Monday, November 9, 2015

Holiday Gift Exchange Alternatives

By Wong Ee Lynn
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The end of the year is approaching, and with it comes Christmas, End-of-Year and New Year parties and family reunions. It is great to be able to spend time with family and friends, but having to buy gifts for everyone is rough on the pocket and the environment! Too often, we end up buying cheap trinkets because we have run out of money and ideas. This year, instead of buying more unnecessary gifts that will end up in landfills, do consider some of these alternatives to the traditional holiday gift exchange:

Whether it's to provide Orang Asli families with Nokero solar light bulbs ( or to raise funds for the endangered sun bear (, announce your chosen cause ahead of time, put up posters and buntings explaining your cause, and put out a decorated money tin or jar to collect contributions for your chosen cause. Each guest anonymously contributes what she or he can afford to. To make things for fun, organise one or two themed games such as a solar lamp treasure hunt in the dark or Pin-The-Yellow-Bib-On-The-Sun-Bear's-Chest.
Instead of making waste, make memories! Gather supplies and get your guests to sit down for an after-meal session of repairing and covering books for a community library, writing postcards to senior citizens or children in hospitals, turning old t-shirts and cardboard tubes into toys for shelter animals, sorting clothes and toiletries for the homeless, collecting and packing food for the underprivileged, baking pet treats for an animal shelter, making bird feeders or making a meal for the homeless and underprivileged. If you live near a park or forested area, have an after-meal walk and give out garbage bags and cotton gardening gloves to get your guests to help clean up the area. Planting trees and edible plants to provide food for birds and wildlife would be a good idea as well. Some guests might find this initially less exciting than receiving a wrapped gift, but they will change their minds once they look back on the photos in months to come, and think of the positive difference they made.
Inform your guests in advance what supplies you wish them to purchase, or what equipment (baking trays, rolling pins, scissors) you want them to bring. Ensure you have all the items, equipment and instructions you need. Guests then work together to make crafts for each other, and extras can go to charity. You can bake cakes and cookies or make sweets and jellies, and if crafting, you can make soaps, rainbow crayons, Perler/Pyssla bead ornaments, handmade cards, bracelets, lanyard keychains and other items to give to each other, sell to raise funds for charity, or give as gifts to women and children in shelter homes.
Each guest should bring 1-2 books that are in good condition. School books, text books, magazines, anything outdated, and colouring/activity books that have been used/scribbled in, and diaries/notebooks are ineligible for the book exchange. The books should ideally be story books or non-fiction books that you have yourself enjoyed and are ready to pass on to someone else. At the end of the party, each guest chooses a book to bring home, and as such will have reading material that is new to him or her. Books that are not taken at the end of the day can be donated to a community library.
Do you know the names of the cleaners, security guards, librarians, gardeners and cooks at your school, apartment or neighbourhood? What about the postmen, road sweepers, rubbish collectors, and people who cut the grass and unclog the drains? Often they live far from their families and work hard for very little pay, doing work that no-one else wants to do. Inform your guests that you will be making gifts for these special and hardworking individuals. They can also add other worthy recipients to the list. Each guest brings a little something -- snacks, baked goods, fruits, toiletries and practical or fun items, and adds them to bags for each recipient. Go out and deliver your gifts together to your chosen recipients and wish them a happy holiday.
If your gift exchange is traditionally restricted to family, you might want to consider giving your loved ones a gift of time by offering to do certain chores for them, e.g. walking and bathing the family dog, cleaning the cat litter trays for a week, cleaning the interior and exterior of the family car, spring cleaning the storeroom, babysitting a younger sibling or packing school lunches for a younger sibling. Again, while this might not seem as exciting as receiving a wrapped gift, your acts of kindness and service can be of immense help to a loved one during a busy and stressful holiday period and will be more deeply appreciated than another plastic trinket or coffee mug.
If you and your friends enjoy baking, hold a cookie/baked treats exchange where you each bake a large tray of goodies and then trade with your friends so that each one goes home with a variety of treats. If baking is not your thing, have a snack exchange where you bring your favourite snack and attach a note to it informing others why you like this treat (e.g. it is a traditional snack from your hometown, or eating it reminds you of a beloved aunt or cousin) At the end of the party, each guest brings home someone else's favourite snack. It is a good way of learning more about a friend and the things he or she likes. Although some snacks may come in plastic packaging, a snack as a gift is still less wasteful than a plastic trinket.
If you are able to give your guests at least 2-3 weeks' notice of your party, get everyone to grow something in a pot, either from seed or clippings. On the day of the party, exchange your plants so you will each have something new to green your home with. Be aware, though, that some plants can be harmful to pets and young children, so do look it up online to ensure that your chosen plant is safe to be given away. Mint, pandan, lemongrass, spider plants, orchids, ferns, air plants, jade plants and most succulents are all reported to be safe for pets and young children.
Instead of a store-bought gift, give your friends the gift of love and validation. For each guest, you need a pen and a thick sheet of colourful construction paper. You can cut the construction paper into shapes of trees or stars for a more festive touch. Use double-sided tape to stick the construction paper to the back of each guest. Guests go around writing nice things on each other's construction papers, either noting someone's good qualities (e.g. "You are generous with your colour pencils") or thanking them for specific kind gestures (e.g. "Thank you for being my first friend when I moved to this school"). At the end of the game, guests carefully peel their cards off their backs and read all the nice things written about them. This can be a very empowering and encouraging game to play, especially in a classroom environment. This is a gift most people would love to look at over and over again, especially when they are feeling blue.
Spending time with and on your loved ones is far more meaningful than spending money. It is sad to see gift recipients shutting themselves up in their rooms with their new electronic gadgets, isolating themselves from the rest of the family, on a day when you should all be connecting with one another. Instead of material gifts, organise an experience gift for your family or a group of your best friends. Paddleboarding, parasailing, ice skating, laser tag, paintball and concerts are all fantastic experience gifts if you can afford it, but if you can't, you can always go camping, jungle trekking, birdwatching, stargazing and volunteering. If the Great Outdoors isn't your thing, have a challenge where you and your friends go on a day-long LRT/bus ride to photograph yourselves at a predetermined list of 50 famous landmarks. Material gifts can increase isolation and resentment (i.e. from not getting what one had asked for, or from comparing gifts with those received by others) but spending time together will bring you closer together. 
Have an environmentally-responsible holiday season and a very Happy New Year, everyone!

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