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Commentary: The gifts that will be remembered

Beth-Dec 2022.jpeg
Beth Howard
courtesy photo

Christmas. It’s all too much. All of it. It comes at the end of an already challenging year and yet we’re expected to put up decorations, write cards, agonize over what gifts to give, go shopping, wrap presents, bake, entertain, and eat more than we should.

There’s so much pressure. So much money spent. And so many calories consumed. And for what? Do we ever stop to ask ourselves why we’re doing all this? Are we just sheep following the expectations of our society? Are we victims of capitalistic greed dressed up as Santa Claus? Or do some people find joy in all the hype?

As much as I loved Christmas and the rush of ripping off wrapping paper when I was young, I now feel mostly stress, stress that was compounded by hanging the string of lights that I bought just last year only to plug them in and find they didn’t work, even after I changed the fuse.

My sister, however, loves Christmas. She loves to shop and takes the time to find everyone the perfect stuff—stuff we didn’t know we wanted. Like the sweater that just came in the mail yesterday.

I love the sweater. It’s cozy, it’s cute, and it’s Christmas-y with a red pickup truck carrying a pine tree. But it came with a wave of guilt because I didn’t get her anything. I didn’t get anyone in my family or in my circle of friends anything. I didn’t even get my partner Doug anything. I treat Christmas like the kind of problem where if you ignore it long enough, it will go away.

At least I didn’t have to feel guilty about Doug. We do nice things for each other throughout the year, so we don’t place great importance on this one holiday. And Doug never has to think about what to give anyone for Christmas—he gives everyone the same gift every year: a donation made in their name to Camp Courageous, a summer camp for disabled kids, in Monticello, Iowa.

I also don’t have to feel guilty about not sending anything to my younger brother, Mike, because we made a pact that we would not give each other Christmas presents this year. He followed up later by sending me a photo of his hand, with his palm open and facing up. His text read, “This is what I’m giving you for Christmas.” I wrote him back. “It’s exactly what I wanted—nothing!” But his reply surprised me. “No,” he said. “It’s a helping hand.” I was so touched I had to wipe away a few tears.

Mike’s gesture reminded me of our dad. Over the years, as we ran out of ideas for what to get “the man who has everything,” our dad told us that the best gift we could give him was to write a card telling him how much we loved him.

My dad was also one who believed in the barter system. He was a dentist who let patients pay him in goods and services. From electricians to plumbers, it was always a fair trade. He once had an Amish patient who paid him with a handmade quilt, and while that may not have had the same value on paper as the crowns or fillings or whatever he did for her, it’s something my parents cherished. Forty years later, my mom still talks about that quilt.

This non-materialistic, homemade, hands-on approach to gift-giving is not just about saving money or avoiding a trip to the mall, it actually ties into a concept known as the Peace Economy.

As Markus Trilling writes in an article for, “Our current economic system is founded on inequality, overconsumption, the pursuit of infinite growth at the expense of people and the environment, and the unsustainable extraction of finite resources.”

A peace economy, on the other hand, is one that cultivates a sense of respect and compassion for others and for the earth. This is achieved by investing in relationships, connecting through experiences rather than piling presents under the Christmas tree.

By no means am I suggesting we cancel Christmas. It’s just that instead of approaching it as a transactional holiday where we feel an obligation to reciprocate and buy things that add to our personal financial burden and to our landfills, it’s just a gentle reminder that the best gifts are the ones we can give of ourselves. While I love my new sweater from my sister, I’m pretty sure I won’t be talking about it forty years from now.

After the lights have been taken down and the garbage trucks have hauled the remains of the holiday away, it's the offering of a helping hand, a card that says “I love you,” a handmade quilt, or an experience—like sending a disabled person to summer camp—that are the gifts, the gestures, and the kind of generosity that will be remembered.

Commentator Beth Howard is an author and pie maker. Her website is

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Western Illinois University or Tri States Public Radio.

Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.