How do you know when you’ve given someone a good present? Usually, good presents are distinguished by having a lot of thought put into them. They say to the recipient, “I know you.” It is easy to tell when you give this kind of present. The three best presents I have ever given share another unique feature: although they differed in almost every way, they were all gifts of time, rather than gifts of stuff.

The first gift was for my mother. Five years ago, a friend of mine told me it was possible to stop unsolicited mail. I was incredulous. No credit card offers? No catalogs from companies you have never heard of? No repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat mailings of donation requests? It turned out to be true. I made hours and hours of phone calls and finally succeeded in reducing my volume of unwanted mail to about two pieces a month (not including bills, of course, which are always unwanted). My mother had been complaining for years about getting bogged down in her mail. For her 60th birthday, I offered to do for her what I had done for myself. She collected all her unsolicited mail for a few months, gave the bags to me, and I made all the phone calls. It is a gift that continues to make her happy on a daily basis.

The second gift was for my husband’s 40th birthday. Before having children, we used to love spending our days together bicycling. One morning this summer, he found on his breakfast plate a set of clues to a mystery destination. A babysitter arrived, and we set off on a great day of cycling. With only three wrong turns (when he could not figure out the clues), we made it to Wolfe’s Neck State Park, where a few friends, plus our babysitter and kids, joined us for a dessert party. He said it was one of the best presents he had ever received (and absolutely free because our babysitter, a family friend, decided her birthday present to him was not charging us – a gift very much in keeping with the spirit of the celebration).

The third gift was for my teenage nephews who live in Colorado. For a variety of reasons, we had not had much contact with them over the years. We struggled to send them gifts on their birthdays, but it was hard because we did not know them very well. In fact, we always felt bad that we had not been more involved in their lives. A few years ago, when their birthdays rolled around, and we were again in this unpleasant position, we decided what we needed to do was not to send them something, but to spend some time with them. We bought them plane tickets and spent a week together tromping around Maine’s great beaches, islands and swimming holes. They were 13 and 15 when they came, and it was clear to us the trip sent an important message to them that we wanted to be part of their lives and that we cared about them.

Of course, these gifts all took a lot of time and effort to carry out, but that is beside the point. The point is that people relish time as much, if not more, than they relish stuff. Most of us already have enough stuff, while few of us have enough time — for ourselves or to spend with others. Offer your friends and family coupons for raking the yard, doing the dishes or making dinner. Take your mom out for coffee. Promise a friend you will plan a trip to visit them. Give babysitting coupons to new parents (this was the BEST gift I got at my baby shower). These gifts will warm the hearts of giver and receiver as much as the coziest wool sweater.

Often, the hardest part about changing gift-giving traditions is concern over how your non-traditional gifts will be received. I recently attended the birthday of a four-year-old friend. I had just finished making applesauce, so I decorated a jar with ribbons (recycled, of course), filled it with still-warm applesauce and took it over to the party. As everyone gathered around and the boy began opening presents, my heart started sinking. Present after present was some fun, fanciful toy: plastic dump trucks, magnetic drawing pads and colorful action figures. I wondered if people would think I was being cheap by bringing my small jar of homemade applesauce? Or that I did not care enough to spend time shopping for something, but simply took the closest thing within reach? Worst, I wondered what the little boy would think. When he got to my present, he picked up the jar and walked promptly out of the room without saying a word. His mother called after him, “Where are you going? Aren’t you going to finish unwrapping your gifts?” From the kitchen came his reply, “I’m getting a spoon.”

For more information about simplifying the holidays, check out the Center for a New American Dream at http://www.newdream.org/holiday.

Sarah Wolpow can be contacted at [email protected]

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