Ah, it's that season again: the crisp smell of snow and smoke from chimneys is in the air, relatives are swarming to households both excited and stressed to see them, turkeys are stuffed with ducks and chickens, and retailers are praying to the consumer gods that their various sales and promotions will help stave off the economic gloom, at least until the new year.
For holidays that are supposed to be about giving thanks for the things we are grateful to have in our lives and sharing gifts with those we love, this time of year can be awfully superficial. For some, the act of gift buying can become almost automatic. We're driven to stress out about getting our hands on the newest hot toy, battling with hordes of other crazed parents to get through the shop doors at midnight. We're told, whether straight-up or subliminally, that our worth as people is only as much as our worth as consumers.
Well, I call bullshit.
Don't get me wrong, I'm all about the holidays. I grew up in a house that took them very seriously, with a mother who festooned every available surface with pine garlands, Santa Claus figures, miniature snow villages, and baked goods a mile high. I have very fond associations with this time of year, but then, that's something to be thankful for in itself.
Not everyone is so fortunate. And that's why, especially at this time of year, I think it's important to really do some personal reevaluation and public outreach. Giving gifts to the people we care about is great fun, but I'd argue that it's even better when those gifts benefit others as well. So in the interest of making it a little easier for everyone to find that special something and support local businesses and/or organizations that really help others, I've put together the Lost Albatross' Way Cool Guide to Better Holiday Shopping.
BUY NOTHING DAY:
Wait, what? I thought we were talking about shopping ideas! Well, it's also important to show the world that we're not just mindless consumers, and a good way of doing that en masse is to join the efforts of Buy Nothing Day. Instead of frantically hitting the sales on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving, and traditionally the biggest shopping day of the year), why not just kick back and relax? Put away the credit cards, stay away from the crowded stores, and make a statement by not busting out your wallet. Don't worry, there's plenty of time for thoughtful shopping later--it's just one day, after all! But it makes a statement.
LOCAL CRAFT FAIRS!
Now I bet I know what you're thinking: craft fairs? Boooring. Not so! Madison is blessed with an abundance of very talented, very inventive crafty types who make everything from really slick screen printed ties to bottle cap jewelry to paper arts, stuffed animals, clothing, and more. So whether you're shopping for mom or your best bud, I'm willing to bet that you'll be able to find something cool at one of these fairs.
I specifically recommend Glitter Workshop's Holiday Craftacular, held this year on Saturday, Dec. 6 from 10AM - 6PM at the Masonic Center (301 Wisconsin Ave.) downtown. I went to their event last year and walked away with some fabulous ties, a few coasters with scenes from Curious George and Where the Wild Things Are on them, and saw a ton of other really cool stuff, too. Basically, you'll see a whole array of local vendors, people who've made all of the unique items on offer. Plus, it's a way less stressful environment than the mall.
Another great opportunity to buy gifts you can feel good about is happening that very same day, from 9AM - 4PM at the Monona Terrace's Exhibition Hall - the Fair Trade Holiday Fest. Here's a good, one-stop-shopping opportunity to support artisans from around the world while making sure they're being paid fairly for their work.
Spend your bucks at locally owned businesses, bolstering the economy the old-fashioned way. Again, Madison doesn't exactly suffer from a lack of them, so you really have no excuse to head to the outskirts of town for the malls and big chain stores.
Check out the upcoming issue of Footlights Magazine for an article I penned about this very subject. I included some specific recomendations, like Anthology (crafty gifts on State St.), Bad Dog Frida (toys for pets and people on Atwood Ave.), the Soap Opera (good smellin' things on State St.), and more. Seriously, just wander up and down streets like State, Williamson/Atwood, and Monroe, and you're garaunteed to bump into some great local places.
You can also give the gift of giving a much-needed gift to complete strangers. This is especially great for people who "have everything" (see: are difficult to shop for) and/or are socially conscious.
Organizations like Heifer International and Kiva are good places to start.
At Heifer, you can purchase various livestock (chickens, rabbits, cows, and even llamas) to be given to various people in need around the globe. The animals help folks to become more self-sufficient, oftentimes provided a long-term means of making money or providing food. So instead of just throwing a few bucks at a short-term bandage, this is helping to provide real, long-lasting change for many families all over the world.
Kiva provides what are called microloans to aspiring small business owners all across the planet. You can give as little as $25 to help someone get their business off the ground in a struggling country, and since these are loans, the idea is that you're eventually paid back. Since it's not a handout, the person on the receiving end can feel good about being more self-reliant and responsible. Plus, you then have the option of putting that paid back money toward yet another microloan (I'm thinking of putting together a loan "team" this Christmas, so check back if you're interested in helping out).
Seriously, the internet is a great resource of finding and researching various local, fair trade, and charitable means of gift giving. It is, I believe, a much better way to celebrate the holidays, more true to their original intent. And in this quickly changing world, it's more important than ever to support those people and businesses that are working hard to do the right thing, to improve life for everyone, and to be responsible stewards of the earth.
There's plenty to worry and get scared about - but it's crucial to maintain a sense of optimism. We all have the capacity for great love and great acts, and we can at least be thankful for that.