- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 20, 2003

This isn’t Toys R Us. It’s hardly Bloomingdale’s. What is for sale is a bit more esoteric than Lincoln Logs or a cashmere sweater. At the Takoma Park Alternative Gift Fair, one of several held around the area this holiday season, $10 will buy you a uniform for a girl at school in Kabul or a hammer for Habitat for Humanity volunteers to help build a home. Thirty dollars will buy a month of nutritious meals for 20 Guatemalan schoolchildren. Closer to home, $5 will purchase a grocery ticket for a woman at My Sister’s Place shelter in the District.

Laura Collins of Takoma Park was shopping at the fair two weeks ago. She says she has purchased items in family members’ names the past three years. As the pastor of Takoma Park Presbyterian Church, she says it is good “to remind folks while we are putting up the tree, there are people who can’t meet their basic needs.”

“I try to balance out my gift-giving,” Ms. Collins says. “I’ll still go to the bookstore. I still went to the toy store. I did all alternative gifts one year, but the little ones didn’t understand.”

Alternative gift fairs are picking up in popularity around the country, says Betsy Taylor, president of the nonprofit Center for a New American Dream. Ms. Taylor’s group sponsored the recent Takoma Park gathering, as well as about two dozen other fairs around the country.

Patrons donate money on behalf of friends and relatives, then pick up a handwritten card they can tuck in a stocking to notify the person of the alternative gift.

“There are so many of us who don’t need anything,” Ms. Taylor says. “In fact, many of us are trying to get rid of stuff. Every year, my friend buys a solar cooker for families in Kenya in my name. I love the feeling of doing that.”

There are alternatives to commercial gifts that can be found at home, too. They won’t be donations to charities, but they will be thoughtful ways to acknowledge loved ones without spending money.

“Grandparents can dig out a book and read it into a tape recorder,” says Bill McKibben, author of the book “Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas.” “You can send the tape to the grandkids, and it can be part of the bedtime ritual. Parents can go into their jewelry box, pick a piece of jewelry, such as a bracelet you wore to your prom. Wrap it up and include a long letter about who you were then and who you are now. I guarantee it will be appreciated.”

Ms. Taylor likes the idea of a family gift exchange. Members draw one name from a hat, which cuts down on the number of gifts to buy. That saves stress and money, she says.

“The person then has time and more money to choose a thoughtful gift,” she says.

Virginia Brucker, a Canadian schoolteacher and author of the book “Gifts From the Heart: 450 Simple Ways to Make Your Family’s Christmas More Meaningful,” says many of the best things about the holiday season are simple. Some of her suggestions:

• Keep a copy of your children’s letters to Santa. Put them in an album to present to the youngsters when they are older.

• Give gifts as a family rather than individually. Think about giving an event — such as movie tickets or aquarium passes — rather than an item. “One of the best presents I ever had was an afternoon with my grandmother watching Mary Martin as Peter Pan,” Mrs. Brucker says.

• Have potluck dinners when entertaining in December. Focus on making friends and family feel welcome and having fun together.

• Set reasonable expectations for gifts. Three is a good number — one small, one medium and one large — as a guideline.

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