Giving Outside the Box

Talia Berman
December 18, 2006

Maybe it was the changes in Congress, or the fact that 2006 has been the year of the dog, champion of idealism and loyalty. Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that it was so warm out and everyone had climate change on the brain. Either way, many of us have spent this holiday season looking for alternative approaches to holiday giving.

A Google search for "alternative gifts 2006" produces 31 million results, whereas "alternative gifts 2005" and only produces 11 million. Heifer International -- a nonprofit that provides livestock to needy families in 50 countries worldwide -- reports a large increase in the number of people giving money to their cause. Many media sources are reporting on alternative giving; for instance, New York Magazine included a "giving back" section in their holiday gift guide for the first time this year

A number of retailers are also getting in on the act of giving -- Bono's Product Red campaign made an impact this year, in an effort to raise funds all over the developed world for the fight against AIDS in Africa. American Express, Motorola, Apple, Converse and Trojan Condoms are among the companies participating, as well as the well-publicized Gap Red line, which includes a T-shirt made in the African country of Lesotho from African-grown cotton

Whatever the reason, gifters are delving philosophically into the meaning of their gifts and the practice itself to figure out how to really make it count.

Social consciousness

Giving money to a cause or organization in honor of the recipient is both easy and rewarding.

The U.K.-based War on Want also offers a range of giving options that help fight poverty. For around 15 U.S. dollars, for instance, one can help increase women workers' influence in Asian sweatshops. For $25, you can help South African farm workers defend themselves against unfair dismissal and evictions or, for a little more, you can help create a human rights leader in Colombia.,, and are also good jumping-off sites.

Last year, San Jose resident and classroom aide Alicia Zeh and her family decided to replace presents with donations to organizations of their choosing. At, each participant created a list of charities that interest them. When somebody donates in your name, you receive an email notification. "Last year, my mother sent out an email inviting family members," she explained. Most of the family welcomed the idea, and Zeh now looks forward to a different kind of thrill when gifting. "I am excited to see the charities that my other family members choose, and I do not miss the stress of having rush out to the mall under the pressure of finding presents. In addition to feeling good about donating, it is also very interesting to learn about what causes are important to people in my family."

In some cases, entire institutions forgo traditional giving. The public school system in Needham, Mass., is a good example. The school system has come out against gift-giving to teachers and administrators over the holidays and the policy is honored to varying degrees at each elementary, middle and high school. At Elliot elementary school in Needham, the administration is adamant about upholding the policy. Its Dec. 1 school bulletin read, "We would like to remind everyone that giving gifts to teachers is against School Committee policy. Instead, please write your teacher a letter of appreciation or make a donation in their honor to a specific Elliot department such as the Media Center or the Needham Education Foundation to assist with future educational grants." Pamela Rosin, an Elliot parent, says the policy is honored by most of the school's students. Instead, she says, "the kids make things, or parents make things. They also give things to classrooms, like books or activities, supplies and games."

Ingenuity and creativity

Homemade gifts are an obvious choice for those who craft year-round and ignored by those who don't. But it doesn't have to be that way! If you are historically uncrafty, start small. Pick one or two recipients, or maybe one group (co-workers, family members). Don't worry about whether the recipient will want or need the gift -- the beauty of homemade gifts is that they have some small piece of the maker in them. They are invariably better for your wallet and less ecologically wasteful, to boot.

Holly Beck, a young paralegal in New York City, figured out how to make use of the third copy of "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them" she received last year. Following the instructions on a how-to crafts show on the Learning Channel, she glued the pages of the book to each other and cut out a box in the middle. The result is something that looks like a book but is actually a box, and you can decorate it any way you like. "I thought it was pretty adorable and idiot-proof," Beck said. "This is a good gateway craft project -- it's pretty hard to screw up, and a little bit of effort produces something that looks pretty impressive!"

Derek Desa, a musician based in Thunder Bay, Ontario, likes to "gift-rap" his presents. "I have been shameless over the last few years, utilizing my abilities as an emcee to construct songs about people as presents." Saving money is just one benefit Desa finds in this practice. "I have also wooed some girlfriends with some more love-related ballads."

Liz Toran, an English teacher in Costa Rica, gave different versions of the same thing. "I made all of my friends and family wine charms," she says. "I ordered charms off the Internet, and then I embossed business cards with wine glasses and the word ‘cheers.' It looked very professional! Embossing is an art form: You take a stamp, and then you sprinkle plastic powder on it, and then you melt it with a special heating tool, and it becomes a raised surface."

Focus on the event

In 19th-century England, families had "cobweb parties" for gift exchanges. Each recipient was assigned a color of yarn. The long string was woven in and around the room and over and under the furniture to make as many angles as possible. Everyone had to untangle their color and follow its trail, to get to their gift.

Gifts that involve activity make the best memories and take the focus off of the gift itself. Meet for brunch, bake cookies for co-workers with friends, and generally hang out. Spending time together can make it feel like the holidays, without draining your resources.

Sue Kesner, a publisher in Boston, Mass., has a pottery studio at the back of her house. When she gives away her pots, she involves the recipient in the decision. "When I can – especially for people I really care about – I like the recipient to choose their own pot. When I am giving a gift to people I really care about, I like them to pick pieces they can relate to functionally, as in, ‘I really need a few bowls,' or aesthetically, as in, ‘I love this glaze!'" For Kesner, watching the process unfold is mutually rewarding.

Give time

Homemade coupons for things like "a free massage" or "dinner for two," and gift certificates for spa treatments, restaurants and movies are failsafe options as well. Pick a local repertory house or favorite restaurant and buy some credit there – just make sure you're supporting local, sustainable businesses and not big chains.

Volunteering together can also help counteract excessive consumption this holiday season. One group of friends in Boston realized that, as they got older, there was really nothing that they needed for presents, so now they just spend time together, volunteering someplace, after which they all go out together. The experience makes them feel that they are giving of their time, a precious commodity during the hectic holiday season, and they enjoy the gift of one another's company.

Volunteers of America, Volunteer Match and SERVEnet are known for offering regular volunteer opportunities for the holidays. also has an extensive list of charities willing to accept volunteers this season. ( Or, you can visit your local soup kitchen or Salvation Army and offer your time/help.


"Re-gifting" is a snazzy term that swiftly changes the idea of giving things you already have from a seemingly lazy practice to an environmentally responsible, often creative thing to do! The sometimes misunderstood website has ideas and tell-your-story message boards as well as contest for the best re-gifting story.

When re-gifting, try not to give scented candles, fruitcakes or fancy pens -- they scream "re-gift," and there's a reason you didn't want them in the first place. The best re-gifts are the ones that don't try to be anything else. Tell your recipients the truth and explain why your original Nintendo complete with Duck Hunt and Super Mario 1 belongs in their possession. Or give your boyfriend the giant cereal bowls you know he loves. Books are a perfect re-gift, especially if they come attached to a note with your review.

Annmarie Adreani, a retired teacher, has a unique way of dealing with unwanted or unneeded presents. Ever year, she has a party after the holidays where friends and family bring leftover food and gifts they do not want. All unwanted gifts are presented in the hopes that someone else at the party will want them.

The Unitas family of Columbus, Ohio, spends every Christmas Eve offering presents from past years that went unopened or unused. The presents go under the tree with blank gift tags, and they let the kids write a name on each gift. "The nametags are just for opening, because someone inevitably gets either something they've already given or received," Andrea Unitas says. "We mostly just pass stuff around until it finds a happy home." They give new gifts on Christmas day. "Having Christmas Eve to play like this takes a little of the pressure off buying, and sometimes I wonder if the kids prefer it."





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