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Commentary: Find holidays behind the commerce

Let's be real: there's not a person in America who hasn't given a thought to what our holidays have become. For some of us, it hits as the holiday buying season arrives earlier and earlier every year.

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Let's be real: there's not a person in America who hasn't given a thought to what our holidays have become. For some of us, it hits as the holiday buying season arrives earlier and earlier every year.
For some, it hits about the week before, as we realize we have dozens of gifts yet to buy, or, as we're in the midst of that shopping, thinking how much we're spending, how little we can afford or how much pressure we feel to give the right gift.
For some, it's the post-celebration headache from children asking when it's present time and the cleanup of the resulting rubble. It's the empty feeling of seeing the holiday come and go without it feeling like a holiday at all -- just a burden on our credit, our patience and our to-do lists.
I'm not going to tell you not to buy gifts this year, although a book by Bill McKibben, called "The Hundred Dollar Holiday," made a bit of a stir a few years ago making a similar case.
The reality is, your kids probably wouldn't like that, and neither would a few businesses -- including maybe your employer. Things have gotten so out of hand that holiday shopping accounts for a major part of our economy. If that's going to change, it would be better on everyone if it happened gradually.
But it's possible to de-emphasize the commercial aspects of the holiday and make it more about joy and love without making the kiddies cry or provoking a recession.
Following are several holiday ideas that cost little or nothing.
Service
It may be that time is our most precious commodity. You can give it in many ways.
"You can get yourself in the Christmas spirit by ringing the bell at the Salvation Army," suggests Budgeteer general manager Jeff Swor.
He's got a point. Volunteering, whether for the Salvation Army, for charity food services or in any of the dozens of other places in the Northland where people help each other out, can be a truly rewarding experience.
Time and service also make great gifts. Budgeteer publisher Tom West suggests a gift certificate for a neighbor promising a winter's worth of shoveled sidewalks.
Back rubs and massages are popular service gifts, and some Budgeteer employees recall parental gifts like free oil changes as particularly meaningful.
Service shouldn't always have to be an overt gift, either: taking on additional chores around the house, especially during the busy holiday season that puts such a heavy load on cooks, cleaners and decorators, is a wonderful holiday gesture.
Make it up
Another popular way to make holidays special without spending a ton of money is to make gifts. These range from homemade food to creative expressions of the heart.
Budgeteer graphic artist Patti Kremer describes a gift she made once: fill a jar with 101 strips of paper describing something you like about the gift's recipient.
"And then whether they feel low or they just want a pick-me-up, they can just reach in and read one," she said.
Writer Sandi Dahl describes a similarly thoughtful gift she received from a friend: a homemade poetry anthology including all the poems that meant a lot to the creator. This gift-giver then followed up to see which ones touched those who had received this anthology, matching poems of his heart to those of others.
"To me, it was a really intimate gift," Dahl said.
These made-up gifts come in almost infinite variety. Budgeteer business writer Sharon Almirall said her kids sometimes make tapes for people with favorite songs, and notes that a CD burner could accomplish the same thing.
Sometimes, the traditional food is still a special gift -- think about bachelors and bachelorettes in your life.
Tradition ... tradition!
Tradition can infuse your holiday in many ways. One place to start is worship -- whatever your religion, whether you're "churched" or not, religious experiences can focus on the meaning of the peace and love of the holidays. It's a good way to set the tone, whether you have a quiet family meditation or all head off to a candlelight service.
Family gatherings are another prime candidate for making the holidays special. Re-examine holiday meals for special things that can be done. Plan events like bonfires and roasted marshmallows.
Or maybe cross country skiing, a snowshoeing trip or a winter walk will put a glow on cheeks and incite a delicious craving for hot chocolate, all while burning off a few of those calories.
You can even spread the spirit by taking the whole family out caroling, an old-time tradition in desperate need of revival.
Whatever you plan to spend on gifts this year, don't forget to make the holiday peaceful and pleasant for everyone. And don't forget that doing so doesn't have to cost much, or even anything at all.
Kyle Eller is news editor at the Budgeteer News. Contact him at kyle.eller@duluth.com or at 723-1207.

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