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8 Ideas for Stress-Free, Meaningful Holiday Gift Giving


“You make a living by what you get; you make a life by what you give.” ~Unknown

There’s something magical about this time of year, and it has nothing to do with the Santas posted like soldiers at various points throughout the globe or the million volts of electricity that light up Main Streets the world over.

I’ve always loved Christmastime because the season inspires people to focus on everything that’s important in life.

The usually harried slow down just a little to stop and smell the mistletoe while humming along to redundant Christmas songs they secretly enjoy. Fighting relatives shelf their differences to share egg nog and brandy, bonding over the shared experience of wearing atrocious holiday sweaters from Christmas gifts past.

I know holiday euphoria well. Since I always spend at least two weeks visiting my family around Christmas, the season packs double the punch–the infectious excitement of Yuletide energy and the joy that comes from sharing it with people I appreciate all the more for seeing them less.

And then there’s the gift component. People may lament the commercialization of Christmas, but there’s something about it all that appeals to me. I love watching shoppers give to the Toys for Tots stand in the mall, recognizing just how many people do good things without needing recognition or reward.

I also love the opportunity to mass-gift my family at a time when positive feelings are already heightened. Historically, I’ve devoted hours to plotting which gifts I’d give them, imagining how their eyes would light up when they opened them, like Ralphie’s teacher’s when she read his essay about wanting a Red Ryder BB gun.

It might be the least meaningful part of the holiday season, but I’ve seen a lot of loving purpose among the humming shoppers scouring the shelves for people they love. Something about the fleeting magic of it all seems to make people more mindful–after all, the holidays come but once a year and they are, in fact, for giving.

After years of surviving on meager paychecks, I’ve learned having less money can actually help us give a lot more. Some of the most meaningful gifts I’ve given or received have cost little to nothing.

I’ve dug through the archives of my holiday memories to share a few ideas for meaningful gift-giving:

Christmas Tree and Stockings

1. Appeal to a niche interest.

In college, I spent a semester abroad. Knowing my mother collects coins, I saved a handful from each of the 12 countries I visited, totaling a few American dollars in worth.

I bought a carved wooden box in Italy, where my great grandparents were born, and used this to hold the change. To my knowledge, this is the only gift I’ve ever given my mother that she still has and shows to people.

You don’t have to have a Eurail pass to appeal to a hobby. EBay is a virtual treasure trove when it comes to collector’s items. Regardless of what the gift is, this shows you notice and respect someone’s interests.

2. Think outside the mall.

My father loves seafood almost more than he loves his children. It’s OK—we all get it. We have an unspoken understanding that it’s every man for himself when lobster hits the table.

One year, I bought him a couple of huge lobsters the day before Christmas. I wrapped up a butter dish with a note that said, “Your gift is in the fridge downstairs.” It wasn’t a present he could wear or save forever, but I know he lot more enjoyment out of that meal than the tie I could have bought him.

Any time we show people that we’ve paid attention to what actually brings them joy we let them know how much we care.

3. Use a skill.

One year, while I was touring the country with a marketing campaign during the fall, I decided to make an afghan for every member of my family. I had three months-worth of 10-hour drives—plenty of time to make it happen.

Each blanket took me roughly 25 hours, for a combined 75. To this day, my brother has that Italian flag afghan on his bed. I love knowing that even though I live 3,000 miles away, he still has something I made for him while missing him on the road.

If you’re into handmade gift-giving, I recommend checking out this article with 100 homemade gift ideas.

4. Reach back in time.

When my brother was about 5 years old, he was all about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I can’t tell you how many times a pint-sized Ryan somersaulted and then jumped on me with plastic nun chucks while shouting, “Cowabunga Dude!” The other day, I saw a DVD set with all three turtles movies.

I expect this blast from the past will tempt him to toss his 24-year old body into a tumble, though this isn’t a fool-proof plan. The year I bought my mom magazines from her childhood on eBay, I’m pretty sure she said, “Oh yeah, cute.” Though she clearly contained her excitement, I suspect she was ecstatic inside.

5. Give your intentions.

For Valentine’s Day and last Christmas, I channeled my inner 9-year old and made my boyfriend “holiday coupons.” The first book contained a bunch of different limited-time offers, including a back massage, a homemade dinner (which he respectfully declined—something about frozen chicken patties I burned), and a “You’re right, no questions asked” pass.

Well, for Christmas it was actually 20 “You’re right” passes. He requested those specifically, and he’s used them with abandon.

Coupons don’t have to be a romantic gift. If you plan to back them up, you can give anyone a book of intentions for the future—walking their dog, babysitting for a night out. There’s something soothing about getting messy with markers and glitter, and I believe that joy passes on with the gift. (Note: you can find and print gift coupons online, as well).

This is also a great way to give people what they really want from us—our time and attention.

6. Show them their kindness.

Earlier this year, my mother let me use her timeshare in Vegas with my sister and our boyfriends. We had a week in massive four-room suite. It was the first time my sister and I vacationed together without the rest of our family, and we couldn’t have been more grateful.

The four of us got a picture in Mandalay Bay in front of the dolphins and found a colorful Vegas-themed frame. This was actually a birthday gift. Regardless, I know my mother enjoyed the reminder of the adventure she facilitated.

Some other ideas to remind people of their own kindness: invite your sister, who taught you to cook, for a homemade dinner at your house; take your aunt, who fostered your love of theater, to see a play; or write a blog post for your cousin who helped set up your site.

7. Get poetic.

My sister and I had a major falling out in our teens that culminated in a two-year silent treatment. All growing up I wanted to be around her and be like her, and I felt devastated when our mutual loathing grew far beyond than normal adolescent angst.

Though we eventually resumed a functional relationship, it was only a few years ago when we started getting close. Two Christmases back she wrote a poem for me. She listed all the ways I impress and inspire her and ended by calling me her hero.

It’s not that hard to get me teary-eyed—I’m a big puddle of love and I spray it around liberally—but this touched me more than any other gift I have ever received. I will never forget how much it meant to me that she not only felt that way, but took the time to write it in iambic pentameter.

8. Heal the world.

There are limitless ways to give back to the world while giving to people you love. You can donate in someone else’s name, or buy a gift that supports charity. Some resources to explore:

What’s the most meaningful gift you’ve ever given or received? Have any suggestions to add to this list?

Photo by brockvicky

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About Lori Deschene

Lori Deschene is the founder of Tiny Buddha. She is the author of the Tiny Wisdom eBook series (which includes one free eBook) and Tiny Buddha's Guide to Loving Yourself. She's also the co-founder of the eCourse Recreate Your Life Story: Change the Script and Be the HeroFollow @tinybuddha for inspiring posts and wisdom quotes.

Announcement: Wish you could change your past? Learn to let go and create a life you love with the Tiny Buddha course!
  • Brad

    99.5% of people do NOT view Christmas the way you or I do. I wish they did because it would make Christmas worth having again.

  • Angela

    The most meaningful gift I ever received was actually not for Xmas, but a leaving gift from a co-worker/friend who bought me a Lynyrd Skynyrd CD, which doesn’t sound very meaningful but it showed me how much he had paid attention to all I had said in the many casual conversations we’d had together at work. That gift said more to me about his character than I may ever have otherwise learned and made me appreciate him so much more.

    I think that’s why it’s so hard for me to come up with ideas of what I wish for at Xmas, because it’s all just ‘stuff’ that I could ask for. Therefore when it’s not asked for and a complete surprise it means so much more.

    Great post Lori!

  • Laura Poole

    My dad and I started a “Christmas pie exchange” a few years ago. If I’m going to be in my hometown for Christmas, then we bake each other a pie. He always requests my apple pie, and I slobber over his meat pie. It’s a taste of my childhood, and a wonderful treat!

  • http://twitter.com/AlannahRose AlannahRose

    Gift giving is truly an art. My (unfortunately soon-to-be-ex-) husband was truly amazing in that capacity. So many of his holiday gifts made me cry because he paid such close attention to what the one thing I really wanted was. A couple of times the gifts he bought were things I’d missed out on and he went to the trouble to search ebay or drive all over the state to find them for me. I can’t tell you how much that meant to me. I have always been a good listener (with a good memoury) so I’m usually pretty skilled at filing things away when I’m around friends and family too.

  • http://twitter.com/AlannahRose AlannahRose

    I love those kinds of gifts – no waste, no “stuff” to store/haul around later, and you know the receiver enjoyed it!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Hi Angela,

    What a beautiful story. I know what you mean about a wish list. It always feels a little awkward to tell someone what I want since there’s rarely anything specific. I just want to be thought of by people I think of, as well.

    Thanks for reading!

    Lori

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Do your friends and family see Christmas that way?

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    That’s awesome that he paid such close attention and put so much time, thought, and heart into it. My boyfriend’s mother is like that. Her gifts really reflect careful attention to what someone enjoys, and I always appreciate that.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    I’m a big fan of consumable gifts! There’s a whole different level of enjoyment that comes from sharing it with the person who made it and gave it to you. And I agree with Alannah–a gift that doesn’t require storage or maintenance is a good thing!

  • http://twitter.com/aelphabawest aelphabawest

    There was a fairy tale book that I read obsessively as a child at my grandparent’s house. It was from my grandmother’s childhood, circa the early 20th century and was beat up from three generations of use. She gave it to me for my 22nd birthday gift. I think it’s the only time I cried when receiving a gift.

  • Guest

    My daughter was recuperating from a long illness and it was hard for her us to keep her occupied.
    I had lost all the ideas to make any meaningful contribution.
    Then one day, I dropped into a bookshop selling old books. I remember, she telling me that there is this new bookshop (opened recently) selling secondhand books (thrown out as thrash in UK) .

    I knew she selects books and leave them (with her name tag) at the counter to buy them later (when she has spare money).
    I went through the book at the counter but could not find her name.
    The second time when I went there, I politely asked the manager, could I see the books that are reserved but not collected.
    To my amazement there were plenty of books (bags) waiting to be collected.
    After a few meaningful searches I found the bag with the label in her handwriting.

    Rest is history.

    What really dawned on me was that there are many like her going for secondhand books to save a few bucks.

    When I was a kid if somebody gave me an old book, I would have “thrown a fit”.

    But now I scavenge at bookshops selling old but readable books.

    This Christmas, If you have books worth (secondhand) reading please send them to the third world, Sri-Lanka included.

    The gift need not be a brand new especially if it is a good reading material.

    English books are very expensive even if they are printed (poor quality) in India.

  • http://twitter.com/Sam_Russell_ Sam Russell

    I’m not a traditionalist when it comes to Christmas and try to get away with having nothing in the way of gifts, but my Dad threw a sulk so I asked for some knitting equipment which has made me incredibly happy! I love knitting, it’s my new addiction.

    I have to say though, the most amazing gift I’ve had this year was something I received yesterday. Someone I used to be good friends with, but someone I also abandoned because I went a bit nuts for a while and destroyed my friendships, spotted me on campus yesterday and said ‘hi’. That was nice enough.

    Not ten minutes after he’d parted and we’d said polite goodbyes, he returned and said:

    “I’m so glad you’re still here. I just wanted to say I really miss being friends with you; can we go again? Here’s my email, let’s meet up next week.”

    I thought I’d blown it with most of the people I knew. I thought I wasn’t worth knowing. I like being proved wrong…

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    What a story! I’m so glad you got that gift, Sam. I know it doesn’t feel the same as being known in person for all different facets of your personality, but I think a lot of the readers here would agree with me in saying that you are worth knowing. I’m glad I know you. =)

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Thanks for this note. I’ve donated a lot of books in my time, but it never occurred to me to send them overseas. A lot of the times, I take notes all over a book so it’s not in donating shape, but next time I have a well-maintained one, I will remember this!

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    That’s awesome–and so is your name by the way. I ADORE Wicked. I saw it in SF not too long ago for the second time. Growing up, I used to do a little Wizard of Oz show with my sister and a few friends at birthday parties. (For 10 years believe it or not!) I just love the way Wicked tells a whole different and far more powerful story and gives background information for all the characters. The tickets to Wicked were actually one of my favorite gifts ever. I didn’t cry when I got them, but I DID cry at the end of the show!

  • http://twitter.com/amjfaris April May June

    My parents LOVE framed pictures and they take more pictures than they have wall space for. 2 years ago I went through their boxes upon boxes of pictures and made a huge collage of pictures through the years for my parent’s Christmas gift. It was amazing looking through the pictures of all of the musicals, dance recitals, Christmas mornings, vacations, etc. I’ll never forget the look on my parent’s faces when they opened it, my dad immediately started to cry.

    My best gift that I ever received wasn’t on Christmas, it was just a random day when my husband was deployed to Iraq. It had just snowed for the first time and I put my boots on to go shovel out my car (something that I’ve never done and I wasn’t looking forward to), when I went outside my car was all cleared off and my spot dug out. There wasn’t a note from who did, but a small American flag with a yellow support the troops ribbon was on my windshield. I stood in the cold and just cried, it was something that small that meant so much to me. I still don’t know who did it and I’ll never forget that little act of kindness and how it made my day just a little bit easier to cope.

  • Rairy

    Pictures. Framed and ready to hang up. Last year my parents gave me pictures of my grandmothers as young women that I’d not seen before. One year the niece and nephew did collages of themselves. A beginning photographer friend did a shoot of my husband and I as practice one spring and later that year we received these beautiful photos of us. A friend of mine even managed to snap a nice pic of me when camping that he later gifted to my husband. My sister did a calendar with family pictures for every month. I dont live near my family and its nice to be surrounded by images to remind me of them.

  • http://onmymind.areavoices.com Qin Tang

    Dear Lori,

    Excellent post with great ideas. I love it!

    The most meaningful gift I ever received was a journal someone wrote in the course of a few months to give to me as my birthday present. It contains letters, poems and a drawing in the shape of a heart filled with the words of “I love you” inside. It made me cry for a long time. Now so many years later, I still cry even when I just think about it.

    Another most precious gifts are the poems my 10 year old daughter writes to me every day.

    I don’t know that the most meaningful gift I have ever given. Wish someone had given me the feedback.

    I would like to leave this comment as my meaningful gift to you. Thank you for writing this wonderful blog. You have enriched my life and many others. I enjoy reading your post and look forward to it in my email box every day. You are a blessing to me and the world.

    The Big Buddha is smiling at you, well pleased with your Tiny Buddha.

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you. May your life be filled with love, joy, peace and abundance in the New Year. May you find more success with your already successful blog.

    BTW, The pictures you use on your blog are beautiful. When I visited China this summer, I took photos of Buddhas in several places, including the tallest standing Buddha in the world. If interested, check out my Facebook. I posted some there.

    Qin

  • http://twitter.com/Sam_Russell_ Sam Russell

    I’m glad I know you too! I don’t think spatial or temporal differences are important when it comes to friendship. You’re not missing out on much anyway – I’m pretty much the same online as I am offline, except I might be a bit taller and look grumpy all the time :p

    Thanks for sharing your Christmas cheer! It was about this time last year that I found TB so a huge karmic hug to you and every writer on here because you’ve helped me turn my life around.

    Kudos

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Hi Qin,

    I loved hearing about your journal present–what a wonderful, thoughtful gift! As a writer, I know how much heart can go into the written word. I’m certain I’d be touched if I received that gift =)

    Thank you for your meaningful gift to me. How thoughtful and kind of you! I love running this site, and it means the world to me to know that it matters to people.

    Wishing you love, joy, and peace this holiday season and beyond =)

    Lori

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Hi Rairy,

    Wow you’ve received some really cool gifts! I especially like the idea of framed pictures of older relatives when they were younger. I love looking through my grandmother’s photo albums and imagining what it was like for her at my age. I also think the calendar is a fantastic idea. I think I might try to get one of those for someone this holiday season. Thank you for commenting!

    Lori

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    Hi April!

    That sounds awesome. I love family collages. My mom has one in the downstairs hallway, and even though I’ve seen it a million times, it always pulls me in when I walk past it. It’s like a time capsule of some of my happiest moments (and worst hair styles) and all the people I love.

    What a great story about your car, as well. I love when people do random acts of kindness just because without needing any recognition. I still can’t wrap my brain around the fact that you’re married. You’re little Molly!! =)

    Lori

  • Guest

    Thank You.
    Think of this little Island Ceylon (Sri-Lanka now) too.

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  • AhRian

    You always seem to know exactly what I’m looking for. I’ve been trying to decide on gifts for everyone that is meaningful and easy on the pocket book. I hate how commercialized our society has seemingly become that it is sometimes frustrating. However, I recognize that I have talents that can never be purchased in a store and gifts to give that wouldn’t exist without me. Thank you for helping and being an inspiration in my life.

  • http://twitter.com/lori_deschene Lori Deschene

    You’re most welcome! I’m actually just now thinking about meaningful gifts for this year. It’s so much more fun to do it that way!

  • FreemanX

    Most meaningful gift I ever got was a bungee jump from my then boyfriend. He proposed to me right before we jumped! Needless to say I said yes, and we “took the plunge!” FreemanX
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