Dear Amy:

The ongoing conversation about creative gift-giving for the holidays has prompted me to share an utterly delightful approach to the traditional "white elephant" gift exchange.

Last Christmas, we threw a party for about 20 good friends.

Each person was secretly assigned the name of another guest, for whom they were to bring a gift. Here's the catch: Each person brought a new, wrapped child's toy that represented something about the recipient. The cop received a light-up cruiser; the real estate agent got a dollhouse; the farmer got a toy tractor, etc. We had a blast laughing about what each gift represented about each of us. Then, all of these fabulous toys went to our local homeless shelter for the children's holiday party.

This year, we're revisiting this theme, only this time each person is bringing a gift that represents something about what they were like as a child (we'll have fun guessing which gift came from whom). It's a playful way to get to know one another better and brings joy to everyone, especially the children for whom Christmas might be very sparse otherwise.

Dear Barbie:

This is the best "white elephant" idea I've ever heard. Way to go!

You could also combine this with a potluck at which guests bring their favorite childhood dish - just like "Mom" used to serve. I see sloppy Joes, tuna noodle casserole and Jell-O Pudding Pops in your future.

Dear Amy:

I am responding to the letter from "Living in a Dark Box," who was upset about the prospect of renting a basement room.

You correctly noticed that the basement room with no windows has no fire exit. That is why it would be illegal to use as a bedroom under the building and fire safety codes, regardless of when the house was built. It does not qualify as a "habitable space." Nobody should sleep there.

The owner should be advised that it is illegal.

Dear E:

I have heard from many building inspectors, architects and landlords that a windowless basement room used as a bedroom violates building codes and would not be considered habitable. Thank you all!