Presents Without Pricetags

[Thomas Moore, "Presents without price tags" Charlotte Observer (12/09/03): 15A]

I was in grad school, earning a meager living as a speaker and paying for my sister’s undergraduate education. Along with all that, I volunteered regularly for a local nonprofit group. The group’s founder was aware of how little money I had and how many hours I’d donated to his community organization. For the holidays, he gave me a box of peppermints. Years later, that gift still stings. I didn’t want him to hand me a check (though to be honest, I could have used it). But though he remembered me, his gift was so impersonal. It didn’t reflect the time, caring and devotion I’d given.

We all dwell on presents in December, with our mental lists of what we’ll buy and what we hope to get. But think back over the years. Which gifts do you truly remember? Like any child, I enjoyed new toys. They typically lasted just a few months, though. The gifts I still have are the times I spent with my parents. Loving time with them is what I really wanted. My father often led our family in prayer before each meal. On Christmas morning, it was always a special prayer. The whole family, six children and parents, would gather and go to our knees. Those moments felt very cozy. As children, my brothers, sister and I were excited about Christmas because it celebrated a poor family like us. We could relate to Joseph and Mary being locked out from the inn. After prayers, my parents offered fruits and nuts along with candy, watching out for our well-being. Later we would share our favorite Christmas songs.

Your children, parents, cousins, aunts and uncles, friends -- what will they gather and take into their hearts this holiday? As we rush from mall to mall in search of the best, let me offer a few suggestions for presents you won’t find with a price tag. In my own religious tradition, we celebrate the miracle of God sending us a baby. Not a full-grown adult. Why a baby? Maybe God wants us to value beginnings. When we give to children, let us provide presents that recognize the awesome nature of infancy and youth. Give gifts -- your time and friendship, books, music, toys and games -- that encourage and support children, versus those that attempt to rush the child toward adulthood. Consider how many material gifts a child might require. I’ve been in homes where the children have so many toys, it’s clear they can’t play with them all. Why not plan a trip to a skating rink, read books together, or create other adventures instead? In the mad dash, take time to think about what you need. Some people only give to themselves, but the gifts are never sufficient. That’s because they concentrate on stuff. What do you really need?

As a gift to myself this season, I’ve decided to slow down. I’ve giving the gift of reflection. When you tend to your family and friends, give to your community, too. This year, I’ve continued to serve on the board of House of Mercy, a residential AIDS facility in Belmont. And as a volunteer, I’ll sing in CPCC’s production of "The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree" later this month, as well as singing for Good Friends. If you don’t have to have a lot of time or a unique talent to give, consider a contribution to an organization you care about. I support The Bethlehem Center, which offers a variety of programs for low-income families, and the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Central and Western North Carolina, which helps children like Hope Stout, a 12-year-old with cancer. Consider making contributions in honor or memory of loved ones, or as part of your gifts to teens. Look for a place where you and your family might volunteer a couple hours a month. Giving even a few hours of your time can be remarkably fulfilling. Charlotte’s Temple Beth El, for example, organizes "Mitzvah Day" every spring, matching volunteers from this Jewish congregation with one-day projects throughout the region. Kwanzaa, the African American celebration, encourages creativity as one of its principles, defining that as doing as much as we can, in the way we can, to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than when we inherited it.

In December, we tend to give to people who already have a lot. Broaden that this year to give to those who have little. I’ll close with gratitude. Thanks to The Observer for the gift of this space over the last 12 months, and to you for your time -- the best gift of all.

Thomas Moore, Ph.D is a keynote speaker, workshop leader, early childhood consultant, and children’s recording artist. He is author of Gryphon House award-winning teacher resource books "Where is Thumbkin?" and "Do You Know the Muffin Man?". He is contributing author of Wright Group/McGraw-Hill’s curriculum, DLM Early Childhood Express and author of their literacy series "Music, Movement and More". He has also produced ten recordings for children.