How about a moneyless Christmas – a holiday that costs you nothing? It seems like a shame to go into debt to celebrate the birth of Jesus, who said: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and dust doth corrupt …” (All the other winter holidays also may be celebrated in this fashion.)
One idea: ask only for re-gifts (i.e. presents your friends previously received and didn’t want). Or for objects people find on the ground: a pretty rock (or even a rather inexpressive rock) or a flaming red-orange leaf.
Another possibility is conceptual presents. Yoko Ono’s classic book Grapefruit contains lots of intriguing gift ideas. For example:
Counting Piece III
Count the numbers of wrinkles on your
face or your body or certain parts of
your body. Send it to your friend in
place of a letter.
There’s the old standby: the massage coupon. I suggest that you specify the type of massage – for example “foot massage“ (or even more specific: “left foot massage”).
A piece of advice: Don’t use the massage as an opportunity to seduce the person. That’s technically known as “massage abuse.”
A poem makes an excellent gift. You can copy one out of a book, or write one yourself. Here it is a recent composition of mine that would suffice as a holiday present:
frightens me a little –
even the word.
If you’re left-handed, do you ever write with your right hand? And do you write lefthandedly if you’re a righty? Try it! It makes a heartfelt gift. Copy out a poem with the opposite hand, then tell your gift receiver, “I became ambidextrous for you.”
Or paint a small watercolor! An oil painting demands too much of a commitment from the recipient, but a watercolor may be lost among a pile of papers, or simply recycled.
For many years I would ask people to bring me cassettes they were sick of to my birthday party. Later, I amended this to include CDs. My favorite gift of this type was an album by the Turkish rock group Kurban. Also I discovered that I deeply love the song “Ventura Highway“ by America, though I can’t explain why.
Almost every book I read costs me nothing. I go to book exchanges (like that wooden box in the center of Woodstock full of castoff paperbacks), and the free shelves of thrift shops. I even look in garbage cans. (Once my neighbor threw away Lobotomy, a memoir by Dee Dee Ramone, and while reading it I realized that I worked with Dee Dee in the mailroom of an insurance company in 1971 – three years before The Ramones began.) So start scouring tables in church basements for nifty novels to offer your comrades.
But please wrap every gift, even if you found it on the sidewalk! People love unwrapping presents, a little more than they love the presents themselves. And don’t buy wrapping paper! My wife and I have a bag of colorful gift wrap we’ve accumulated over the years.
When I’m in New York City I sometimes find a Chinese newspaper in the garbage which makes satisfying present-covering. And a couple years ago, I decided to discard an old paperback atlas. Now I rip out the pages and use them to clothe gift items. My recipients invariably become fascinated, after briefly examining their present, with the geography of Tunisia (or whatever nation they’ve been given).
Maps-as-gift wrap saves money and educates Americans about world geography!
And how about leftovers? They don’t cost anything. Place the remnants of a recent meal in a plastic container, wrap it, and hope for the best! Of course, not too many people want leftovers as a Hanukkah gift, unless they are extremely hungry, or you’re an exemplary cook. But it’s worth a try.
The fabric equivalent of leftovers is hand-me-downs. Find an article of clothing you no longer love, and give it to a person you still enjoy. Everything looks a lot newer when it’s wrapped in decorative paper.
Not every present is a physical object. A song makes a fine immaterial gift. A few weeks before the holiday, gently ask your friend about music. When she mentions a favorite song, make a mental note. Then go to the Internet, learn the song (including the lyrics) – and play it for her on flugelhorn, piano, castanets, or any instrument you choose. Your friend will be flabbergasted!
I’ll tell you what I need – a person to scratch my back! My wife is unenthusiastic about this task, and though I have several elegant backscratchers of the wooden variety, a human is preferable.
It’s nice to make a donation to a benevolent nonprofit organization in the name of your friend, but that involves an expenditure of currency. Why not volunteer? That’s free. Find a group your friend approves of, and donate your time to that cause. Then write: “I worked an hour at the Heifer Project for you” in pseudo-calligraphy, roll it up like a scroll, and present it to your Christmas celebrant.
How about a photograph? Take your iPhone (or a camera) and walk down your road for an hour, until you find a sacred grove or lilting stream. Capture it in your digital device, then email it to your pal.
Don’t be afraid to mention that you spent an hour hunting out beauty for them. Some people (and very nice people they are) prefer an hour of aesthetic effort to a brand-new DVD player.
Laughter makes a nice gift. Do you know those yogic retreats where everyone laughs for hours, guided by an enlightened laugh-yogi? You can give your associate a free “laugh workshop,” led by you.
Or tears! The next time you weep, save some of your teardrops on a tiny handkerchief. I know they’ll evaporate, but a tear-stained cloth makes a truly sensitive gift.
According to Phillip Norman’s biography of John Lennon, at the height of Beatlemania, “in New York, supermarkets reported a brisk trade in canned Beatle breath.” Why not bottle your own breath (or that of your pet), wrap it, and place it under the Hanukkah bush? (For a number of years in my childhood, my family had a Hanukkah bush, which consisted of dried branches, painted white, arranged in a vase, and bedecked with a few Christmas ornaments.)
Skywriting is expensive. Hiring an airplane to write words in the air (if anyone still does this) can’t be cheap. But using the latest – or not so latest – computer graphics program, you can produce a virtual skywriting message:
Have a blessed Kwanzaa, Angela!
and email it at no expense.[If you have children, please ignore this essay unless they are saintly anti-materialists. There’s no reason to make our progeny suffer for our high ideals.]