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Here’s the problem with most Christmas presents: you already have it or you don’t want it. And as soon as it’s open, you’ve already forgotten what it was. Worse if you’re the one giving the present, and you’ve just watched someone open three identical gifts, one of which was yours. Worse yet, when the ex-husband outspends you four-to-one on presents for your children.

Especially this year, throwing money around just seems wrong.

So here’s a proposal. Try coming up with Christmas and Hanukkah presents that pull people together instead of splitting them apart. That offer an experience instead of something to be dumped in the bottom of a closet, or regifted.

It takes some thinking (which is free!) and you have to know the person well. But here are some ideas for holiday gifts that keep on giving.

• The bored teenager who has everything (1)

You’ll never find the right clothes because what was in last month is now out. Electronics? You don’t even know what the kid has at this point (a lot). Instead, give an experience. For $100 you can give him or her a gift certificate for a flying lesson. Yes, in an airplane. I’ve had a great experience with Pilot Journey but you can also go to a local (ideally small) airport and just talk to an instructor. The astonishment, the worry, the preparation, the lesson itself will stretch out in memory. $100 is a lot of money, but this is a lot of experience. You only have one first flying lesson in your life. And the whole family can watch and take pictures with their cell phones.

• The bored teenager who has everything (2)

Flying lesson too expensive? How about a trapeze lesson? A local trapeze school may run from $40 a lesson (for one person in Miami) plus a $10 registration fee to $275 for a one-hour lesson for four in Oakland, to $50 for one person on Long Island. The Long Island experience is for children 8 years old and up, lasts two hours, and guests are invited to watch. Let’s hear that teenager try to make this sound boring when someone asks what he or she got for Christmas.

• The bored preteen who has everything

Do your research first, and then offer this child a trip to the coolest resale shop in the area, where a budget of $25 could turn up a hat, a retro backpack and a sweater. If you want to teach real budget shopping, take them to Sal Val (the Salvation Army) or Goodwill, where that amount might cover a new desk. Make a day of it, and enjoy the experience. Even if you come back with nothing, you can wonder together about who owned that cape with the feathers. Was it a Halloween costume?

• Small children

This is the easiest. Just promise them that they will have an entire day of undivided attention from you. List all the child’s favorite things, and then do a couple of them. Maybe throw in something new… a little café that makes them feel grown up, or a great place to get ice cream, or a movie theater showing “Three Stooges” films, just to prove that “Jackass” isn’t a new idea. The point is to give them a memorable day, instead of a plastic whatnot that is lost or broken by New Years.

• The entire family

This requires everyone to open their envelopes at the same time. Inside: train tickets from where you live to… it almost doesn’t matter. Just a day trip to a small town, a nearby city, someplace none of you have ever been. Pretend you’re in Europe. One person has to find a cheap restaurant. Another one is responsible for what to do. A third one makes a map. A fourth one figures out local transportation. Treat it like an exotic vacation. Go even if it rains or snows. The important thing is that you are doing something different, and new, and you’re doing it together.

• A gift for your sister and her little girl

It’s hard to remember what size the four-year-old is, and, besides, she’s getting a lot of second-hand clothes. So here’s a present for your sister and her child: a build-a-bear cake pan from Williams Sonoma. It’s a three-dimensional cake, baked in two halves. The pan is $39.95, and for another $19.95 your brother can throw in a fondant kit that will dress the bear in a Santa outfit, or like a princess, or as a football player. You can ask your sister to send you a snapshot when they make their first teddy bear cake. Or offer to come by and help them.

• A gift for your cranky grandmother

This one can be from your entire family to granny, because it’s really a gift for all of you. Grandma may be more interested in looking backward than forward. This will help her look way back. For $119 you can give your her the history of her own DNA, either on her mother’s side or her father’s side, by the use of a mere cheek swab. The web site offers everyone a chance to track the process online as the DNA is traced backward. Where did her mother really come from? This test will give everyone a lot to think about, and talk about. And, if she loves this, there are follow-up gifts for her birthday, another program to trace the family surname or join the DNA ancestry program.

• Ok, you don’t want to know about the family history

Maybe there are some skeletons that shouldn’t come out of the closet. Granny still needs a gift, so give her a DNA test to figure out if her mutt, Roger, really is part pit bull. The test is a $99.95 deal or on sale at the Pet Street Mall for $49.95. Besides pleasing your grandma, and ending the argument about why her dog acts the way he does, you will be helping some biology grad student at the lab stay employed.

• Your brothers

Now is the time to hit them with lessons: Spanish lessons, or web design, surfing or cooking, maybe a dance class, or an acting class. The point is to get them there for the first one. After that, they are on their own.

• A child with time on his/her hands

Enough with the video games. How about a needlepoint kit based on designs by Gustav Klimt, $78, or a pair of those giant knitting needles and the softest yarn you can find. Give them a boost with extreme knitting needles, like knitting with logs, $33.85, and they will be turning out blankets and rugs in no time. The whole family can knit together. (Tell your son that Rosy Greer knits. Then explain to him who Rosy Greer was.)

• Mom and Dad

All they do is complain that there’s nothing worth watching on TV. You know what they are really saying: they miss “The Sopranos.” So get together with the sibs and buy them the 33-disc set of the complete “Sopranos.” It will set you back $250, so throw in a few aunts and uncles too. And then make a date to join them every Sunday night for… well, years to come… and watch it with them, starting at the very beginning. Consider it Shakespeare. With guns. Lots of discussion about family ties! Better than therapy!

• Your ex

If things are civil, why not? Gather together the best of the children’s drawings, or the snapshot of the Labrador you owned and loved, and send the photos off to Photo Wow. Then order up a four-panel Warhol-esque rendering and have it turned into a puzzle. Hours of fun! The price... a steep $114, but worth it.

Let’s hear some ideas of your own about how to give a present that pulls the family together, gives them experiences they would never otherwise have.

I gave the flying lesson to a friend who had survived a heart transplant. She said it was the best present she ever got. I know the sight of her face as she got out of that plane was the best present I ever got.

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2 comments

  • Comment Link Guest Sunday, 12 February 2012 14:22 posted by Guest

    Many o these work for: Many o these work for birthdays too! I couldn't afford the DNA test for my parents precious pooch (pricier here in California) but did something even better. Their terrier was a Humane Society surrendered dog before my parents got her, but she came with countless bad habits (almost everything but barking and aggression) so I did an exchange with a friend who trains dogs and has been talking me through how to deal with Bandit. While my parents are out of town I've buckled down with retraining her, hoping to at least jumpstart the process then upon their return on my Dad's birthday show them how to pick up where I left off. Since oneof her many quirks is she chews on her tags and routinely gets them wedged in her teeth holding her mouth wide open I also sprang for a little something to solve that problem. Online at roadid they make information tags orbracelets for athletes in case of an emergency, and recently starte carrying a doggy version too. Since the tags sit flat against the collar instead of dangling where she can grab them, I got the dog tags done for her for their peace of mind that she won't end up with her mouth stuck open while everyone is away at work during the day.

  • Comment Link JEM2011 Wednesday, 21 December 2011 10:38 posted by JEM2011

    Gifts that rock!: What a great article? Wish it had been posted earlier, it's a little late now 3 days before X-mas to get some of these things. I'll keep it for next year though !

    Merry Christmas!