by Angie Buckley
As the first child-grandchild-niece, Christmas was magical. There are pictures of me alone in front of the tree surrounded by gifts well into childhood. A photo of me at age 10 conveys my glee at having received my first real piece of jewelry, a gold ring. I was sure to have the biggest pile of gifts until I reached adulthood, when younger cousins started experiencing the splendid spoils of spoiling.
As an adult, when I learned the joy of giving gifts, it was a big shock to discover that Christmas joy tends to require credit cards. My family seemed to pull perfect gifts from thin air, never giving me a clue that not only did these gifts mean a chunk of their budget, but often, the wish-list continued far beyond the cash. I can’t help but wonder how my parents came up with money for Christmas, and later, as a single-income shopper myself, I considered what my auntie’s credit card bills must have looked like at the end of the year.
My first year of college, I was able to give everyone a small gift. I remember the pride I had in presenting my gifts to the adults whose rank I was joining. Since then, the gift giving has ranged from “nothing but a smile” to a Kitchen Aid mixer for mom. My husband and I decided one year to donate $500 to the local food bank in honor of our family and friends, giving something to those who had much less. The amount actually given: nada.
Throughout the years, my gift list has waxed and waned, depending not so much on how much I love someone but the distance to my credit limit.
The perfect gift
Last year, I was obsessed with giving the “perfect” gift to each of my friends and family. I had just separated from my husband, and turning my anxiety toward gift giving relieved some of the pressure of standing up straight on days when I had no strength. My family and friends gave me that strength, kept me moving forward, and I felt that showing my appreciation at Christmastime demanded perfection.
Shopping for the gifts was fun, but stressful too. How was I supposed to find perfection on my measly budget?
For Sherri, I found a lapis ring at an antique store. Laura got an Irish claddagh ring that Terese coveted, even though her own green pearls were tucked into a sweet gift bag. Molly Rose was harder to shop for, but the knitted headband and photo I framed for her live prominently in her bedroom. Mom and Dad got a custom-made calendar of their only grandchild, a gift mom has since assured me is worth far more than its $30 price tag.
These gifts all had special meaning to me, and the satisfaction of giving the perfect gift drowned the anxiety of how to pay January’s bills.
As I shop for Christmas this year, I am in a different, stronger place. I’m less stressed about finding perfection. Because, hey, I achieved it last year. As Christmas sales were ramping up this fall, I had lunch with Laura and shared that as fun as finding the perfect gift for everyone was last year, I decided to free myself from that pressure this year. We agreed it was a crazy notion, that perfection was not necessary, and Laura assured me that no one expected perfection from me then or expects it now. Testing just how perfect last year’s perfect was, I asked her if she remembered what I gave her.
“A cute knitted headband!” she proclaimed, proud of her correct answer. “Nope. It was a Claddagh ring. And a cute knitted headband,” I told her.
Laura said she didn’t realize the ring was her Christmas gift. I likely didn’t make that designation. I didn’t give it at Christmas because part of finding the perfect gift included impatience in bestowing it upon the giftee.
“So see,” I said, “Even getting the perfect gift wasn’t, actually, perfect.”
Don’t get me wrong—Laura loves her ring. But Laura knows that I love her no matter how perfect (or not) a gift is, how much money I spend, or what day I give it to her. But I also know that I don’t have a clue what she gave me last year. That doesn’t however reduce my certainty that it was perfect for no other reason than it came from her.
Just like we can become spoiled as gift receivers, we can spoil ourselves as gift givers. We spend more than we can afford, we buy more than we should, and we fall into debt to do so. In a society where Christmas sales begin in October, it’s hard to not get caught up in the “buy the best, be the best” mentality of the holiday.
Here are some tips on how to avoid overspending this Christmas:
We often believe that we have to give everyone a gift, and if we get a gift from someone we hadn’t planned on buying a gift for, the only acceptable response is to rush to the nearest drugstore for a gift bag to fill with chocolate and wine. It’s not necessary. A simple “thank you for thinking of me” will suffice.
There are ways to meaningfully bless others at the holidays that require little to no money. I am knitting most of my gifts this year, using yarn from my stash. I would be thrilled to receive a handcrafted gift of any sort, and not just from my 3-year-old niece.
When it comes to gift-giving in a group like the office or at church, discuss making a donation together instead. This year, my coworkers and I are purchasing a goat from Heifer International, a blessing for ourselves, but more so for the family and community in a developing country that the goat will provide for.
My large, mostly female family is spending our holiday together, focusing on being together. For everyone to get to one place, drive time and gas money take a bite out of our budgets even before any gifts are wrapped. We are going to bake cookies, eat and drink, and just enjoy our great company. We may draw names to buy each other’s families a $50-max gift, but I am lobbying for a spa day for all of us. Loving each other is the greatest gift of all—year round.
Dress to the $9.99s
With so many social gatherings, the holidays can feel like a high school prom—a $200 dress you’ll never wear again, paired with shoes that hurt. To save money, eliminate the “never wear again” aspect of that statement. Little black dresses are appropriate for any event, and glamming up your favorite frock with new accessories like dangly earrings or blingy bracelets, will make you feel like a new person even if the dress is not. And trust me— no one will remember what you wore last year while they’re admiring your new knee-high boots that you can wear all year.
Whether you’re entertaining or being entertained, don’t think you have to be everything to everyone. Rather than a dinner party, consider brunch—it is much less expensive than serving prime rib for 12. Instead of providing a wide selection of cocktails, beer and wine, offer just a single, signature drink. By reducing the amount of alcohol you serve, you will save money and a morning-after headache. If you’d like to go all-out, ask someone to co-host the party with you and split the cost. Holiday baking can break the bank too, but rather than having cookies, candy, pie, and brownies, feature just one treat as your specialty, and make that your hostess gift as well.
On my way to work each day, I drive past a thrift store with windows dripping in tinsel and Christmas decorations. From the looks of it, more than one home could be tinseled from this store. It got me thinking of a fun idea. Why not host a décor swap with your friends and take home some new pieces to replace the ones you’ve outgrown? And in Christmas, as in life, the best advice is keep it simple. Is there anything classier than a white-lighted tree with accents of gold and silver?
The truly perfect gift
The greatest gifts of all—love, forgiveness and grace—come free of charge and require no more effort than keeping the people you love in your prayers. Christmas joy is not wrapped in a box and placed under the tree; it’s developed in the relationships we share and the memories we create. Make that your focus this Christmas and your very presence will be the gift everyone wants this year.
Angie Buckley is embracing the Christmas spirit in Billings, Mont., especially now that her two dachsunds are sporting Santa sweaters. A grief counselor for hospice, Angie hopes a vacation to Tahiti is under the tree.