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Can cardboard rocket ships save Christmas?

I keep thinking about Jdimytai Damour, the WalMart employee who was trampled to death by over-anxious (is that strong enough a word?) shoppers on Black Friday. So much about the incident is shocking to me.

How could more than 2,000 people be waiting outside a WalMart at 5am, many waiting from 9pm the night before? And how could they become an angry mob so desperate to shop for the holiday discounts that they break the door down?

Most shocking of all: when told to leave because an employee had been killed, how could they keep shopping? According to a witness, some reacted to the order to leave the store by yelling, “I’ve been on line since yesterday morning”?

Damour’s death is a tragedy, but the behavior that motivated the incident it is not an isolated incident. Every year, on this first official day of the Christmas shopping season, there are fights or tramplings as shoppers try to get a cheaper start on their holiday shopping.

The violence may be extreme, but it’s simply part of the frenzied atmosphere that builds around the holidays as anxiety grows around the need to give stuff.

This year, even the financial crisis couldn’t cool the shopping fever. The average expenditure per shopper on Black Friday: $372.57.

And this is just the beginning of this season of consumption, that sucks in even those of us who try to avoid the traps of materialism. It’s a bit of a tricky position to be an anti-consumer this time of year. If you don’t give, you can be judged as cheap, thoughtless or a “Scrooge”.

It’s happened to me. I won’t get into the details to avoid naming names, but a couple years ago I tried to buy just one simple activity-based present for an entire group and was dubbed inconsiderate (as I found out later).

I’ll admit I didn’t put much time into the present, but instead of just buying big the next time I’m at a holiday with this group, I will try for more thoughtful, and more personalized, homemade gifts.

Because no matter how difficult it might be to break the cycle of obsessive shopping, and all the associated pressure to give, we have to try and be willing to be scorned, just a bit, in the process. Until we do, we will all share a bit of the responsiblity for Damour’s death.

Homemade rocket ships

Last month, I caught a glimpse of what a shopping-free future might look like. And it looks fun.

It was at a birthday party for a 3-year-old who has everything. I had considered making him a homemade game or puzzle, but at the last minute, I got nervous and not wanting to appear cheap I opted to buy a puzzle book instead.

When I arrived at the party, all the kids were crowded on one side of the terrace. It turns out another mother- my British friend Helen- had gone the homemade route and it was the hit of the party. She had taken a refrigerator box, cut a door in it and written “lift off” on the side. And while all our store-bought games and toys laid on the ground forgotten, every single child was lined up for a chance to ride in the rocketship.

In honor of Helen’s fearlessness in the face of gifting pressure, I have decided to prepare myself better for my next giving event (thankfully, for me, in my family Christmas is not about giving presents and we only give used, recycled or regifted objects).

I’m finding that online you can find an article/recipe/how-to video for just about any type of gift you want to give. Many of my ideas I’ve put in the article Holiday shopping?: 15 tips, but I’ll highlight a few of my favorites here.

  1. A recipe book: copy/write down/print out your favorite recipes (and those of friends) and give it to everyone you know. It may sound simple, but the homemade recipe book made by the parents of my elementary school compiling everyone’s favorite recipes was the most well-used book in my non-culinary-inclined family’s kitchen.
  2. Framed children’s drawings: just put a frame around one of the many pictures your child, or your niece or nephew, scribbles everyday and it’s an incredibly easy, yet very sentimental, gift for a grandparent, parent, aunt or uncle.
  3. Coupons good for personal services: make coupons for your time as a babysitter, dogwalker, chef for a night, garden waterer, etc. A friend of mine offers her babysitting services to all of her friends for their birthdays and it’s the most well-appreciated gift.
  4. Homemade reuseable shopping bags: if you have any old sheets or curtains and a sewing machine, morsbags.com has easy instructions for making reuseable shopping bags (not only are they made from recycled materials, but there’s the added bonus that your gift’s recipient will be encourage to bring their own bag for shopping). If you’re intimidated by sewing, you can make it a group activity and hold a sewing night.
  5. A random creative photography idea: I found this one online and it sounds fun and different. “Grab your camera and look for letters of the alphabet in nature or around your neighborhood: a tree branch shaped like a Y, a letter from a stop sign, etc. Then spell out the names of the people you want to give a gift to and frame it. — Ann, Florida”
  6. Homemade bath soaps: I found the easiest recipe for homemade soap that doesn’t require any harsh chemicals or any ingredients that you can’t find in your kitchen.
  7. And if you don’t have the time, or energy, to make something, plant a tree or give a goat. I was just looking at the Certificate of Rainforest Restoration the NRDC gives to your chosen friend or family member in exchange for your donation for the tree and it’s one of those gifts that would make me feel proud to receive. The same can be said of the gift of a cow, pig or malaria net.