People celebrating the holiday season are well into the shopping scramble that will grow increasingly intense as we approach Dec. 25.
My email inbox is overflowing with offers of one-time-only, VIP-member, early-bird-special sale-of-a-lifetime opportunities. The TV ads are just as bad, with every station flooded with marketing ploys guaranteeing the best season ever if you purchase their products.
Why do consumers fall into this yearly trap, where retailers pit us against each other with their limited quantities of the season's hottest items? It stresses people to the max, leaving them in need of a personal holiday long after the Christmas season has ended.
And let's not forget about the staggering credit card bill that will arrive at the end of the month. Is there a way to avoid all the stress that comes with the holidays? Is it possible to have a relaxing Christmas?
In the course of writing this article, I reflected upon past Christmases and the memories that made them so special. At first I remembered my childhood delight at seeing the presents piled high around the tree. I recalled the eager anticipation to get past the dinner with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, so we could start the gift exchange.
Now that I'm older I still have that childhood delight in exchanging gifts with family, but my memories of holidays past never include what items each person received.
Rather than the gifts, my favorite memories are of the traditions my family followed every year. I remember the specific foods we had with the meal, the special candy and cookie tray made by Great Aunt Alice, and the games we played after the gift exchange. I remember the excitement about eating Grandma's special homemade coffee cake on Christmas morning, and driving through town on Christmas Eve night to look at the holiday lights.
It's the traditions that make Christmas special, not the money spent preparing for it.
And it's the traditions, not the expensive gifts, that are highlighted in Mary Hunt's latest book, "Debt-Proof Your Christmas: Celebrating the Holidays without Breaking the Bank."
Hunt emphasizes the importance of centering holiday planning on family values: Identify what it is that your family values about the holiday season, and plan your shopping, parties, activities, etc., around them.
If your family values giving more expensive presents to each other, start budgeting early. Join a Christmas Club at your bank, open a savings account and set aside a designated amount each month, or store cash in envelopes for each person on your gift list to make sure you stay within budget.
Short on cash, but still want to give meaningful presents? Get creative! Create themed presents based on the recipient's interests, make a donation or volunteer your time to their favorite cause. Hunt offers an impressive list of gift-giving suggestions to suit everyone on your list this year.
Her book is divided into useful chapters that can be read as a whole, or consulted as a quick reference for gifting ideas. "Finding the Bargains" offers the low-down on return policies, gift cards, and outlet stores, as well as providing a useful list of websites broken down by category where shoppers can find the best deals.
"Gifts from the Kitchen" offers delicious recipes for baking and sharing at the holidays, while "Gifts in a Jar" offers instructions for cookie mixes, spice blends, dip mix, and soup, as well as non-edible gifts like bath salts, play dough, and, my personal favorite, Spring in a Jar.
"More Gift Ideas" breaks gift ideas into age categories, suggesting gifts for young children, older kids, teenagers, college students, adults, and senior citizens. The chapter even suggests gifts for specific enthusiasts, so you know what to get for your favorite nature, cooking or sports enthusiast.
The overall message I gained from the book is really quite simple. It's the thought behind the gift, not the price tag, which makes it so special.
I love asking other people about their holiday traditions, because every family has a unique tradition, a unique memory that makes Christmas special to them. And most of the time, those traditions are things that don't break the bank.
So as you plan for Christmas this year, in the midst of holiday ads, shopping sprees and party planning, keep one question in mind: What makes Christmas special for you?
Amber Castens is an adult and teen services librarian at the Urbana Free Library, where she also is the technology volunteer program coordinator.