Years ago, my dear friend Bruce gave me a Christmas present that changed the way I think about gift giving. The package, wrapped in beautiful paper with an elegant bow, was a simple, small glass heart. Bruce knew I loved hearts ever since I was a young girl, so the gift had a special meaning for me. But what accompanied his present was almost more significant. In a letter, he wrote of our friendship and the ways it had touched his life. His words -- and the time it clearly took to write them -- meant far more to me than any gift ever could.
Gift giving compels us to discover new ways to say "I care about you" and "I see who you are" -- and because of that, it's one of the best things about the holidays. But that's not to say it's easy. Too often, time constraints and financial limitations completely overshadow the magic of searching for a present that reflects the essence of a loved one. Instead, we do the last-minute shuffle: We scramble to find something that gets the job done -- often just in the nick of time. To get a handle on your holidays, consider creatively recasting the way you swap presents with friends and family, vowing to give only homemade gifts, for instance, or pooling resources to make a donation to a mutually agreed-upon cause. I've collected some ideas over the years that make things less costly and emotionally stressful, while adding more meaning (and fun) to the process. Get an early start on the season with these five favorites.
Spend Only $4.98
This idea came from a man in my online community. It's simple: Each person can spend exactly $4.98 on a gift -- no more, no less. Givers can buy one present or several; the result just needs to add up to $4.98. If, for example, you purchased a small candle for $3.29, you'd need to find something else for $1.69 to make up the difference -- like a pack of heirloom seeds or a deck of cards. To make the process even more fun, each person has to include receipts to prove the $4.98 purchase and share the story of how he or she reached the amount.
Go with $4.98 or agree on another modest dollar amount and let the treasure hunt begin. Some will hit the penny candy store while others will aim for a single larger gift. Either way, everyone brushes up on their math skills -- and no one breaks the bank.
Make a "Wish Jar"
Several years ago, my husband, Michael, gave me a Christmas gift that cost very little money but ended up being one of my most memorable gifts ever. First, he purchased a small ceramic jar (less than $10) that had the word "Ambitions" on it. Then he placed 50 little folded pieces of paper inside it. On each, he'd written a dream or goal related to my life -- ideas gathered from the conversations we'd shared over the years, from listening to me talk about my plans for the future, and from his own wild imaginings about what I might do with my life. The goals included everything from writing a best-selling book to having dinner at the White House to singing in a rock band. I was moved to tears as I opened each slip of paper and read what it said.
Create your own wish jar for a best friend, spouse, or special sister, including in it what you see as their dreams and goals. Trust me, not only will the recipients be blown away by the time and thoughtfulness put into the gift, they'll feel seen, cared for, and appreciated for who they are.
Write a Love Letter
If you've ever received a heartfelt love letter, you know how incredible a gift this can be (for both men and women, by the way). As I found with my friend Bruce, the recipient can be a romantic interest or not; your grandmother, child, or best friend will appreciate the gesture as much as your significant other. Best of all? You only need a pen, a fine piece of stationery, and some beautiful wrapping paper to get the job done.
Don't attempt this in one sitting. Take your time and work on a draft over a few days. To get started, consider questions like: What does this person mean to me? What do I find fascinating about him or her? What qualities of character do I respect or admire? How has he or she contributed to the quality of my life? If you're not confident in your writing ability, make it easier with a "Top 10 Reasons Why I Love You" list. Once you've completed the letter, treat it like a fine present that deserves a gift box with beautiful paper.
With time so precious these days, sometimes the gift of our attention is the best we can offer. If you're a massage therapist, for example, you might give the gift of touch to a great aunt who's never had a foot massage. If organizing is your forte, help a friend reorganize her closets. Like to paint kitchen cabinets, cook pasta sauce, or shovel snow? These skills can all translate into great gifts.
A formal declaration makes this gift official. Put your intentions in writing, including any relevant details (like how many hours of babysitting, gardening, or basement clutter-clearing you're committing to). Then, gift wrap your invitation. In a day and age when most of us have too much stuff anyway, it's a great way to say "I want to help you live a good life."
Create a Book
Long before I ever published my first book, one Christmas I completed a journal for Michael -- and he loved it. While the idea of writing a book may seem daunting, don't worry. It's actually much easier than it sounds -- especially when you think of a "book" as a collection of writings, special memories, quotes, photographs, even drawings. If you love to write, you'll fill the pages mostly with words. But even if you don't, your journal will tell the story of your affection for another, whether that unfolds in words, pictures, or a combination of both.
Purchase a beautiful journal, and over the next month or so, fill the pages with favorite anecdotes, poems, and stories of how the person touched your life. Some days you might fill more than one page; other days you might skip writing altogether. Let the ideas flow over time. When you do set aside time to write, allow yourself to connect with the love you feel for the person. If you start now, you should be able to fill a book in time for your holiday gathering -- and the recipient will cherish it for a lifetime.
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Each issue, our life coach helps a Body+Soul reader work on life challenges like career change, relationships, and procrastination. Write to Cheryl, describing your situation: firstname.lastname@example.org. Cheryl Richardson is a life coach, speaker, and best-selling author of four books, including "The Unmistakable Touch of Grace." Visit her at cherylrichardson.com.