As we gear up for Chanukah and Christmas, I am sharing on my blog a story I wrote for The Jewish World seven years ago.
I have never looked forward to holiday shopping.
It has little to do with spending the money. I don’t even resent the time in the malls with all the Christmas decorations and music and the token Chanukah menorah stuck sadly in a corner. My main problem is that I never feel up to the task of finding the “perfect” gift.
I have a few memories of shopping for the holidays when I was growing up.I had my stand-bys: “Night in Paris” for my mother, a carton of cigarettes and a bar of chocolates for my father. The first year my sister Laura came home from college, she gave me a beautiful cable sweater that I thought was the height of sophistication because it came from my “big sister.” Through my college years, finding funny and appropriate gifts for my suite mates made the days before we left for winter vacation enjoyable.
It became more challenging once I married into Larry’s family. Chanukah was a much bigger deal than it had been in my family. My sibling and I had not exchanged Chanukah gifts for years, and here I was looking for presents for ten adults and the seven grandchildren. Even if we weren’t all together on the first night of Chanukah, Larry’s sisters seemed to know what to get everyone and have it delivered by mail if necessary. I just always wondered what to get everyone and second guessed all my choices.
When gift giving became even more difficult was when, in 2000, I moved from the classroom into an administrative post. When I was teaching, we did a “Secret Santa,” which meant I was only finding little gifts for one person. Once I took on my coordinator position, the number of people to whom I gave gifts grew exponentially. It would have been simpler if I had been a wonderful baker or a clever seamstress or a skilled woodcrafter. Unfortunately, I had neither the talent nor the desire to pull together a “one gift fits all” idea and implement it by the time the holiday season arrived. Gifts reflecting my own holiday —sugar cookies in the shapes of menorahs and Star of Davids; potato pancakes ready to reheat; a Chanukah bag with a dreidel, Chanukah gelt, and instructions on how to play—seemed inappropriate.
So, I would land up wandering around malls or craft shows the weeks before the holiday searching desperately for gifts. I truly cared about the recipients and wanted to show that caring in appropriate gifts. I just was at a lost to find a “token” present that satisfied me.
Four years before I retired, I decided keep track of the financial impact on spending for just my workplace. I was shocked to realize that I had spent $500 on tchotchkes.* This had to stop.
So the following November, before Thanksgiving and the beginning of the holiday shopping season, I approached my fellow co-workers and asked if we could forego the gifts and instead make a contribution to a charity. They quickly signed on, and for the next few years, we pooled our gift money and sent a generous check to the Regional Food Bank. Everyone at my agency got a card with a note that said, in the spirit of the season, a gift had been made to the Regional Food Bank. What a relief!
The first December after I retired, the holiday season was mellower. Larry’s family got together for a Chanukah dinner, with all of us agreeing before hand that Chanukah presents would go to the two great-grandchildren but not to each other. We have continued that tradition.
My perspective on gift-giving also changed when Larry and I purchased a fully furnished home in Florida and needed to divest ourselves of thirty-six years of house. Larry took it in stride, but I struggled with the process until I realized much of the stuff we decided to leave behind was someone else’s treasure. The couple that cleaned our house fell in love with a chalk drawing of a draw bridge in Shushan, New York, that she and her husband drove past every day when they lived in Columbia County. Several of my crewel pieces found their way to relatives’ homes, and a photograph of waves crashing on a New England coastline went to a dear friend whose family has had a summer home near Brunswick, Maine, since 1925. Our Early American deacon’s bench is now situated in our next door neighbor’s sunroom. Moments before we backed out of our driveway on Devon Court for the last time, Blossom took a picture of the two of us on the bench, smiling through our tears. How I wish I had gifts from the heart to offer to friends and family all the time no matter what the season!
This year will be our first Chanukah with a grandchild. My first inclination is to shop for eight gifts to be opened each night, but I know at even her very young age, Sylvie Rose doesn’t need more toys or more clothes. I have already promised her that, when she is a LITTLE older, I will take her to Disney World and buy her a princess dress. I have children’s books written and signed by a member of my writing group. My journal includes stories of her life, and I hope to share all these stories, some as part of a book, with her as she grows. Those will be, like those special pictures and that deacon’s bench, gifts from the heart.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York, in the November 12, 2015 issue.