Discover more from Holly’s Substack
Inaugurating the Season of Hope
plus, how to do a great job choosing presents
This issue has quite a few pictures. If your email client has trouble with it, you can read it at the Substack website.
This edition is an edited and expanded version of my 2022 gift-choosing guide.
We All Need Some Christmas Right Now
Yes, I know it’s very early in November.
My official excuse for sending this now is that the earlier you start shopping, the farther your budget will stretch — which has the virtue of being entirely true.
My real reason?
I’m not sure I’ve ever looked forward to Christmas more than this year.
Christmas is the season of taking a minute to smile at creativity and beauty that’s very real, tangible, and present, things like kids making snowmen.Things that are not mediated through screens.
Christmas is the season of so many things I love.
I love gift-giving, thinking about the people who matter to me and imagining what they would love but never buy for themselves.
I love the music, the colors, the decorations.
I love the sense of not being alone when I’m driving home in a snowstorm and I see houses with Christmas lights shining.
More than anything, I appreciate the hope.
Even though I know there’s no savior coming, now or ever, and it’s up to each of us to save ourselves and each other, the hope is still nourishing. Edifying. Encouraging, in the literal sense: providing courage.
By the way, my Christmas decorations are (in my humble opinion) really excellent. Look for my decorating ideas and philosophy, pictures, and video in a future creative writing edition (an exclusive perk of paid subs).
Gifts As An Expression of Love
You may have heard of the self-help paradigm called “The 5 Languages of Love.” They have an online test and a variety of books on the topic. It posits that most people have one or two ways that they feel loved most directly and effectively. The languages are Physical Touch, Acts of Service, Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, and Receiving Gifts.
This paradigm has a lot of explanatory power. We’ve all known couples, or seen other relationships, for whom a mismatch of this paradigm explains a lot.
He thinks he’s a wonderful husband because he goes all out for her birthday, Christmas, and their anniversary, with random flowers-for-no-reason throughout the year, when what she desperately wants is more help with the housework or kids. (Receiving Gifts vs Acts of Service.)
She tells him she loves him by keeping a pristine house, making his lunch, and packing his bag for golf Saturdays, when he’d vastly prefer to hear compliments or just hang out with her a little more often. (Acts of Service vs Words of Affirmation or Quality Time.)
Susan thinks she’s a great roommate because she picks up after herself religiously and is always available to give rides; her roommate Allison thinks that Susan is cold and unfriendly because she doesn’t share meals or join movie nights. (Acts of Service vs Quality Time.)
In my opinion, the 5 love languages is more helpful and accurate than many self-help paradigms. For most of the people I know well, I think I can identify what makes them feel loved most effectively. And it certainly applies in my case—Physical Touch is my love language, but Words of Affirmation are a close second. For someone who lives alone, hugs are a rare treat, but I can practically live on one for a week. And my memories of people I love and respect saying, “I’m proud of you” are etched into my soul.
If anyone important to you has Receiving Gifts as a love language, or if you are in a situation similar to mine and most of the people you love live far away, shopping for gifts can be an important exercise in strengthening bonds—an “I love you and you matter to me” from a distance, brought to them by the United States Postal Service.
How to Do A Great Job Choosing Gifts
I got pretty good at choosing gifts through a series of events I’ll write about someday, so here are some tips.
Low Budget Ideas
BOX OF GRATITUDE: get a shoebox-sized box, or slightly bigger if you can find a nice one with a lid. The Walmart art supplies aisle usually has these for a few dollars. Decorate it if you wish, with stickers or just by writing the person’s name in a colored marker. Choose a few small, inexpensive items that represent a quality in the person that you admire. For example, if you appreciate that your father is handy and can fix anything, a roll of Duck Tape or a tape measure might work. Perhaps your little brother has always had an affinity for ducks, or your best friend has mentioned wistfully that she wanted to be an astronaut when she was a girl. A small duck or rocketship come to mind there. Your local art supply/craft store will have a section devoted to miniatures, which is a great place to find these things for very little money. A few of these items, with a handwritten letter explaining their significance, is a beautiful and significant gift. Depending on the items chosen, this one can be done for under $10 — possibly zero dollars, if you already own a box and small items that will represent what you appreciate about the recipient.
CALENDARS: there are page-a-day desk calendars and wall calendars on almost every topic and for almost every television show, movie franchise, and theme imaginable (animals, comic strips, lighthouses, religious themes, quotes, books, music…). These are typically under $20 and are really nice gifts if you choose the topic well, since the recipient will enjoy something that they’re interested in and care about every single day in the new year. Bookstores generally stock these during December in great abundance.
COUPON BOOK: this is ideal for someone whose love language is Quality Time, but also good for anyone whose company you genuinely enjoy. You can download coupon templates by doing a google image search, or make them yourself out of index cards or cardstock from the art supply store. Decorate with stickers or not at all. Make a few coupons for things the recipient will enjoy or appreciate. 3 hours of babysitting for a single parent friend, going out to dinner for almost anyone, or a random favor for a friend who you know struggles to ask for needed help. If the recipient has ever wished they knew something you know, a coupon for a lesson is a great idea. A coupon for a drawing lesson that I gave someone for Christmas in 2016 turned into a lovely friendship that lasted most of college.
PLAYLIST: this one only requires time. Make a private YouTube playlist on a topic of interest to the recipient. The commercials of a shared childhood are likely on YouTube, along with music, lectures on topics of interest, historical news segments on events with which you have a shared memory.
Thinking Correctly, and Stretching A Budget
The most important part of choosing a gift is choosing something that the person will love for its own sake, but that also shows that they matter to you—you noticed their love, affinity, or interest in the subject of the gift, or you noticed that they need something that perhaps they might struggle to give themselves.
The closer to December 25, the more expensive gift items get, so starting early is a good idea. Save on shipping costs by buying multiple items from one seller.
For example, here’s an Etsy shop that makes personalized mugs. You can put their name and then write about the person, in a dictionary definition style. Nearly everyone in my life is getting one this year. My friend Jim is so busy that he only reads my Substack if I send him a specific issue and ask him to, so there’s no risk of spoiling a surprise by showing you the proof for his:
I had so much fun writing the definitions for everyone who matters to me, and I got a nice discount by placing an order for multiple items, along with free shipping.
One of the best gifts I ever received was a stuffed dragon. It took me a long time to get over my ego enough to buy myself the teddy bear I always wanted when I was a kid, and I probably wouldn’t have ever done it if I hadn’t been given Sparkle first.
Speaking of bears, and stuffed animals more generally, the Build-a-Bear company has all kinds of accessories for stuffed animals. If you might buy a stuffed animal for someone in your life and they use a wheelchair, an insulin pump, hearing aids, or other medical assistance devices, you can get them an animal like them. Here’s my teddy bear, Liam, who uses hearing aids.
Shopping online makes it easier than ever to find really good gifts in any niche you can imagine. Go to Etsy, Zazzle, or Amazon and put random words together, and you’ll be amazed at what will turn up.
I’ve found mathematical and Star Trek Christmas tree ornaments, Golden Girls kitchen utensils, and LEGO sets on almost every conceivable theme.
Print-on-demand services are everywhere now, and you can find something perfect for almost any niche—if you know to look. For example, I love mathematics and decorating for holidays. I found some amazing hoodies with Halloween math jokes and Christmas math jokes on Amazon just by searching “Halloween math hoodie” and “Christmas math hoodie.”
Etsy and other sites sell more than crafts—they are sites where many small businesses operate on a variety of themes, including hard-to-find autographs and custom-made items. You can have a photo of a child or pet turned into an ornament, t-shirt, or calendar. Many sites allow you to upload your smartphone pics and turn them into amazing gifts with ease, including Mpix, with which I have personally had only good experiences.
Is your Star Trek nerd brother a good cook who doesn’t do it very often? Etsy has the perfect thing for him.
A friend introduced me to the show “Breaking Bad” last year, which is flatly amazing. I found a signed copy of the pilot, from a reputable autograph dealer, for under $25, because I bought it early—in September. In December similar items were over $200, but already wrapped and under my tree. (He loved it.)
Check out a friend’s bookshelf and if you see any author more than once, you can probably get an autographed copy a lot cheaper than you think—often from the author him/herself, by asking on social media.
If Someone Truly Has Everything
If someone truly has everything, then a donation in their name, to a cause related to something they care about, can be a meaningful gift.
Are you lucky enough to have an anti-woke friend? Donate in their name to fighting against government censorship of people who don’t subscribe to gender ideology. This fundraiser benefits the fight to keep the Burlington, Vermont government from selective prosecution of the brave men who are telling the truth about gender ideology by putting up stickers (a Burlington tradition) and you can read more about it here.
Is your stoic grandpa a military veteran? There are many scholarship-providing charities for the children of fallen soldiers.
Does your prickly mother-in-law always complain about how ugly modern architecture is? A gift to an historical preservation society in her name might signal respect for her views and make it harder for her to complain on Christmas morning.
Interlude: Hope (and probably tears)
There used to be a world where I didn’t fear for the safety of my Jewish friends because they’re Jews.
There used to be a world where the possibility of the government compelling me to say things, to take an experimental medical intervention, or locking down the businesses I patronize, was not something that ever crossed my mind as a possibility.
There used to be a very different world.
I have not forgotten.
About Me and My Substack: I’m a data scientist whose great love is mathematics, but I also enjoy writing. My posts are mostly cultural takes from a broadly anti-Woke perspective—yes, I’m one of those annoying classical liberals who would’ve been considered on the left until ten seconds ago. Lately I’ve regained a childhood love of reading and started publishing book reviews. My most widely useful essay may be this one, about how to resist the demon of self-termination.
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