Creative, meaningful (and last minute!) Christmas gift-giving

This story appears in the Christmas 2015 feature series. View the full series.

by Jennifer Mertens

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I've made a list and checked it twice. One week before Christmas, I'm stuck on a few names for whom the perfect gift feels impossible to find.

Yes, I wish holiday gift-giving wasn't reduced to a last-minute scramble. The people on my list don't want more stuff that accumulates dust. And we all prefer to avoid shopping mall traffic and the consumerism of a holiday that's already being marketed at Halloween.

Still, it's fun to express love for family and friends in creative, personal ways. In word and deed, the Christmas season invites us to communicate care for one another -- once, of course, we can figure out what it's going to be!

I'm not the only one with a couple names left on my list. So, after brainstorming and an informal survey of family and friends, I've compiled a few gift-giving possibilities to consider before Christmas. The ideas we generated have less to do with brand names or current fads, but instead focus on ways to offer our time and presence to others.

Maybe one of the following ideas will spark your own creativity. Feel free to add to this list in the comment section below!

1. Purchase a class, workshop or other shared activity. Is your loved one passionate about a particular skill, activity or hobby? Explore your local community for classes or workshops exploring a whole range of interests. Pottery-making, astronomy, cooking, or photography: Consider their current interests, or even try out a new activity together. Who knows, maybe you'll discover a new life passion. Spelunking anyone?

2. Design project coupons. What task, house project or chore has been looming on your loved one's to-do list? Consider gifting your time on a project -- one they've been talking about, but haven't gotten the chance to complete. You might offer a coupon to paint a room, deep clean the basement carpet, or install a storm door. Maybe it's a regular chore: mowing grass, dog-walking or certain errands. Whatever it is, invest your time in an activity that would be helpful to check off from your loved one's schedule.

3. Donate to a charitable organization. Support a meaningful cause in honor of a loved one. Perhaps it's a social issue about which they feel passionate, or a charity that holds unique significance in their personal life. Whatever it is, dedicate your treasure, time or other resources to a specific cause. Need an idea? Check out Heifer International. Your purchase of an animal (llama, goats, even honeybees!) serves to provide a sustainable source of income for a family in poverty.

4. Create a do-it-yourself dining experience. Does your friend always crave that one fabulous meal? Is there a special family recipe you'd love to share? Consider gifting all the ingredients (and detailed instructions!) to a favorite dish or meal -- and maybe even plan a date for enjoying the recipe together. Feeling adventurous? Explore the delicious possibilities of concocting a new kind of international food as well!

5. Express yourself. Yes I know, I'm partial to writing. But I've heard the wisdom a lot: Don't wait to share your gratitude with others. A letter, a poem or a blessing: Whatever it is, take the chance to articulate your love and appreciation for someone else. Growing up, my family shared letters with one another at Christmas. Now, our binders of writings have already become treasured keepsakes -- a constant reminder not to let love go unspoken!

6. Get local. Find an alternative gift fair, fair trade store or community market. More than likely, you'll find unique, one-of-a-kind gifts that can also serve to celebrate and support local artisans. You might even check out local networks for community supported agriculture and inquire as to whether they offer at-home produce deliveries.

7. Green gifts. In what ways can you respond to Pope Francis' call to protect the environment during this holiday season? There are countless possibilities, from creating your own cloth gift-wrapping, buying organic products, or even offering to take on the challenge of starting a compost bin. Does your loved one have a green thumb for plant projects? Consider supporting North America's threatened monarch population with an order of butterfly milkweed seeds. Not sure they'd be up for this project? If so, it can't be hard to keep a cactus alive!

8. Create a scavenger hunt. Want some adventure this holiday season? Send a loved one searching for their gift -- around a home, or even your city! Maybe you choose a theme (favorite date spots in town), or include small puzzles to decipher at each location. Whatever it is, don't forget the process of finding a gift can be part of the fun too!

9. Quality time at a favorite spot. Does this person enjoy a certain restaurant, park, or theatre, but always get out-voted by the rest of the family? Take some time to intentionally visit their place together. Create a coupon to describe your outing -- whether it's an airplane museum or local diner, enjoying these spaces together is an important way to communicate our care for another.

10. Gift an NCR subscription. How could I not include this? If your friend or loved one would appreciate quality, independent journalism on Catholic news and social events, you've come to the right spot. A subscription to the National Catholic Reporter can expand another's worldview and generate great topics for conversation. Rest assured that your support offers an invaluable contribution to our Catholic community.

Christmas is coming and I'm off to finish up my Christmas list. If any of these ideas stirred up some gift-giving possibilities of your own, please add your ideas in the comment section below.

May you have a blessed Christmas season and joy-filled New Year!

[Jennifer Mertens teaches religion at a Catholic high school in Cincinnati. She holds a Master's of Divinity degree from the Catholic Theological Union.]

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