By Donna Lee Schillinger
It’s here: Christmas shopping season, and I’d like to offer a suggestion. This year, instead of something practical, or pretty, or fattening, or a gift card, how about gifting something most Americans lack: sentimentality.
In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, she records the memories of Christmases spent in the Big Woods and on the Prairie, among other places in the American frontier during the late 1800s. A typical pioneer Christmas included an extraordinary meal, consisting of foods that they didn’t eat often, with a few special treats and the company of their closest family or neighbors. There weren’t really Christmas gifts to speak of. The things they looked forward to were peppermint sticks in new tin cups, an orange (yes, I just said “an orange”), and maybe Pa or Ma would have made them a new toy out of cornhusks or rags or something. Store-bought presents simply weren’t part of their celebration. They were poor in material things—the polar opposite of American society 130 years later.
That’s not to say they were an impoverished people, however. The families generally ate very high quality food and kept stores of it—the garden’s best, fresh meats and fresh baked goods. They perhaps only had two or three changes of clothes, but the clothes they had were of a quality so fine that many of them have lasted to today to be sold in antique and vintage stores. And most of all, they were a very rich people in quality of relationships. A sense of community was real (not virtual); families were intact and a strong, generally positive influence in a person’s life; time spent in each other’s company was plentiful as fathers and sons worked together and mothers taught daughters everything from their ABCs to how to make a flaky pie crust. And when they came together on a special occasion to celebrate a birthday or Christmas, nothing was missing. They had each other, and they truly celebrated their mutual presence—without presents. These were a people rich in sentimentality—the polar opposite of American society 130 years later.
Don’t believe it? Let me just ask. Last year, did you, for at least one person on your Christmas list, walk the mall or a department store aimlessly looking for any sort of hint as to what you might be able to buy for a present? That, my friend, is sentimental poverty in gift giving.
Each year for the past five years, I’ve been challenging my family to do something different at Christmas—something countercultural that gets more to the heart of celebrating the birth of Christ. This year my challenge is to give a sentimental gift. It can be anything—new, used, antique, handmade, intangible, or otherwise, as long as you know it will genuinely touch the heart of the receiver. Give a gift that has absolutely no chance of being regifted or returned, because you are certain of its sentimental worth.
When I announced this challenge to my immediate family, my husband and daughter groaned and looked sickly. Yeah—the idea was counter to their culture, too. My daughter was not only afraid of what she might get (or not get); she was also afraid of not being able to think of good gifts for others. The first is really not a major concern if we can just deal with the second. Yes, this is a challenge. Gifting something rich in sentiment requires a good deal of thought, and walking around the mall on Christmas Eve will be of absolutely no help. If you’re afraid you, too, might fail, why not start with just two people on your list and try to give a sentiment-rich gift?
What’s on their bucket list? What are the things that really satisfy them? Whom do they miss? What do they miss?
My husband’s favorite football team is the Philadelphia Eagles, and he has always wanted to see them play in person some day; it’s on his bucket list. So my gift to him is going to be tickets for him and our son to a football game. It’s a once in a lifetime thing for him (he’s 47 and has never done it yet), and he gets to share it with his son. That’s incredibly special.
But it doesn’t have to be over the top like that. My grandfather, now deceased, wrote a little booklet of his life experiences. We have a few copies of the poorly typed and laid out publication. For my mother, I’m going to add some more pictures have it printed professionally. There are plenty of services that make this an affordable and easy project, if I just send the book in a Word document.
The possibilities are endless and so incredibly personal that it’s nearly impossible to suggest a list. What’s required is time, spent in solitude and in thought about this person who is genuinely so special to you that you want to express that relationship in a gift given on the occasion of Christ’s birth. It takes an unusual amount of consideration of the other person, which is a large part of the gift.
Well, better start “shopping” for those special people in your life. If you take this challenge, I’d love to hear your ideas or your experience when your special someone opens your gift.