Day 4: Ditch the mall

When it comes to buying presents, I find that one of the most stressful and least pleasurable aspects of Christmas is a visit to the mall. The crowds, the artificial environment, the generic commercialism of everything for sale in that mall being the same as everything for sale at every other shopping mall in the country, the traffic getting there in the first place...  

In my quest for a calmer Christmas, I have vowed not to enter a shopping mall this year. I already ditched the whole "kids on Santa's knee" photo in Day 1, now I'm going to explore some shopping alternatives. Here are some of my ideas to take Christmas shopping at a slower, more thoughtful, pace. 

1. Shop local 

Avoid the malls and support your local tradespeople instead. They might not have all the shiny things, but you might find something super thoughtful. A book for holiday reading instead of a doughnut maker. A wooden flower-press instead of soap-on-a-rope. Buy a basket and fill it with hand-selected deli goodies. Pot some succulents from the local nursery. Find something unique at a charity or thrift shop. I also really like the idea that this supports independent shopkeepers and families, rather than corporations and shareholders. 

2. Visit markets

Do a Google search for markets being hosted in your area, or look for notifications at your local community centre or public library. Buy something unique and handmade from a local maker. Basket up some fresh produce from a farmer. Uncover something quirky or historic at a car-boot or trash & treasure market. I also really love online marketplaces like Etsy and Tictail for similar finds. In most cases, it's probably too late to order something in time for Christmas this year, but bear them in mind for next year.

3. Charitable donations

I'm not just talking about those Oxfam style "buy a goat" gift catalogues (although those are great). Find a charity that is doing good in a field that matters to the person you want to give to, and make a donation in their name. It's as simple as that! (For most charities, you can phone in a donation, mail a cheque, or donate online. Many will also let you direct where your money goes, so you can choose a specific project or use that you believe will matter the most to your friend.) Don't worry if the charity doesn't have a whole catalogue set-up in place: just ensure they are a legitimate organisation, then make the donation. Write a little card for your friend to tell them what you have done. (Bonus points if you hand-make the card in the theme of the charitable gift). 

4. Experiences, not things

Experiences can be wonderful, memorable gifts, and your friend will thank you for both the thoughtfulness and the fact that you have not contributed to clutter in their homes! For example, you could make a gift of online courses, e-books, adventure experiences, petrol vouchers, restaurant vouchers, workshops and classes, theatre tickets, and tutoring and lessons. Most experience-gifts can be purchased over the phone or online, so you will be buying something quite personal, with not a mall in sight. 

5. Heartfelt letters

This is something I think I will try this year. You know those friends or family members for whom you struggle, every year, to buy something good? You care about them, you want to give them something special, but they have all they need and any gift you think of just seems... token? Me too. This year, I was thinking I might try writing them a truly heartfelt letter. To hand or post it to them on Christmas, saying, "I didn't know what to buy you so I decided to write you something instead." I think these letters have the potential to become keepsakes! Here are some tips in case you want to try this too: 

  • Tell them something you particularly love or appreciate about them
  • Then another, and then another
  • Retell a story about them that is a genuinely fond memory 
  • In your letter, resist the urge to include hidden morals or half-hearted compliments. Don't say "I love you even when you do X bad thing," just say "I love you." Don't say "It doesn't matter how crazy people say you are, I think you are smart," just say "I think you are smart." Even if the caveats are true (they probably are - nobody is perfect!), leave them out of this letter. Just say the truthful, positive things about them, so they'll always have your precious words to read and re-read


6. DIY gifts

What are you good at doing? Could you turn it into a thoughtful little gift? This week I was chatting via email with a lovely lady, Anne Hannah, who is on this "calm Christmas" journey with us. I asked her about the handmade gifts she had created over the years, and her answer was so inspiring that I thought I'd share it here (with Anne's permission), in the hopes that it would spark some ideas for you, too: 

  • Embroidery (Anne once "borrowed" a blue denim shirt, embroidered a sailboat and ocean waves on the back, and returned it at Christmas to a friend who loved sailing. Another time, she embroidered an old-fashioned record player with the big trumpet on it, and music notes coming out of it, onto a pillowcase for a musician friend. Nearly 50 years later, the friend still has it!)
  • A mobile for a child ("I made a mobile of sea creatures out of felt for a new baby,” Anne told me)
  • Quilting (Anne made pillows) 
  • Sewing and crocheting (Anne made baby blankets)
  • Knitted items like scarves and hats
  • Batik - Anne batiked canvas and made a hammok 
  • Netting - she learned fisherman’s net weave, and wove a hammock to give to friends in the country
  • Cookies (says Anne, "One very broke year I made sugar cookies, each one hand-formed and representing the passions of each of many friends. They each got one cookie for Christmas, and loved it: a guitar, a dog, a boat, a Christmas tree, a truck…")
  • Gift certificates for a back or foot massage, a home-cooked meal, or for tasks to be done
  • Hand-made bath salts 
  • Hand-made herbal ointments 
  • Greeting cards ("I have often given gifts of four or five handmade greeting cards. I make folk-art paintings, often mixed media, and give them away”)
  • Painted wooden plaques, customised with words, pictures or quotes, to people’s interests 
  • Hand-stitched journals 
  • Written and personalised little personalised books, telling part of the person’s story 
  • Strings of banners and bunting 
  • Gift tags 
  • Painted envelopes 
  • Painted note-paper
  • Fimo brooches (Anne made cobs of corn, a quarter of a watermelon, lobsters, mermaids) and earrings (including tiny pods with peas in them, and tiny slices of watermelon)
  • Jam 
  • Granola 
  • Wine made at a u-brew (a u-brew is a micro-brewery where customers can participate in the brewing process - like home-brew but without the hassle and equipment) 
  • Ginger ale 
  • Fudge 
  • Cakes and muffins 
  • Bread, often sculpted into something relevant to the recipient (once, Anne made little breast-shaped buns, complete with nipples, for a friend undergoing breast surgery) 

Can I please have a round of applause for Anne, who must surely be the reigning monarch of creative, handmade gifts!

I hope the ideas in this email have inspired you to make, thrift, hunt or donate gifts that are truly thoughtful, often unique, and completely free from artificial lights and shopping malls. As always, I'd love to hear how you are going, and to learn your tips and ideas.  Simply write to me directly at

See you tomorrow!