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Responsible Christmas Shopping

What can I say.  I've been busy.  And unmotivated to write anything.  Not a great combo.  On top of all that, after such a busy summer, I began to see signs that my kids needed to spend more time with me.  Yes, I am home with them all day (when they're not in school), but I spent a good portion of this past summer working either outside or in the kitchen.  They helped when they could and were usually not far, but I wasn't spending time with them... and I spent more time than I care to admit telling them to wait/leave me alone/be patient while I _____ (finish this garden bed/blog post/bread dough/etc).  Even as I was thinking all of this I read this post from Spain in Iowa.  Did something like that need to happen to me before I made myself slow down?  I decided no.  And since the things I do in my home and around my yard are important to me not only in keeping myself busy and keeping my identity as a person separate from my children but for the health and well being of myself and my family, I didn't feel like I could eliminate many of them (although I did pare down a little...).  So the blog had to take a break.  I can't even say that I'll be back now with much consistency.  I do have a lot to say, though, so I'll pop up here and there for a while.  And maybe I'll resume when I have more to share come spring.  However, with the "to do" list as long as it is now, we'll just have to see (remodel/add onto the house, build a greenhouse, fit the loft in the shed for more chickens...).
Shopping for the parade of presents should be as fun as opening them... but it should also be thoughtfully done.
For now, one of the topics I have a lot to say about right now is Christmas presents.  But I have to say that this is a positive change I am seeing this year- even if not everyone is making changes, the issues that I normally have with the Christmas season (most of which have to do with presents...) seem to be much more in front of us.  I've seen articles on the web, posts on facebook, stories on the News- most notably ABC's "Made in America" series.

You see, there are a lot of issues I have with present giving.  One is that kids are so focused on gifts and not on the other elements of the season.  I don't care if you are Christian or Atheist, Christmas doesn't need to be all about gifts.  If you aren't a traditional Christian and are celebrating secular Christmas (oxymoron that that is) you can still make the focus of your holiday family, togetherness, brightening the darkest season of the year, etc.  I know that as parents we want to do everything that we can to make our kids happy.  But I don't think that it is healthy for anyone (for them emotionally and for you financially) to give kids everything they want as a means of doing so.

Issue Number Two:  Sustainability.  There are so many elements of Christmas that are bad for the planet.  Trash from wrapping and packaging (not to mention trash from crappy gifts that break in just a few months), fossil fuels used to ship the presents from China, the batteries that fuel the toys and that are usually thrown in the trash...  I'm not a fan of any of this.

My third issue, as I allude to in the last one, is the fact that so little of what we buy today is made in America- this goes triple for presents.  The kinds of things that we tend to purchase as Christmas gifts- toys, electronics ,etc- are usually not made domestically.  It's not that I bear an abstract sense of animosity towards China or India- I know that they have to eat too.  But I also think it's important for us to take care of our own country.  By buying products that are made in America as often as we can we can help create jobs for all of those who are struggling to find work.  I know this is hard- I have struggled with this this season myself.  But every little bit helps.

And lastly, I hate how many Christmas gifts, particularly for children, are crap.  Yeah, I said it.  Crappy, plastic, crap.  Crap that breaks easily, or that doesn't work right from the very start.  The pieces don't fit together quite right and pop apart every time you use the toy.  The hair pulls out of the doll's head or the face just doesn't look right.  And on top of being poorly made out of cheap materials, most children's toys are so gimmicky that they actually limit a child's play.  Think of all the things, for example, that a child can do with a set of blocks.  Plain, wooden, unit blocks.  They can build anything they can think of.  They can count them, or sort them by color/size/shape.  They can use them to make roads for their toy cars.  Plus kids don't outgrow blocks until they outgrow toys, and as long as there are not super small blocks they can be given to children as young as 12 months old.  Compare that to, for example, the busy ball popper (my kids had one- I had to learn these things the hard way).  What can kids do with that?  Watch it.  And put the balls back in the hopper.  And cry when the balls roll under the couch.  That's pretty much it.  Not only are you spending money on a piece of crap your kid is going to get tired of/outgrow in less than 6 months, but you are limiting their imagination.  You are teaching them that a toy should entertain them.

I could go on.  I'm not a fan.

Similarly, many toys now are still made of materials that are not safe for children.  PVC, lead, cadmium, arsenic, and mercury are still found in many toys here in the US, mostly because the other countries we are importing these toys from don't have regulations that prevent them from using these harmful chemicals.

In short, here are my criteria when Christmas shopping:
  • Is the gift environmentally friendly?
  • Is the gift made in the USA?
  • Is the gift of good quality?
...and if the gift is a toy or other gift for a child...
  • Is it safe for children?
  • Does it limit imagination?
  • ... I also give half a thought to gender roles, but I didn't really talk about that...
I know exactly what you are thinking- "how does get she get any shopping done at all?"  And because I did struggle a bit at first, I thought I'd put together a little gift choosing guide to help others out.  Here are a few suggestions in a handy "who are you shopping for" format.  I make some gender based generalizations here for the sake of simplicity. 

For your mom/aunt/sister/grandma/mother-in-law or any other important woman:
  • Gift certificate to their favorite salon or, better yet, a local spa.
  • Family photo session.
  • MadeOn Lotion bar and soap
  • A personalized necklace like THIS ONE or any other of the katrillions on Etsy.
For your married sisters/brothers/friends (aka when you want to give a couple's gift to save time and thought):
  •  Goods from your local artist/artisan.  Everyone has local artists or artisans who make pottery, paint, sculpt, do photography... etc.  I can't recommend specifically on this one, but couples, especially young and newly married couples, always need more useful and/or beautiful home items.  Local for me = pottery, although I could also easily find art.  And if you can't find anything local there's always Etsy.
  • A gift certificate to a local restaurant and a local bottle of wine.
  • The gift of organization: a personalized agenda or meal planning notebook from Maybooks.
  • A gift card to a home improvement store... or, if you know they've been saving for a big ticket item, a store where they can purchase said item.
  • If the couple has kids and you live close, a coupon book for 5 or so sessions of free babysitting would probably be hugely appreciated.
For your brother/dad/grandpa/uncle:
  •  A shaped puzzle: I know this seems like an odd present for a man, but I got my dad one like this (only green, and it says "tractor" instead of Ford) because he collects John Deere Tractors.  They also have dogs, cows, trucks... so you may find something that fits your person's interest.
  • I tried not to use Etsy more than once per category, but I also think that a belt, wallet, or cuff from this shop would make a great gift for any man.
  • A gift certificate to one of those fancy shave places (I'm sure they have a fancy name...).
  • Honestly, I struggle with this one myself, so let me know....
For kids:
  • Handmade wood toys: I got my son a double set of these, and I'm really excited to try them out.   They are from Etsy, but there are also local people who make wooden toys... I have seem them at craft fairs, unfortunately I forgot to get a business card from them:(  But know what to ask- if there is paint, ask what brand they use, if they use anything else on the wood (sealers, etc) if the wood is treated with any chemicals, etc.
  • Toys from Green Toys Inc are pretty much a dream come true- they're made from recycled milk bottles, made in the USA, inspire imagination in children, and are safe.  I love them.  We don't own enough of them (only two, actually, which makes me a little sad... but we own the bath boat and the dish set and LOVE them).
  • On the off chance I do buy my kids plastic stuff (that isn't recycled plastic or second hand, that is) I buy them stuff from Step2.  It's much higher quality than comparable stuff from other toy companies, it's open ended and mostly gender neutral, AND it is made in America.
  • Art supplies.  I've talked about how important art is to kids, and we can't get enough art supplies.  I like Biocolor paint, which I usually order in bulk (a whole set lasts us over a year... and if you knew how much paint we went through you would know that's a big deal).  If you're ordering art supplies for the first time I suggest ordering a set of biocolor paint, a package of recycled paper, paintbrushes, and no spill paint cups (these especially).
And just generally, think:
  • What can I make?  Do you bake?  Did you can a lot this summer?  Could you make jelly to give away (the answer is yes- jelly is easy!  I mean jam...).  Do you sew or knit?  Everyone loves handmade gifts (and if they don't then they deserve it even more...).
  • What does the recipient like to do/what have they always wanted to try?  (like would they enjoy a few months membership to a rock climbing gym, pottery lessons, learning to sew, etc?).
  • Are there any e-gifts they may enjoy, like an expensive (I say expensive, like for an ap... like $20) app, itunes downloads, or credits towards books if they own an ereader?  Also keep in mind that many magazines can now be subscribed to via ereader, and magazine subscriptions are great gifts.
Yes.  It seems like I think of a lot of limitations.  But I think that if any of the topics I overthink can be universally agreed on, it's over-thinking gifts.  Because if you're going to go to the trouble of giving a gift, you may as well think about it.

Happy gifting!

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