Thursday, December 24

Merr E-Christmas

I dedicate tonight's gift idea to procrastinators. As much as I empathize, we are down to the wire. We haven’t the time to ship a summer sausage or mail a card. Stores will close in a few hours—if they haven’t already—eliminating the possibility of personally delivering a gift. But do not fear. We have the tools to keep the cloaked, fat man's horns under his Santa hat this year.

Until recently, sending identical greeting cards to the 20 or 30 individuals on our list was considered proper Christmas etiquette. The task was tedious. Fortunately, the “green” movement, greater procrastination, fewer days until Christmas, and the “digitize me” generation sabotaged tradition. The electronic greeting card became a worthy adversary. Like their paper ancestors, e-cards address all types of sentiments: Thank You, Miss You, Happy Anniversary or Birthday, Congratulations, Deepest Sympathy, Get Well, and, of course, Happy Holidays.

Having sent or received a lame e-card may require you to reboot your perspective. They’ve come a long way. The Web sites below offer e-cards that broaden the envelope set by the first stream.

Check out this pop-up card, complete with audio, on Smilebox. You can embed photos of the family, too.

Blue Mountain livens up their e-cards with animation. Choose from a variety of holiday sub-categories.

Looking for something more interactive? Grab a free computer game on Funmunch. Help Santa and his hung-over reindeer make up for lost time in Late Santa; or turn Santa into a Mario Brothers type character and battle frozen tundra in Xmas Grandpa.

Even though we are t-minus three hours 'til Christmas, the timeliness of an e-card, unlike its paper predecessor, is graded on "send" time—not arrival date.

Monday, December 21

Gifting Personal Certificates

Remember the IOU and its convenience during childhood? The vague “I owe ya!” was dragged around like a favorite toy, thus absent integrity by the time Christmas arrived. Issuing an IOU before debt incurred, however, created new meaning and fresh excuses. It became shorthand for "I thought of the perfect gift for you this morning only to find out that stores are closed on Christmas;" and "I don’t have the money now, but perhaps when you are ready to redeem this Caribbean vacation, I will." The world was ours—to give.

No one (my mother included) expected a tropical getaway from a 13-year-old. We've grown in our sophistication right along with those notes of intent. Be realistic. Share a talent or provide a service for those on your gift list. Let's say you're a skilled photographer; offer to take photos of someone’s family, their baby, their pet, garden or house. If computers are your gig, offer to install a new program, add a memory chip, or set up a home computer. Perhaps you like to cook or bake; give a voucher for a three-course meal or pies—one each month throughout the coming year. Gift a massage, a foot rub, babysitting, house-sitting, dog walking, a knit hat or scarf, a few driving lessons, write poem or letter, compile a music CD, create a photo album, or design a business card for the appropriate someone on your list. Be creative.

Take pride in your promises. In time, the reverberations of a verbal invitation will die. The tangibility of a certificate or voucher, on the other hand, will last. Besides, it gives the recipient something to open. Enclose it in a festive envelope with a card—or by itself. Then follow through. You may have to encourage them, periodically, to redeem your offer.

A traditional piece of torn construction paper will carry the message of your voucher; however, we talked about sophistication. If creating a gift certificate is not one of your talents, look to one of several Web sites that offer free templates. Here are three sites to get you started:

Christmas and Hanukkah themes
winter and holiday themes
any occasion

Download. Modify. Print. Gift! The best part is that your loved ones still have something to look forward to ... like the inevitable calm that comes when the relatives leave.

Saturday, December 19

Gifting Solitude ... Harder Than It Looks

Because I would like it for myself, the gift of solitude is one of my favorites. Deep down, when we are willing to admit it, isn’t it more fun to give the gifts we'd like to get? Take Aunt Jude and her holiday sweaters, for instance. You know the kind: an intoxicating sum of red weave splaying silhouettes of either holly or reindeer across the chest. She gives them because she digs them—she owns several herself—and knows which stores discount large quantities.

Solitude, on the other hand, rarely makes the gift list. The idea sounds absurd to anyone maintaining relations with more than two persons. We don’t sit around thinking: Wow! the holidays are here … who shall I leave alone. Nor do we expect to get any time to ourselves before, say, January 7th (that allots a week for cleanup and regrouping). But that's precisely what makes solitude so precious this time of year. Leaving a special someone alone might be the best gift they receive.

For quality assurance, I decided to test the gift of solitude on our cat. The task would have been easy were it a matter of ignoring the feline at my convenience—like usual. But I had to tweak my approach. You see, to truly “gift” solitude, you must remain sensitive to the receiver’s needs and—as soft as their fur may be—honor the times they’d rather have to themselves. If you pay attention, it's apparent when those around you need a break. Believe me, it saves innumerable scratch marks.

Too bad Aunt Jude doesn’t like solitude ... or cats.

**Go to Psychology Today to see the article of origin and its seven remaining suggestions.

Thursday, December 17

A Thank-you Goes a Long Way

To appear strong and unemotional, I blamed my active tear ducts on the cayenne wafting from the kitchen's stove top. In reality, I erupted in a paroxysm of gratitude and sadness while reading sentiments already sent to our troops overseas. I’ve wanted to send cards for quite some time but never have. The logistics always sabotaged my efforts: to what address do I send them, will they be there when (and if) the mail arrives, having cards on hand or remembering to buy some. Thanks to a program sponsored by Xerox, sending greetings to deployed military personnel has never been easier. It only takes a minute. And it’s free.

Log on to “Let’s Say Thanks” (or click the widget at the bottom of this page) to create your free postcard. Choose from dozens of designs featuring patriotic and hometown scenes drawn by children. Pair the picture with a pre-written thank-you message, or compose your own. Done! You can, however, send as many as you wish.

Xerox prints the postcards in batches to enclose in care packages arranged and shipped by their partner, Give2ToTheTroops. Though a postcard may not thoroughly express your appreciation for the men and women that protect our freedom, it is better than nothing. Just read what the troops have to say about it.

Thank YOU, Xerox, for eliminating excuses.

Tuesday, December 15

On the Tenth Day 'til Christmas ...

Today’s gifting experience turned into a test of determination. Baking is not my forte. And because it is not my forte, I lack the necessary equipment to mass produce anything other than scrambled eggs. But I can’t gift scrambled eggs; they don’t package well. Instead, I set out to make my first batch of Christmas cookies—ever. Like I said, I don’t bake.

I especially can't/don't make the intricate Norwegian cookies my maternal family raised me on. Besides, my target recipients might enjoy a cookie that makes them smile. I guarantee that once I decorate a simple sugar cookie with frosting and sprinkles—and maybe a few Red Hots for emphasis—the result will be laughable. And edible, I hope.

The undertaking might have remained inexpensive had my kitchen contained a few basic items like a rolling pin, cookie cutters, two cookie sheets, food coloring, sprinkles, and vanilla extract. Additional costs include the gasoline required for my sweetie to make three separate trips to the store for items I forgot. As it was, we took turns mixing the batter with an inadequate wooden spoon.

For a healthier treat, try this cranberry pistachio biscotti recipe. Using whole wheat instead of all-purpose flour lets you get away with accidentally overcooking them a bit. No one will ever know—by sight or taste. I can attest.

The sugar cookies will undergo makeovers tomorrow in preparation for delivery to several of our city’s homeless. The biscotti? Well, we'll see how many make it out the door.

Sunday, December 13

12 Days of Christmas ... Sort of

Sometime in my twenties, I stopped participating in the commercialized madness also known as Christmas. Removing oneself from the Hallmark conveyor belt may sound like an easy way out. But it is not. As is true with expired eggnog, the guilt associated with boycotting the system slowly deteriorates your endoskeleton. Holiday parties and their designated Santas destroy empty-handed contentment. You don’t even have to unwrap the shiny box they perched in your lap to know what it contains: one hundred invitations to scold yourself: “Your ass so cheap, a stiff wind would rub its image right off.”

I never wanted to be a Scrooge. But as my tactics began to fail, it just happened. Excluding myself from the gift exchange doesn't work when no one else honors it. Being a two-time recipient of a gift I've regifted makes me feel all the more inferior. So, instead of avoiding the season entirely, why not celebrate the true spirit of Christmas? Besides, the invaluable gifts don't cost a cent. Try giving without spending, they say. Give of yourself, your time, your expertise.

If you are feeling financially overwhelmed this year, I challenge you to join me in giving—or creating a gift to give later—without spending, every day until Christmas. We’ll call it the “12 days of Christmas” (technically, the twelve days don't begin until the 25th, but that seems a little late for our intent).

The only guidelines are to gift thoughtfully and spend frugally—if at all. The gift should be something you think the receiver would appreciate like a voucher for a massage, babysitting, dog walking, cooking a homemade dinner, cookies, volunteering, or writing a personal letter. You can get more ideas from pros on the Web. Cami Walker has made giving her business. She has some great ideas on her Web site .

As I partake in the 12 Days of Christmas, I will share some of the gift ideas I wrap up. Today, for example, I answered one Bow Wow trivia question in exchange for kibbles. You don’t even have to answer correctly. For every answer, gifts 10 kibbles to an animal shelter to help feed homeless dogs and cats. You can also send a Freekibble e-card to friends and family to help increase the kibble count.

Please share your own gift ideas and/or progress—should you choose to accept the challenge.