A joyful toyless Christmas – gifts that keep giving!

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As the end of the year charges up to meet us, the usual southern hemisphere heat, rush and chaos has descended.  Schools have finally finished, summer holidays have begun, kids are tired, the weather is scorching (but the water temperature is still cooler than we would like), and the end of year Christmas party season is upon us.  In our house this time of year includes a kids birthday just days before Christmas!  I am sure you will have noticed that 2020 has been an extraordinarily strange year, and now to make it even stranger as we approach Christmas, I am reading about Covid related shortages of toys!  This year has been full of tragedy for so many around the world.  Over a million people have died, essential workers are stretched, businesses have collapsed, people have lost their jobs, and doctors, nurses and epidemiologists are our heroes.   Here in New Zealand we have very little to complain about.  We have been blessed that other than a 6 week lockdown and a brief return to level 3 and 2, we have been blessed to be able to continue our lives largely as normal.  Reading the news brings us back to the covid19 reality of the rest of the world.  

In light of the global situation a few shortages seem pretty unimportant, and perhaps we need to get some perspective here.  Kids don’t really need gimmicks and toys if we are truly honest about it.  I think most of it comes from the adult idea about what makes us happy (and most of us have been sucked into consumerist ideas of happiness without even realising) and a desire to show affection in a visually tangible way (look how much I got you, look how big it is, and please notice how expensive it was…. That means I love you).  But if you stop and think about it, do you want piles of expensive toys that kids will grow tired of five minutes after it is assembled, or after every button has been pushed?  Adults have this funny idea about the “magic of Christmas” as if it has to be created.  But really there are many ways to experience joy and there are many ways to spread joy that you can achieve without resorting to Kmart, empty toy shelves and the immense pressure to purchase toys everywhere you go.

Here are some ideas you might not have considered to help you bring joy without toys and to create fun and experiences that will continue giving joy for years.

  • Sports equipment – good quality – listen to what your kids are interested in and buy things that will last for years.  That way if your kids move on from it you can pass it on to the Sallies (or any charity shop), sell it online or give it away to someone else.  Cheap stuff usually breaks and ends up in the landfill and that is something we all need to be trying to avoid.  Spend more on less and get quality.  Ideas include rugby balls, bike repair kits, cricket sets, tennis racket.
  • Cooking equipment – decent stuff you’d buy for yourself – cake decorating things, icing bags, books of ideas and techniques.  Choose stuff that will last, and encourage your kids to take care of it so it lasts a lifetime!  In the past we have given our kids measuring spoons, cups, and baking molds.  We even gave them small saucepans so they could use their own equipment.  Cookery books for kids are a great idea.  Even giving interesting ingredients will go down well.
  • Gardening things – Create a bit of garden for them to plant things in, or if you haven’t got space for a garden bed, try a wooden planter box. Perhaps buy the materials and help them to make it for themselves.  Give seeds, and seedling pots, plants, watering cans, garden trowels and hand forks.  Help your kids to discover the joy of gardening and learn together as a family.
  • Tool box and tools – again don’t be tempted to buy the cheapest stuff at the hardware store.  There is nothing fun about tools that don’t work properly or break when you are using them.  Seek advice and get something that will do the job well and will last if it is dropped!  I am thinking of builder’s pencils, tape measures, hammers and nails, a set of screwdrivers, a handsaw, little socket sets and the like.  If Mum or Dad or Grandpa like to tinker on the car or build things in the garage, then a toolbox with tools is a great Christmas or birthday idea.  I have seen simple pre-cut kitset bird tables, bookends, and planter boxes for sale and if you can’t find one or make up the pieces yourself, the chances are that you can find someone who can whip a kitset together for you in their garage (or try your local Menz Shed).
  • Books!  Do I need to say more? Books are a great gift for all ages and interests.  Books for information, how to guides, stories, facts, classics, books about sport, animals, monsters, technology, gardening, cooking, crafts, famous people, the list is endless.  Books are amazing.  Our kids all read, and they read ALL the time.  The secret to getting kids to read is to get them great books, to read to them and with them.  Read good stories out loud to the family after tea instead of turning on the TV.  Choose wisely, and look for literature rather than meaningless cutesy stories or that latest movie fad.  Go online and look for a list of great children’s authors and hunt out something really enduring.  Books by local authors often make more sense to kids because they feel familiar culturally. In our case, there are a vast array of amazing authors right here in NZ. Librarians are great at recommending books if you are stuck.
  • Craft supplies – Give gifts of fabric, elastic, soft toy patterns, eyes, buttons, needles, thread, sewing scissors, safety pins, knitting needles, and wool in exciting colours.  French knitting (you can make your own with a toilet roll and 4 popsicle sticks) or get a wooden one that will last and not disappoint. Crochet needles, knitting needles, felt, googly eyes, little beads.  Tee shirts and t-shirt paint! The list of possibilities goes on.  Don’t feel you have to buy kid themed things or pre-packaged boxed activities.  Adult things work better as a rule and are usually made to last. 
  • Art supplies – real art supplies. Go to a place that sells proper art things for adults and get them proper coloured pencils, sketch pencils, fine line pens (for outlining) gel pens, erasers, good quality metal pencil sharpeners, a paint box with a couple of good quality brushes, some sketch books, art pads, pencil boxes or oil pastels. Giving kids a creative outlet and something to experiment with is invaluable to developing creative minds and new skills.
  • Give adventures and experiences.  Take your kids tramping (if you’re outside of NZ you might know this as hiking, rambling or such like), buy them tramping gear of their own, go camping, take them to places like wildlife refuges (Pukaha Mt Bruce, Zealandia), museums (Te Papa), the zoo (Orana Park, Willowbank), a seal colony, etc.  Take them fishing. Go for a swim at the beach or the river and make a real expedition of it.  Make memories.
  • Games and puzzles for the family.  During lockdown board games and jigsaws were rediscovered by people everywhere.  A great game will bring hours of fun and entertainment.  They can be played by groups of friends, families, and all age groups.  Jigsaws are another family friendly activity that is worth considering.  We still get wet days in summer and often a puzzle is the perfect way to occupy kids.

All of these things make great presents for kids, and all of them will keep giving joy for many years.  If you buy quality you might end up with a little less under the tree, but what you give will last and can be passed on to others in the future instead of breaking and ending up in the landfill.

A couple of other ideas that might be fun to try out if you have a bit of time are gingerbread biscuits or if you are ambitious, what about a gingerbread house?  Try helping your kids to make the family Christmas Crackers.  A few funny jokes on bits of paper, small gifts, chocolates and Christmas decorations are all you need.  Write Christmas cards with the kids and post them to their friends.  Have you ever noticed how much kids LOVE getting a letter in the mailbox?  Make Christmas decorations one afternoon.  Get creative and see how many things you can find on a walk that you can decorate for the tree.  Help your kids to sew simple drawstring bags or hair scrunchies to give away as gifts.  Make lavender bags!  

Above all, take time out for yourselves to slow down and enjoy time together.  We are so often running around here, there and everywhere, or plugged into our devices, that we miss the simple joy of spending time together. 

These ideas have created joy in our family for years and I really hope and pray that they give you ideas for your families as well.  Sometimes less is more and I really do mean that.  Kids can actually create magic out of their imaginations, they don’t really need the latest Hollywood movie themed noisemaker or dress-up to have fun.  All they need is love at the end of the day.  And Love is what Christmas is all about.

The challenge of an ethical Christmas

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Pohutukawa, New Zealand’s most biodegradable Christmas ornament?

As we approach Christmas (yes it is rushing up), our family is considering as a whole how we can be more ethical this Christmas.  I admit that I like a challenge, but this one is a doozy because there are so many things to consider. What is an ethical Christmas?  Perhaps it really is the thought that counts.  How much are you thinking about the person you are giving to, the people who made it and the environment?

Maybe we don’t have to listen to the corporates and big companies who want us to spend, spend, SPEND and never think, unless it is to consider if we should buy just one more thing.  Consumer driven Christmas is all about getting more stuff.  The original message of Christmas is simple.  Love.  When viewed in the light of love it’s not hard to see why stepping back from consumerism makes sense.  How much do you love the environment and the people you share it with?  How much do you love the people who made the things you choose to buy?

Over the last few years I have progressively opted out of the consumer driven Christmas rat race.  I didn’t think about it in so many words, but with hindsight I realise that’s what I had done. It wasn’t hard either.

First, I put a no junk mail sign on the letterbox.  This was driven out of desperation at the volume of junk mail we received in the lead up to Christmas 3 years ago.  The kids would pore over the toy catalogues.  Conversations were driven by what they wanted based on what they saw in the advertising flyers.  I have never looked back. I don’t need a glossy flyer to show me what is fashionable this year.  We have not watched TV in years so the ads on TV don’t get me either.  I am able to consider purchases mindfully.

A year after the no junk mail sign, I discovered the joy of buying online and having your purchases turn up on your doorstep without having to set foot in a Mall!  OK so I did visit our little local Mall for a handful of things, but the bulk of my buying was intentionally done in shops outside of a mall. And this is the important thing – if you are not being  pressured by must have deals, sales, or being tempted to spend up on impulse buys you can make more ethical decisions.  I really recommend these two simple steps to reducing stress around present buying.

In our family we start Christmas with an Advent calendar on the 1st of December.  Not the cheap chocolate advent calendars from the supermarket either! I always avoid those like the plague.  Typically someone succumbs and eats several days up at once, spoiling all the fun. We choose a Christian advent calendar with a nativity scene and little opening windows.

If you aren’t keen on that idea, I recently heard about an Advent Jar, where you put 24 ideas in a jar and draw out one a day.  Simple ideas like baking ginger bread Christmas trees together, making Christmas cards or decorations for the tree, or watching a Christmas movie together.  Depending on how you are pressed you could even get some nice Fairtrade chocolate and put “chocolate” on one or two of the notes if you are finding it hard to think of ideas.  Think of things that will work for you and your family.

On the 6th of December we celebrate St Nicolas day.  More common in European countries, I first encountered this when I was 10 years old while visiting my German cousins.  I never forgot it and as soon as we became parents we started the tradition for our kids.  Each child leaves a clean gumboot outside their bedroom door and in the morning they find a selection of nuts, fruit, a few chocolates, art and craft supplies and one small gift in their boots.  We always lean toward art and craft supplies and encourage our children to use them to create cards and gifts for people.  St Nicolas was a real person who is said to have paid to free children from slavery.  You can’t get much more ethical than freeing people from slavery.  While not for everybody, perhaps you might like to try this tradition too.

When it comes to presents, I have been turning my mind to ethical wrapping alternatives.  I have started using hand embroidered tray cloths and doily’s that I found at a church fair for 10c each.  I might also use new tea towels as well.  This idea allows for more than one gift (for example a book AND a pretty tea towel).  There is no torn paper wrapping to send to landfill!  I have come across a couple of ethical brands selling organic cotton, fair trade tea towels.  If that is too pricey then opt for something cheaper.  Maybe have a hunt through the local Hospice shop, Salvation Army Family Store, or Red Cross and see what you can find.  That way you are reusing an item and supporting a charity as well!  We’ve been using brightly coloured wool as ribbon, and I have begun raiding my accumulated fabric ribbons from gifts and flowers past.  I’ve always found them too pretty to throw out!

Ideas for a more ethical Christmas

  • Make your own Christmas crackers. A neat after school craft activity for the kids perhaps?  A handmade cracker with a personalised gift is better than any throwaway plastic novelty.
  • Find a charity to support as a family this Christmas.  Giving to others is actually good for us and it is a great way to do something for others at Christmas.  One way to do this is to decide on a charity and do something together.  This year our kids filled their own Operation Christmas Child boxes.  My eldest paid for hers herself.  The younger ones chose everything in their boxes and made suggestions, packing and repacking to get it all perfect.  We often wonder how their Christmas children are.  Operation Christmas Child is over for 2017, but you could start filling a shoe box ready for next year.  There are lots of charities to support, e.g. Christmas Box or Shoebox Christmas or your local food bank.
  • Cookies in a jar. Find a recipe for a cake, brownie, or cookies where you can pack the ingredients in a glass jar.  This is something I am going to try this year.
  • Hunt down some NZ made Christmas decorations or make your own using seashells, or little cones. I find these two articles confronting – where decorations are made and Inside Santa’s sweatshop. We will be trying to buy local or socially responsible decorations this year, or we will make our own.
  • Grow your own festive foods like strawberries. I’ve been planting our Christmas lettuce and I have tomatoes, strawberries and a capsicum in pots.  I don’t actually know if they will be ready by Christmas, but I am giving it a go.
  • Get a real tree for Christmas rather than an artificial one or consider a living tree that you can reuse from year to year. If you have a pine allergy you could use some other kind of potted tree (pohutukawa).  In areas where wilding pines are a threat to our native ecosystems look into live trees sourced from wildings.
  • If you have a particular gift in mind for a loved one, search online for an ethical brand. For example if you want to get a bag for someone consider Freeset, Sari Bari, or Loyal.
  • Opt for craft gifts for children that are not plastic such as art supplies, eg beeswax crayons instead of plastic crayons.
  • Choose one or two heirloom quality gifts that will really last (that way they won’t migrate to the rubbish bin in 12 months when they break) instead of lots of cheap ones. The Kilmarnock Toyshop sells beautiful toys crafted by people with intellectual disabilities.
  • Books are a great biodegradable gift, if chosen wisely then it is a gift that will keep on giving. Some of my old books are now favourites with the kids and I hope they will also be able to hand on their favourites to their own children in the future.
  • Give experiences – they are 100% biodegradable! Take your ballet mad daughter to a ballet.  Take a trip to the zoo or a wildlife reserve as a family, go camping or visit the beach for a picnic.  The idea behind this is to buy a bit less for Christmas, and instead treat the family to an experience that would normally be out of reach.  This way you are creating memories that will last a lifetime.
  • Give handmade stuff – not just hand made by you, but also local handmade gifts like unique pottery or art. I know that some of the nicest coffee mugs I own were handmade by local potters.
  • If you have a skill you could consider giving vouchers of your time to someone you think might benefit from it. For example if you are a joiner you could give 10 hours of your time for free.  If you are a photographer you could offer your photography skills.  Perhaps you could offer to teach someone a new skill like knitting, cooking or carpentry.  This way you are sharing knowledge and also giving quality time to a person you care about.
  • Have a go at creative up-cycling ideas!  Just try google for more ideas than you can shake a stick at.

Remember, “ethical” is not just a tag, it is also how long something will last and how much it will be valued and looked after.

In the end it has to be about what you can do yourself, what you can afford, and what is important to you and your family.  What matters most is appreciating those around you, your family, friends, and community, and to do so each and every day of the year and not just simply on Christmas morning.

I wonder if the most ethical thing we can do at Christmas is to opt out of consumerism.  As far as I can tell consumerism is where the unnecessary plastic, cheap labour, and environmental exploitation come into it.  I don’t know how far we will get towards a truly ethical Christmas in our family but in the spirit of the first Christmas 2000 years ago, we will be doing the best we can.