It used to be that opening brand name boxes — Tiffany's, Abercrombie & Finch, Ralph Lauren — would elicit oohs and ahs over the holidays. Okay, maybe they still do, but the diving economy has caused a shift in thinking, and now — hip hip hoorah — meaningful and personalized presents are the new status gifts this holiday season.
With that in mind, we have assembled a gift list that will touch the heart for $50 or less. In fact, these gifts could be considered priceless in that they hearken back to the original intention of the holidays.
1. Create a personalized photo book or calendar. Cull through all your old photo albums, slides, and memory cards and gather up some of your favorite pictures. Whether you choose one major event (wedding, birthday, trip), a shared history, or just treasured moments together, this is a wonderful present that can be appreciated for years to come.
Local retailers like Kinkos (calendar $19.99) and Ritz Camera both offer various options for creating unique pictorial presents from either digital or photo images. There are also online services like Snapfish ($18.99 for a 2009 photo calendar) that don’t even require you to leave your home, as long as you have digital images on hand. Our favorite is Apple’s iPhoto, which allows you to design glossy hard- or soft-cover photo albums with personalized captions.
And the fun doesn’t have to end there. Other objects on which to plaster your face include coffee mugs, computer mouse pads, aprons, coasters, totes, and tees!
2. Make something scrumptious. Cook up a batch of strawberry jams, yummy brownies, or banana breads. Go to Martha Stewart or The Food Network — Ina Garten recommends an easy orange marmalade — for simple recipes. Then buy inexpensive stickers or labels at a place like Staples and package them. You can buy attractive containers or jars at Target or Pier 1 Imports. These are great comforting foods that look as good as they taste.
Another option is to take an inexpensive bottle of vodka, put it in another bottle, and then add raspberries. In two weeks, you have homemade raspberry vodka (check out Emeril’s recipe online). Likewise, you can take a nice olive oil, pour it into a bottle, and then add herbs like rosemary or thyme as another option. These are great gifts for teachers and co-workers. Again, design the label yourself to personalize it.
If you truly love making and baking gifts, consider going to a Stationary store to design labels for you in bulk. This will help you save money over time, and if your skills are as sweet as your intentions, you could find yourself in business (how the Nantucket Nectar guys got their start!).
3. Share a special book or a diary. Books are generally inexpensive as gifts and will resonate for years to come. The key to buying books is thinking about what is the interest or passion of a loved one. Your nephew loves baseball — get him a biography of Derek Jeter. Your niece likes ballet — buy her a dance book. You could also choose a book that inspired or means something to you and share it with someone you love. For kids, choose classics like Little House on the Prairie ($29.69), Harry Potter Book 1 ($15.63 hardcover), or The Lord of the Rings complete set ($48.00 at Amazon). A special book with a personal note is a keeper for life. For adults, you can always refer to the NYTimes bestseller list or Oprah.
A diary/journal (the offline kind you write in) is a great way of keeping track of your secret thoughts as well as keeping track of your own history. Reading them later can be a hoot. Encourage self-expression in others by gifting a diary and personalize it with a handwritten note inside. You can also buy a pretty pen to accompany the diary. At Fine Keepsakes you can find a diary with lock and key for $36.99. Shhh, it’s our secret.
4. Create a personal gift basket with handpicked items. Have you ever received a gift basket and found you liked only five of the eight items? Now you can better the odds by personally tailoring gift baskets for the lucky receiver. The gift basket, tub, or container can be reused or re-purposed afterwards. We found one for $4.75 from United Basket Co. Fill it with any number of small items you know the person will enjoy, from gourmet food articles, candy, lotions, bubble bath, wine, toys, art supplies, or basic necessities; make the choices personal to person on the receiving end.
5. Make an Event out of Giving to Those Less Fortunate.Talk about life imitating art: Just like in the classic film "Miracle on 34th Street," the post office gets tons of “Dear Santa” letters every year from needy children and families. In the hopes that Christmas wishes will come true for some, the post office allows people to come in, take a few cards, and play Santa themselves.
If you have children, there is no better way to teach the love of giving than this (as long as your kids are old enough to know the real scoop about Santa). Take your kids out, buy a few items on the list, and then send them in Santa's name to the kids themselves. The whole process of shopping, wrapping, and personalizing can make for a holiday event itself — one that might become an annual tradition.
If your kids help you out, keep in mind that they should be rewarded for doing a good deed. Under the tree or menorah, wrap a little gift — candy, cards, a DVD — saying how much their thoughtfulness was appreciated.