but this recipe changed my opinion of fruitcake. It IS possible to have a really wonderful fruitcake that is a great gift for someone you love.
1 box (15 oz.) raisins, 1- 16oz. pkg. pitted prunes
1-8oz. pkg. diced apricots
1-8oz. box chopped dates,
1-16 oz. carton glace fruit mix
1-16oz. carton candied cherries
1 cup brandy
1 1/2 cups butter
2 cups brown sugar, firmly packed
3 cups flour
1 tablespoon cinnamon
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon allspice
2 large ripe bananas, mashed
2 cups walnut halves
Place raisins in a large bowl. Cut prunes and apricots in fourths, add to raisins along with chopped dates and glace fruit and cherries. Pour 1/2 cup of brandy over fruit, tossing to mix. Cover and let stand at room temperature overnight. Cream butter until light and fluffy. Add sugar gradually, beating well. Add eggs, one at a time mixing well after each addition. Combine flour, cinnamon, slat and nutmeg and allspice and add to butter mixture alternately with mashed bananas. Stir in fruit along with nuts. Turn into three very well greased loaf pans, lined with greased brown paper, 9x5 inches. Bake at 250 degrees 2 1/2-3 hours or until cake tests done. Don't underbake. Remove from pan and cool completely. pour remaining brandy over tops of cakes very slowly, so that it sinks into cake. Wrap tightly to store. Makes 3 cakes.