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December 20, 2005

Consider Alternative Gifts
in the final days before Christmas

by Jon M. Sweeney

What are you giving for Christmas this year? iPods and multimedia phones are among the hottest gifts. You’ll find them sold out in a lot of locations, if you are just beginning your shopping in the final week before Christmas.

Hopefully, you have safely avoided the angry episodes that always seem to mar the Christmas shopping season. For instance, in Mays Landing, New Jersey, customers trampled and assaulted fellow shoppers looking for electronics at Circuit City and Wal-Mart. In Sunrise, Florida, 73-year-old Josephine Hoffman was trampled at the entrance to another electronics store by a crowd rushing in as the store opened. She told the local newspaper, “I was trying to get out of the way, but they knocked me down. I hit my head on the floor and people stepped on me. I don't understand why people do these things.” Near Grand Rapids, Michigan, another woman fell to the store floor as dozens of competing shoppers rushed in for the 5 a.m. opening. Several stepped on her, as one Good Samaritan man tried in vain to push them aside, in an effort to protect her. The woman, as well as a 13-year-old girl, suffered various minor injuries.

These true stories, and more, happened around the U.S. on the day after Thanksgiving, 2005—the day that is now known as “Black Friday” for its mix of deals and dangers for consumers beginning the Christmas shopping season. They are chronicled by a popular blog, “Brilliant at Breakfast,” which then summarizes: “Now, I'm not a Christian. Never have, probably never will be. But it just seems to me that if…. this is Christmas, then damn it, let’s declare war on it.”

The American Research Group, Inc. reported last month that, according to telephone surveys, the average American expects to spend approximately $950 on Christmas gifts this year. The National Retail Federation’s surveys put the number at about $740 per person. Either way, the total dollars spent on Christmas gifts in 2005 in the U.S. is projected to be in excess of 435 billion.

Are you one of the many people who are trying to figure out—in the last week—what to give a loved one or friend? Most estimates are that about fifteen percent of Americans wait until the final week before Christmas to begin their gift-shopping.

Christmas clearly drives the U.S. economy, and as we’ve heard relentlessly for years, we are supposed to keep spending. If we don’t spend, consumer confidence fades, and if consumer confidence fades, then the stock market will fall, the dollar will weaken abroad, and employers will cut staff. So, the message is: Spend Spend Spend!

But there is something else that builds communities and families and houses of worship—even better than money: volunteered time.

Try something new this year. Consider a gift of time to a local church, nursing home, hospital chaplaincy, hospice, senior center, or some other great organization in your community. Write a note to one or more of these groups in the week before Christmas.

Or, more timely for the season, consider a gift of time to your family, friends or neighbors in need. Write a note and wrap it up. Write a message to your son: “I will play with you each week in 2006, doing whatever you want to do, for at least three hours.” Write a note to your wife: “Let’s be sure to go out on a date at least one day per month in 2006.” Write a note to your ailing neighbor: “We will make dinner for you one evening a week throughout the coming year.”

I think that those will be some of the best presents opened this year.

© 2005 Jon M. Sweeney.

—Jon M. Sweeney is a writer and editor living in Vermont. He is the author of several books, including his new memoir, BORN AGAIN AND AGAIN: SURPRISING GIFTS OF A FUNDAMENTALIST CHILDHOOD..

More by Jon Sweeney.

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