Thursday, December 9, 2010

It's better to give...

So once again it's that time of year when I get all stressed out because the sewing projects for Christmas aren't anywhere near completed and the tree isn't up yet and the house isn't decorated. Add to that the fact that I'm super tired right now because I'm pregnant and it's a recipe for craziness.

The part of the holiday season that I like most is the Christmas shopping, although with small kids it can be difficult to really look around to find the perfect gift. I pride myself on finding something beautiful and original for everyone, or making something fantastic. I used to be able to do that. Sometimes I still succeed. Like when I make cookies for everyone - my biscotti are always well-received by coffee drinking family members, as are the espresso biscuits (thank you Martha Stewart) and many other types of cookies. Last year I had the best idea for a Christmas present for my in-laws and they loved it: I had a portrait made of all the grandkids together in a 16 x 20 size and had it framed for them to put in the family room in their new house. Of course next year I have to do a new one that will include the new baby. But the idea was genius, and my sister-in-law thought it was awesome. The kids had coordinating outfits - sweater dresses from Hanna Andersson in blue for my girls and in red and white for hers, and Tallon had a Nordic-type sweater and jeans. It's the cutest picture ever.

However, this year I feel rushed for time and constrained by budgetary limitations so it's a bit more difficult. Fortunately, I am able to make things for many people in our family. Like my nieces, who have every toy under the sun. This year they took a trip to NYC and visited American Girl place - Maeve went along and brought her "Just Like Me" American Girl doll. My sister-in-law ended up getting her girls each a doll, so I can make them clothes for their dolls. This won't cost me anything in the way of cash, since I can use scraps to do it and the best part is that I have fabric left over from the dresses that I made them 2 years ago. How cool is that?

Maeve is getting a dress that I had already been planning, so no problems there. Gwyn's homemade present is a puppet theatre - the kind you hang in the doorway with a tension-type curtain rod. She already has many puppets so I don't have to make any if I run out of time. I think I have enough fabric in my stash already for this so it might cost nothing or it might cost very little, since I already have a JoAnn's coupon.

My other relatives, though, are less easy to produce things for. My sister-in-law is fairly picky about pretty much everything and routinely asks for a gift card to Pottery Barn. I hate gift cards. I hate that people ask for gift cards. Mostly I hate them because the person knows how much or how little you spent on them, but I also hate them because I think they're impersonal. I was thrilled to see an article on this very subject the other day. I agree with the author that giving a gift card usually means that you don't know the person well enough anymore to be giving them gifts. That's pretty much the way I feel at Christmas because my in-laws generally go with the default of getting gift cards. When I was pregnant 2 years ago, my sister-in-law got me a gift card for maternity clothes. How much do you want to bet that I get one this year?

My mother-in-law asks every year what I want for Christmas. The answer is: I don't know. I don't go shopping for myself and I don't window shop. Unless I've gotten an email from or Barnes and Noble advertising a book by an author I like, I have no idea what books I might want. I shop for my kids, mostly, so I never end up in a store that has anything for me. So the default for my mother-in-law has been cash until we moved back to the States and I could actually use gift cards. The thing is, there's never any pleasant surprises when I open gifts from her. If I give her a list of things, she's likely to get every damn thing on the list. Same thing with the kids and with Scott. We've had to learn not to give her too many options so we don't end up with a ton of stuff.

And, honestly, I feel like saying, "I've been married to Scott for almost 15 years. If you don't know what I like, what I do for a hobby, what my interests are by now, I don't think I can help you." Because I really hate being asked every year. And it makes me feel really crappy that you don't care to even try to buy something without being told exactly what I want. I mean, she knows I sew and yet I had to have Scott tell her that a gift card to JoAnn's would be good.

Now, you might wonder why this issue gives me so much heartburn. The reason is this: they don't give each other gift cards as a general rule. So it makes me angry/sad/confused when they clearly care enough to give one another gifts that have taken thought, are a surprise, are something unique and special, but they don't do this for me, Scott or the kids.

The real answer to my mother-in-law's question "What do you want for Christmas?" is: Nothing. I don't want anything. Maybe I'd like you to come and clean my house. Or maybe I'd like you to come and hang out with the kids one week a month so I can do some sewing and other things that I never have time to do. But really - I don't want any more stuff. Well, I take that back. I want an embroidery machine but that's an amount of cash that no one is going to spend on me. And it's really a pie-in-the-sky kind of request, anyway.

The funny thing is, this year I'll probably end up giving more gift cards than I normally would and I can justify it. First, Scott's mom has a Kindle and asked for a gift certificate so she can get more downloads. Okay, that's reasonable. And fairly personal, since I could buy her a book or two and for the same cost she can probably get 4 or more. Scott's dad is getting a subscription to Popular Science and to National Geographic, because he mentioned he wanted it. While that's kind of like a gift card, it's not really. Scott's sister? Well, I don't know. Honestly. I really don't want to help decorate her house by giving her another Pottery Barn gift card. I mean, she's a doctor - she can spend her own money on that.

My family, on the other hand, normally is really good about finding things that each person will like- even if they're tiny things. For us, it's really the thought that counts and the look of surprise and pleasure on the face of the person receiving the gift. (I contrast this with the free-for-all that is gift opening at my in-laws which gives me a stomach- and head-ache and where no one knows who opened what - see above photo.) Plus, generally speaking my family is poor so the presents have never been huge. Anyway, I don't live near my brothers or my mom, so sometimes it can be difficult to know what to get them.

My brother Phil got married a year and a half ago and I know his wife is in the process of redoing the house as best she can on their severely limited budget. Limited as in, hey I picked up this paint for free on Craig's list and I got these curtains at the Goodwill store. I'm thinking that maybe a gift card is the best way to give them something that they really want or need but are putting off because they can't afford to buy it. Like a gift card to Home Depot, maybe? Because I could buy them something but then I'd have to ship it and it could be impractical. Better than money because they'd be unlikely to spend it on bills or whatever but it still gives them the freedom to buy what they want. Same with my brother Stefan - he loves to cook and is getting pretty good at it, but he's on a tight budget that doesn't really allow for him to buy more expensive things or high-end produce. I could send him a gift basket full of stuff but I know he likes to shop and I can't send fresh foods in the mail. Enter a Whole Foods gift card, which will allow him to get what he wants and for it to be fresh.

Then there's my mom. I love to make her things. In the past, when money wasn't so tight, I've gotten her Steiff bears for her collection (on ebay) and other trinkets. I've sent cookies. But I know that she's been trying to downsize her life and she doesn't have tons of room. This year, I think I want to make something. I have this really nice fabric and a sweater pattern that I want to make up but I don't know.... I'd have to ask her for her measurements. In the meantime I picked up some Godiva chocolates at a discount price at the NEX, since I know she loves Godiva.

I'd rather just go through the holidays without having to worry that someone wants to buy me something. If I could do all of my gifts handmade I'd be really happy. For me the holidays aren't about getting, they're about giving. The present I get is the look on their faces when they open up their gifts and hearing them say "Oh my gosh, this is wonderful! I love it!". It's enough for me.


  1. Oh Jen, as usual there is lots of food for thought in there! I have two people that I give money to, so that they can get their own gift, my mother in law, because I have no idea what she'd like, and even if I got her something, she would open it and say, "Oh that's lovely" and wrap it up again, hardly even looking at it, so with a few Euro, she can get some clothes in the sales in January. She does appreciate it.
    I give my mother money for her gym membership, so she can swim every day. No problem there. I will get both of them some chocolates or some other token gift too.
    One sister is getting hand-made gifts for her and her husband (at her own request), her teenage kids will get money for music downloads.
    The other sister and family has got books from Amazon, some books suggested and some my choice.
    Both sisters live in the UK.
    Other nieces and nephews etc will get store bought PJ's and vests and underwear. I usually make their birthday gifts.
    I have made our little girls hobby-horses.
    I am trying to not overwhelm myself with too many hand-made gifts, only for a select few. There is nothing worse than spending ages making something, to get a grunt instead of a thank you!
    In our house everyone watches while each person opens one gift at a time, not a free-for-all!
    And Congratulations...I didn't know you were pregnant! When are you due?

  2. Thanks, Millie - I'm due in early July so I'm suffering from the usual first-trimester fatigue. This is definitely the last one, though, so I keep saying that I'll never be this tired again!

    I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who insists on opening one gift at a time! When I was a child we had a tradition of wearing the "santa" hat (really an old hat of my mother's, knitted by my grandmother many years before). The person who wore the hat would choose a gift for someone else in the room from under the tree and hand it to that person, along with the hat. That person put on the hat, opened his/her gift, thanked whoever the gift was from and then chose a present for someone else from under the tree, and so on. By doing it this way, everyone gets to see what was given and admire it and I think everyone shares in the spirit of giving in this way. I know that I always felt happy watching other people open their gifts, even if they weren't from me. Last year my mom sent me a Christmas package and in it was the hat, with a note which said that we should continue the tradition and that when my kids are grown it should go to one of them. I'm lucky that Scott feels the same way as I do, so there's never any desire to rush through gift-opening.

    I think that money for a gym membership is an excellent thing. And I agree that if the recipient isn't going to like your handmade things you shouldn't waste time on making them something.
    I love the idea of making hobby horses! I bet your girls will love them. I should think about doing something like that, as we have one that Maeve has passed down to Gwyneth and she is unwilling to share it with Tallon.

  3. I hope the tiredness improves soon... My older two kids have hobby horses too, and are willing to share, but I thought it would be nice for the little ones to have their of the twins in particular gallops around shouting Yeee-haw! They are all wrapped and ready now, I hope they will like them.
    The story about the hat is great...a wonderful idea, and lovely that you now have the original hat to pass on.
    Our children will get to have their stockings when they get up...they won't be allowed to look in them before 6am...(I'm hoping they won't wake any earlier! That is normal for them)..and we will wait until my husband is finished the farm work to open all the rest of the gifts. It spreads out the gift opening over the morning. That was how we did it when I was young. He will get up early and will only have the minimum of work to do, maybe an hour and a bit.