It's time for my family to exchange Christmas lists. I'm not sure I'm digging it this year. It feels inappropriately transactional, particularly at a time when the flaws in a transaction-driven society are staring us in the face. I find myself thinking about alternatives that respect the spirit of giving but that maybe make blind consumption a less prominent part of the season.
There is a meme I've come across in several essays/blog posts/articles: the really valuable things we do with our money and our time are experiences, rather than things. I've found this to be true for myself. A concert, a great book, or even simply a fun night of nothing more than (moderate) intoxication or walking around does wonders for my state of mind and my short-to-middle-term happiness, far more so than spending the same money on shirts. Not that material things are unimportant, but currently my wants are either too trivial to ask anybody for (more socks), or too expensive to bring into conversation (a hammered dulcimer, a new place to live).
My perspective on this may not be shared by a majority of your Christmas-present targets. In my circle alone, I know at least a few people with very specific, generally reasonable, and well-articulated material requests. If you know a new parent, they've probably got a list of needs as long as your leg. I'm sure I'll be very desirous of gifts when I finally move and require new furniture, board games, et alia. But more broadly, aren't there already enough things in our lives? You probably know somebody who doesn't need or want a new hat as much as they want meaningful tokens of human connection.
I present to you, therefore, a few concrete suggestions for a less material gift strategy, colored heavily by my personal preferences, and organized by how much they would cost.
Looking to spend:
Buy a ticket to something cool: an opera, a concert, a dance or stage performance, an art show. Ideally, go with them - this excuses the old fallacy of gifting as if for yourself.
Take your gift target to a movie. Find a super-cheap show of the sorts described above. Get a paperback or a CD (smaller money: get it used on Amazon or Ebay). Or just buy your friend a coffee and talk! I don't drink coffee but I'll come to a coffee shop with you.
Recommend a book that's affected you, or a band that's gotten in your head. If they've expressed curiosity about something you know, like Brahms or British comedy, give them a well thought out, perhaps forceful, recommendation of where to start. (By forceful, I imagine a winking threat: "If you don't listen to Kind of Blue, I'll have to rethink this friendship!")
Or, if you are so inclined and able, make something. A poem or story, a drawing or a doodle, a gimmicky or referential computer program or Android app, a song that your friend can sing or play (or a decent recording of yourself or your band doing it), a short film or a thoughtful montage or photoessay. This is far from cheap no matter how you value your own time and effort, but I'm reasonably sure someone on your list will remember and cherish such a thing far better than any store-bought object.
I probably won't stick to this strictly in all my gift-getting this year. It requires enough though that it can get exhausting, for one thing, and also a minimal understanding of what your friend wants or enjoys that I don't in all cases enjoy. Moreover, some also have compelling material requests or unstated needs. But as an experiment, I'd like to use this strategy as widely as I reasonably can, in the hope that it will be more rewarding both for me and for those recipients with whom I can pull it off.