Heart to Heart with Adele: What to give for Christmas

Dear Adele, 
Our family has been fortunate to enjoy an excellent standard of living, so Christmas presents us with a pretty sweet problem to have, by most people’s barometer. Our dilemma is that our children seem to have everything they could ever need or want. We have no idea what to get my husband’s teenage daughter from his first marriage, or our own two school-age youngsters whose rooms look like ‘Toys are Us’. I am absolutely stymied about a felicitous gift for my amazing husband as well. Any ideas?

Yours truly, Befuddled


What a fantabulous conundrum you face! You and large numbers of Canadians who enjoy financially comfortable lifestyles are regularly dealing with considerable pressure in our culture to give gifts to those in their network for birthdays, religious rites of passage, showers, graduations, and of course Christmas for those who mark the holiday. But it is often much more difficult than it seems to please those to whom they are expected to provide a gift, with something they actually need, want, and will cherish.

I know of a woman whose children say that they never gave their mother a gift that was just right or that she did not return. A sweater was the wrong colour, a nightie was the wrong size, and a CD was just not her cup of tea. A hand knit scarf was too picky, a photo of the grandchildren was too large for her apartment, and a gift card to an upscale restaurant was too far to go. A drawing by her grandchild was too messy to put on the refrigerator, an invitation to lunch with her adult daughter was on the wrong day and flowers and chocolates were considered a waste of money.

I expect you have been there.

I have often attended adoption parties, Christenings, Britot, birthday parties and Christmas celebrations for families with young children, because of my career as a social worker in the adoption field and because of my status as a loving grandparent. I regularly witnessed children being smothered in gargantuan piles of gifts which they did not need, want or even say thank you for when they were opened. I saw embarrassed mothers virtually begging their progeny to behave graciously and return to the mountainous gift pile to open more presents, when they were tired, bored and wanted to just go and play. Once I saw an only child receive 36 wrapped or bagged significant gifts while the adults in the room received only one or two each.

I expect you have been there, too.

The fact of the matter is that most of us reading this column have too much. Most of our children have too much. When a child or spouse cannot create a list in a hot minute, of items he or she might need, want or enjoy, which falls within the family budget, they obviously have too much.

My answer to this cultural situation is to change the channel, and give gifts that your loved ones will actually treasure, perhaps for a lifetime. You can give gifts that will have long lasting value and be carried with them forever. You can give gifts that cost next to nothing that will be worth more than the ‘Gifts of the Magi’ to your family and will be recalled as one of their all time best gifts ever.

Those gifts are gifts of love, or time or values.

For your husband consider a letter, in your own handwriting, on special writing paper. Create a love letter to him that covers memories you share with him, such as the first time you met and your feelings you had about him, the time you shared your first kiss and your feelings about that tender moment and the second you knew you loved him and your feelings at that magical instant. Go on with your recollection of the way he proposed, the reactions you both had when you found out you were expecting your first little one and the amazing shared experiences of the birth of your children. Talk about the things you admired in him long ago and how he has evolved into the best husband and father you could ever have hoped for. Write about how he is the one and only man you want to grow old with and tell him how much you appreciate his contribution to the happiness in your life. Finish it off with a message of love, and sign it.

Then roll it up and tie it with a pretty Christmas ribbon, put it in a box with some glittery tissue paper and a couple of photos of you, one from long ago and one that is current for his wallet. Wrap up the box and put his name on it, with love from you, his wife.

Now that will be a unique one of a kind gift that any man who loves his wife would die for and I think would treasure and remember for many years to come.

For the teenage daughter of your husband who has everything, consider giving her a bunch of cheques in whatever denomination suits your family budget. The only catch to the cheques is that they are not made out to her. She will get to peruse a list of charities your family supports and the teenager can choose which charity gets donations in her name. The cheques can be put in a decorated shoebox with Christmas paper, envelopes, stamps and charity information so she can get those donations off to people much less fortunate than herself. A Christmas card with a loving message and instructions can be included.

Now that is a unique gift of values that your teenager will remember and hopefully carry forward with her into her life building her character and understanding that the real message of Christmas is giving to others and sharing with those less fortunate.

Another idea for the teenager, which will work for your younger children too is the gift of ‘time’. Modern family life is often very, very busy with households trying to run two high powered adult careers, assorted and demanding activity schedules for children, and frazzled parents trying to keep it all together under quite stressful conditions, characterized with little free time for anyone.

Consider giving your children personally prepared ‘Gift Cards’. Use your children’s art supplies and index cards perhaps. Create ‘Time’ cards for your children which can be cashed in for things like breakfast dates with dad alone, ski dates with mom alone, or a bake fest with either parent or step parent. Other ideas for these cards could promise a Saturday hike, a fishing weekend, or an excursion to Montreal on the train. Create your own ‘Time’ cards with quality alone time for your children, which rarely or never happens in a lot of families. The possibilities are endless.

Now this is a unique quality gift that your children will cherish in their memory banks when you are long gone. They will recall those quality times when you gave of yourself meaningful time just for them. They will remember those occasions and recall your heart to heart chats, your honest exchanges about real life and the way you listened to them and asked them about their dreams.

If you absolutely feel you must purchase something I recommend items which expand the heart, soul and mind for all your loved ones. Inspirational Biographical books or films about stellar people who have accomplished momentous things are my favourite. How about a book about the history of the Women’s Movement or one about Canada’s first female physician, Emily Howard Stowe for your teenager? How about a biography of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela or Louis David Riel for your husband? How about a children’s biography about Terry Fox, Greta Thunberg or 13-year-old water activist Autumn Peltier? Wrap up these kinds of gifts with a sweet or two and you are golden.

I hope I have been helpful to you in solving your Christmas perplexity. Our culture has become pretty materialistic and I am not sure it has helped us create better people or better families. In my experience, money is not the critical variable in a strong loving family. Love, time, good values and knowing how to express warm and complex feelings are at the foundation of healthy parenting and great families.

Money is not at the crux of a memorable Christmas either. Try the gifts of love, time and good values this year, and see what you think. I suspect you will rather like changing the emphasis from things to feelings, shared experiences, ideas and values going forward.

Whatever choices you decide to make about gifts for your loved ones, I wish you and your family the best of the season and a very ‘Merry Christmas’ indeed!

I'm looking forward to your questions! Email me at maryadeleblair@gmail.com and please put Heart to Heart in the subject line. Note that all columns will remain anonymous.