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November 30, 2007: Simple Giving

30 November 2007 No Comment

Editor’s Note:

Last week in the US we celebrated Thanksgiving. This feast commemorates a time when the indigenous people of this country and the settlers from Europe—Pilgrims, as we called them when I went to school—sat down to break bread together. It’s also the official beginning of the holiday season—for many of us, a time of frantic shopping and guilty over-consumption.

If our ancestors had maintained the harmony with our gracious hosts on this continent that they enjoyed so briefly on that first Thanksgiving, they might have learned other ways of looking at earth’s bounty and other ways to think about giving. This issue offers gift suggestions for the holidays and every season based on one gently countercultural American family’s experience and spotlights opportunities to learn from the real authorities: thirteen indigenous grandmothers who have taken the planet under their care.

Simple Giving

Where there is too much, something is missing.
Jewish proverb

Giving is a pleasure and a privilege. Most of us have more than enough, even if it is not a great deal more, so we are able to enjoy this privilege. It behooves us to give thoughtfully, however, at a time when American habits of consumption jeopardize the lives of our brothers and sisters and the health of our Mother Earth.

With the holiday season already underway, I offer this incomplete survey of alternative gift ideas as a work in progress. I offer it in humility, as someone who has often been guilty of consuming more than my fair share. I invite you to share your own favorite gift sources, resources, comments, and suggestions with us, PeaceTimes@peacexpeace.org, and pass this on to anyone who you think would take an interest.

Gifts of Self

When our four children were growing up we celebrated eight nights of Hanukah as well as Christmas. We wanted to have something for each night without over-indulging them or breaking the bank. We decided to give significant gifts on the first and last nights and necessities like socks and underwear on most of the others. On one night each year, after the candle lighting and the prayers and the song, we pass a closed bag from which each member of the family selects a name. Each of us decides on something special to do for the person whose name we draw, and notifies them in writing by the end of the evening.

Younger children were overjoyed when older siblings agreed to spend time doing their favorite things. Older ones were delighted to have the young ones take over a chore, like feeding the dog or folding the laundry, for a week or a weekend. Especially now that the children are grown, one on one time is the best gift we can give or receive. Sometimes it comes packaged with tickets to shows or concerts, but the time together is what’s precious.

Presence

Yes, that’s presen-c-e, not presen-t-s. One of the few things I really regret when I look back is not sending my Mama a ticket to come and visit more often while she was alive. It was her tutelage, based on her Depression conditioning, that convinced me it was too expensive, but we could have done it and I wish we had. I am grateful for the times I stamped my feet and insisted that my siblings all head back home to visit. It dawned on me one day that families gather in direness, but we’re far less likely to make the effort when all is well. Give the people you love the gift of your being there, as often as you can. You will not regret it.

Contributions as Gifts

A contribution made in someone’s honor can be a lovely gift. Peace X Peace and other social profit organizations need your support, not just at the winter holidays but all year round. This year, Peace X Peace is featured in the Alternative Gifts Catalog, along with other projects that build hope for the world. Just $55 pays to set up a training conference call for our extraordinary volunteers around the world. Of course you’re welcome to give directly as well, from our website or by sending a check.

Subscriptions can make your contribution concrete for the recipient. A gift subscription to the Women’s Global Roundtable costs just $10 a month. And it’s going to be better than ever in the new year, since we just signed an agreement with UNIFEM that will bring women leaders from around the world to the Tuesday night interviews. Then, for Mothers Day, consider our brand new program that premieres in 2008, the Daily Message of Peace.

At my house, when the children were young, we designated a second night of Hanukah for contributions. We passed around a basket of contribution envelopes, which I had saved up from the dozens that come in the mail every week. It was gratifying to see our children’s concerns mature from fluffy puppies to people with AIDS and environmental crisis. Any family could find a way to stretch the celebration, whether it’s Hanukah, the eight nights of Kwanzaa, the days between Christmas and New Year, or whatever means most to you. Mark each of the days with a gift of self, a donation, or a small, meaningful gift.

Hand-Crafted Gifts

The women’s magazines have been full of ideas for handmade gifts since October. This is a time-honored tradition that most families understand – at least as long as children still bring handmade cards and lumpy clay objects home from school.

Food gifts, plants, and flowers are always welcome. You can give house plant scions all year round and know they’re likely to last. Flowers you have grown make wonderful gifts in the summertime. Because I hate having to drop my last-minute food preparations to find a vase when I’m the hostess, I always give flowers pre-arranged in a container. I save attractive bottles, jars, and carafes for this purpose. Even a plastic bottle can be pretty if it’s cut off at a graceful angle.

A drawing, a painting, or a poem of your own is a gift that only you can give. If your talent is for appreciating art rather than making it, you can give a poem, a picture, a video, or a book someone else has created that means a great deal to you. It will be precious to the recipient because you love it, and because it came from you. (Speaking of beautiful things, has everyone you love seen Women on the Front Lines? You can request a copy with every $50 contribution to Peace X Peace. If you ask, we’ll mail it directly to the giftee and add a note explaining that you requested it.)

For my husband’s 70th birthday, our kids asked various friends and family members to send photographs along with letters to and about Al. They put it all together into an album, which is now their father’s greatest treasure. They, in turn, will treasure the ethical will that he has prepared for them and their children, according to a very old Jewish tradition that is beginning to see a rebirth.

Secondhand Roses?

Flowers have to be fresh, and so does food. Vintage clothing is usually risky, unless you are certain that the color, the cut, the historical associations, or the message on the t-shirt will speak to the soul of the intended recipient. Books, videos, records, tapes, and CDs, on the other hand, do not have to be new to be fully enjoyed. Neither do games and jigsaw puzzles. Previously owned jigsaws have an element of risk, since it’s possible that a piece could be missing. You can work it yourself to be sure. There’s always one underway at my house, and though we would usually swear at the 8/9ths point that several pieces are missing, that seldom turns out to be true.

Vintage housewares and decorative objects can have much more cachet than the things everyone else is buying at the mall. And clothes for babies and small children are an exception to the caution about clothing. Just look them over to be sure they’re in good shape and wash them gently before giving. The same applies to toys. Why pay top dollar for another piece of plastic when you can find wooden blocks and puzzles for pin money at a yard sale?

Fair Trade and Green Goods

Reduce. Re-use. Recycle. Sometimes, though, a piece of brand-new merchandise is the only thing that will do. Consider fair-trade goods, generally produced by low-income women and brokered by conscientious organizations that ensure a living wage. Many provide child care, health care, and advanced training to improve the conditions of workers’ lives. Or buy products that are produced with minimal impact on the environment. You can find a wide range of fair trade and green retailers online. In some lucky communities, Peace X Peace Circles offer handicrafts from their sister Circles for sale and return the proceeds to support local projects.

Wrapping It Up

The mystery and glamour of a wrapped gift are part of the fun, for adults as well as kids. It’s no fun to pay a lot for wrapping and then throw it away, however – especially if you know there’s no such place as “away.” Creative alternatives abound.

Emulate the Japanese, who wrap gifts in silk scarves. The recipient may wear the scarf or pass it along as gift wrap. Odds and ends of fabric can make exquisite packages. So can socks! Consider fashioning a bag from the sleeve or leg of a worn-out, well-loved garment. Re-use tissue that you’re going to crumple anyway. I’ve been known to cover recycled tissue paper with one of the mesh bags that come on onions and other produce, tying up the ends into a pretty puff.

Any time we receive a gift in a decorated box or a gift bag, my family knows they’ll be seeing it again. Set aside a space for recyclables with giftwrap potential, and you’ll always have something on hand.

When new paper gift wrap is too pretty to resist (or a child you love is selling it), you might wrap just the top of a box, neatly mitering the corners. I have a number of such boxes that I use over and over. Some gift boxes need no wrapping at all, and can be recycled as often as you like. Cloth ribbons and yarn can also be recycled. Both resist crushing – an advantage if you mail your packages. Several big skeins of yarn that I bought at garage sales are still going after three or four years. I have even used the afore-mentioned mesh bags as ribbons, sometimes in combination with bells, fresh flowers, or other trinkets.

And then there’s the art of grateful getting. My loved ones have heard me scoff at mere merchandise all their lives, but they’re adults with demanding roles and every right to rebel, at least now and again, against Mama’s counter-consumerist teaching. My resolution for this holiday season is to welcome every gift I receive with the same enthusiasm I felt back when they brought home their lumpy clay whatzits and wrapped them up with sticky ribbons.

Information Resources

The web sites and addresses that follow offer hundreds of practical ideas, as well as a chance to network with like-minded individuals. These are just the beginning, however.

Conscientious Consuming

  • Alternatives for Simple Living, 109 Gaul Drive, PO Box 340, Sergeant Bluff, IA 51054, 800/821-6153 or 712/943-6153. This site is full of inspiration and information. One of their best selling publications is called “Whose Birthday Is It, Anyway?”
  • Center for a New American Dream, 6930 Carroll Avenue, # 900, Takoma Park, MD.
  • What Kids Really Want That Money Can’t Buy, by Betsy Taylor. Warner Books, 2003. Also go to www.simplifytheholidays.org, part of the New Dream organization, above. Www.ibuydifferent.org is their website for young people.

Books

  • Give a child you love a copy of A Certain Small Shepherd for Christmas. It’s a tender story. For a somewhat older child, look for The Other Wise Man, by Henry Van Dyke.
  • Peace X Peace still has copies of The Peace Book, by Louise Diamond, and we’ll mail one to any US address when you contribute $15 or more.

Alternative Gifts

Fair Trade

  • SERRV International and A Greater Gift, 122 State St., Suite 600, Madison, WI. 53711 (800/423-0071).
  • Ten Thousand Villages has retail stores as well as paper and online catalogs. Contact Ten Thousand Villages, 704 Main St., PO Box 500, Akron, PA 17501-0500, 717/859-8100.
  • Equal Exchange specializes in guilt-free coffee and chocolate. 251 Revere Street, Canton, MA 02021.
  • Nicaraguan Cultural Alliance, PO Box 5051, Hyattsville MD 20782, 301/864-5281.
  • Peacecraft, 3215 Central Avenue, NE, Albuquerque, NM 87106, 505/255-5229.

Look for others at the Fair Trade Federation and the International Fair Trade Association.

Green Gifts

Please share your ideas so we can pass them along! Chanukah begins December 4, but we still have almost a month before Christmas.

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About the Author

Mary Liepold is the Editor-in-Chief at Peace X Peace. To reach Dr. Liepold, email maryl@peacexpeace.org.
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