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What finer present than your time? Lavish them with love

Giving something bigger than a bread basket

It all started on Christmas morning 2006 with a self-warming bread basket. This cloth-lined wicker vessel came with a stone that, after being heated in the oven and stashed under the fabric, kept bread warm throughout dinner. A cute gift, sure, but my husband and I live in an 800-square-foot rowhouse with nary a nook to store it.

So we burst out laughing when we received a second bread basket - now we had one from a relative on each side of our family. My aunt, giver of bread basket No. 2, looked hurt. This gift stuff has got to end, I thought. Then, when my un-pay-offable December credit card bill came, I resolved that things would be different in 2007.

Just before Thanksgiving, as my family started talking gift wish lists and price limits, I announced that I wasn't doing it anymore. "But why?" my mother asked. "Won't you feel awful when everyone else is opening presents on Christmas Day?"

I had given that some thought, and I realized that sometime between the Barbie era and the bread-basket era, the gift ritual had gone from exhilarating to excruciating. I felt pressured to feign delight when I opened gifts that I knew would either clutter my tiny house or need to be returned. I felt annoyed traversing the mall for the particular Nine West wallet my cousin put on her wish list. I dreaded sorting through the stack of "future landfill" - my name for the pile of heavily packaged and well-intentioned-but-useless trinkets I got every year. Most of all, I feared the post-holiday credit-card bill, sure to wipe out my meager savings and start the New Year off with debt.

"You know what, Mom?" I said. "I think it will be even more fun to sit back and watch everyone else enjoy opening their gifts. It will be OK."

And when the time came, it was. In the weeks leading up to the holiday, I was accompanying frenzied friends on desperate shopping tears, holding their surplus bags, checking people off their lists, and noticing how pretty Center City is during December. Had it always been this way? I guess I just never noticed during my own stressed-out shopping sprees. That first year, relatives looked on in pity, almost apologetic that I had nothing to open. But I had never been more relaxed.

Last year, my family finally got their heads around my position. During the gift-wrap-ripping melee under the tree, I refilled glasses of eggnog and picked up ribbons while others opened their gifts. By then it seemed as if things had always been this way. Gratefully, I snapped pictures, laughed, and felt a certain lightness in my chest. I would have no packaging materials to send to the landfill, no unwanted items I had to keep lest I felt guilty, and no looming credit card bill to keep me up at night.

When new friends start talking about holiday gift shopping, I make a point of mentioning (twice) that I don't give or accept gifts. Often I get a look that transmits horror, and then fascination, and then naked envy as they imagine how much different - better - December could be without the lines and the expenses and hand-wringing over what to buy. Often, I have people persuaded to give it a try until they eventually give up on the idea, not wanting to go against longstanding traditions in their families.

It seems radical at first, but once you go through one year gift-free, you realize it's actually the shopping ritual that is so contrived. The holidays should be an occasion to lavish the people you cherish with love, not things.

What I could not have guessed in that awkward bread-basket moment was how much more you can give to your loved ones when you choose not to shop for them. Instead, they get your time and your attention, not to mention freedom from resentment. The constant cultural background buzz surrounding this time of year lures us to the stores and compels us to shop, but that's not in the spirit of any holiday. Sharing a hot chocolate or taking a walk to look at the neighborhood lights surely beats another night at the mall.

My mother, in a lather over her own long shopping list, recently told me, "At least you are one less person I have to worry about buying something for." The relief on her face was obvious. Setting her free of that obligation is, in and of itself, a gift, to her and to me.