Alternative gifts: Holiday cheer doesn’t have to come from a store

In the Panozzo household, each person gets three gifts, and only three gifts. The limitation was placed on each of the six family members seven years ago to help deal with their increasingly anxious holiday season.

“Money was at an all-time low, particularly for us kids,” explained Angela Panozzo, the youngest of three children. “As a family we would end up struggling and stressing each year during the holiday season. Then my mother heard about a three-gift per person tradition. One of the gifts had to be homemade. She liked the idea and decided our family should try it.”

The 24-year-old blues and jazz singer admits that her mother’s suggestion to change the family’s gift-giving habits did not initially appeal to her. “I was skeptical, at first, only because I imagined all the gifts I would miss out on. But as we started our interpretation of this tradition, I began to realize how much I actually gained.”

The Panozzo interpretation is to develop a secret Santa circle that provides each family member with one gift that costs $20 or less, one gift that is homemade, and one present based on the gift of time.

“Now the holidays mean more. They are not about the gift, but about sharing time together” said Panozzo. “Sure, you might not get what you want, but you get what we need.”

And that gift keeps on giving. Panozzo loves that her family’s tradition means the family gets a chance to spend time together not only over the holidays but also throughout the year.

“We can get separated as a family throughout the year,” says Panozzo. “We are all busy doing our own thing. But with the gift of time, a person can end up getting their Christmas gift in July. It’s a gift that reminds us that the holiday season really is about caring and sharing.”

Now, almost a decade after the start of the Panozzo Christmas tradition, Angela can honestly say, “I have enjoyed every holiday season so much more.”

Charitable gifts

According to an Ipsos-Reid poll conducted for World Vision Canada released in November, Panozzo isn’t alone in her desire to give significant presents. The poll suggested that 84 per cent of Canadians prefer to receive meaningful gifts rather than conventional presents.

In the same poll, 32 per cent of respondents stated their intention to give a charitable gift in the name of someone on their list this year, rather than resort to traditional mall-bought items.

This is good news for stores like Ten Thousand Villages. Since the inception of the store more than 60 years ago, Ten Thousand Villages has built its network of fair trade festivals, brick-and-mortar stores and now an online presence based on the notion of authenticity and social justice.

“Our mission is to sell products from developing countries,” Beverley Hiebert, national sales manager, said. “But we also tell a story with each of these products. By telling a story — of the product, the region where it came from or the person who made it — we help to create awareness. This awareness creates a connection between people here and people on the other side of the world. So, when a gift is bought, a person doesn’t just buy a product but also a connection, a story and an ideal.”

The notion of presenting a gift based on an ideal is what more and more Canadians appear to want, said Jason Coté, executive director of

His public charitable foundation, which provides information on all of Canada’s 83,000 registered charities as well as an online donation portal, has witnessed exponential growth in people’s contributions each year. In this calendar year alone (from January to November), the site registered more than 60,000 contributions totaling more than $7 million.

Not to diminish this achievement, Coté said he expects another 40,000 to 50,000 charitable donations in just the month of December, totaling between $8 to $9 million.

“It’s a time of giving,” Coté said. “And people are becoming more strategic about this.”


Perhaps that is why more and more individuals and families are not only opting for contributions from the wallet but also the gift of time.

“Family volunteering is seeing a bit of growth,” says Marlene Deboisbirand, president of Volunteer Canada.

While factual numbers backed by studies are hard to come by, Deboisbirand said, she does feel confident in her observations.

“We lead very busy lives and to find an activity that brings the entire family together, and emits values and principles, is challenging,” she said. “Volunteering for a particular cause or organization enables people to transmit these deep-rooted values [of community] while allowing loved ones to spend time together.”

In support of her anecdotal information is a report on giving and volunteering by Imagine Canada. Released this past summer, the report shows that 45 per cent of the population aged 15 and older volunteered during the one-year period preceding the survey (conducted in 2004). These 12 million people contributed almost two billion hours — an amount equivalent to one million full-time jobs.

The fact that so many Canadians choose to give back, particularly around the holiday season, is not a surprise to Coté. “The process is part of building a relationship surrounding an act of giving.”

Deboisbirand agrees.

“The act of giving speaks to who we are,” she said. “It allows us to go back, when most of us lived in rural communities and helped our neighbours. While we may now have transformed into a more urbanized culture, this notion of authenticity and community is what has led to the phenomenon of giving and volunteering.”

Tips when volunteering time

When choosing to volunteer as a gift or community building option, Marlene Deboisbirand, president of Volunteer Canada, suggests taking a few factors into consideration.

“It’s important to assess the time constraints, emotional maturity and abilities of all family members,” Deboisbirand said. “While the chronological age of a child is important, so is their level of exposure to different aspects of life, as well as their personal level of maturity.”

Deboisbirand suggests that families sit and talk with all members to determine the best possible course of action when giving the gift of time and energy. Those trying to find more information or specific volunteer opportunities across Canada can input their specific criteria at Charity Village’s site.

Alternative gift ideas

Here are some alternative gift ideas that still provide a link between the caring and sharing of this holiday season with the notion green, sustainable and ethical choices.

The gift of time:

  • Take up a cause in honour of someone for a year. Volunteer with an organization or commit to participate in a charity event for a cause that is near and dear to the recipient’s heart.
  • Ask to go along, at least once, to a place of worship, serenity or community that is part of your gift-receiver’s regular routine.
  • Provide cards offering your free baby-sitting services to friends and family.
  • Provide personal or professional services, such as house-cleaning or pet-sitting.
  • Create a gift circle. Organize your friends to tackle one project for each member of the group. Examples: paint a room, move, cater a party, build a deck, bake a cake, and so on.
  • A gift certificate entitling the recipient to one night of chauffeuring by you, the designated driver.
  • Give seeds and then commit to helping the recipient with planting, tending and growing their garden.
  • Offer to videotape a loved one for a few hours. Then produce a memory tape based on current footage and past photos that they may keep for posterity.
  • Create a photo album or collage that also captures a loved one
  • Make a commitment to your partner for one-date night a week/month.

Edible gifts:

  • Create a recipe and name the dish after the recipient.
  • Purchase a travel mug and a gift certificate for free refills for the year.


  • Purchase a craft lesson for the recipient – perhaps a hobby they always wanted to try but never got around to it.
  • Give the recipient a coupon for a free lesson at a dance studio, martial arts gym or any other luxurious activity.
  • Family membership to a museum, art gallery or theatre company.

Green gifts galore:

  • Purchase a green voucher for airline travel. That way when the recipient takes their next trip they know they have already taken into consideration the environmental impact of their cross-world adventure.
  • For the green foodie in your family look into bamboo inspired kitchen products. Try Bambu (winners of the Best Sustainable Design in 2005), a company that specializes in kitchen utensils that are practical, sustainable and heat resistant. Also try cast iron. Teflon and non-stick options are loaded with chemicals that are proving to cause a number of health concerns, and aluminum products can wear out and cannot be recycled. Cast iron pots and pans, in contrast, are made of a material that’s not linked to major health issues, and as a bonus, they offer even heat distribution for cooking.
  • Fuel cell car kits. Considered suitable for those 12 and up, the Thames and Kosmos kit offers children and curious adults a chance to build a car that runs on water.
  • For those who suffer on cold nights, try Blue Lotus Blankets. Made from Fortrel EcoSpun fleece (which is 100-per-cent post-consumer plastic) these soft blankets offer warmth and keep plastic out of landfills.
  • For the surfer in all of us, check out OceanGreen’s EcoFoil balsa boards. Made from balsa wood from FSC certified Nicaraguan forests, these boards offer fun, sun and earth-friendly pleasure.


  • Adopt animal (wolf, polar bear). Go to World Wildlife Fund for more options.
  • Donate time or money to grassroots causes such as Habitat for Humanity.
  • Create a gift treasure hunt. Rather than buy oodles and oodles of gifts for the kids, limit the number (to three or five). Then provide clues for a treasure hunt. The clues can start at the tree and wind their way all through the house. The adventure of finding the gifts will outweigh the necessity for many gifts.
  • Develop a gift-theft system and turn your gift exchange into a party. Each adult brings one gift. Everyone then draws numbers and the gift selection begins. As each number is called out the person has the option of choosing a new, wrapped gift or stealing another person’s selection. If a person’s selection is stolen they have the option of selecting a new, wrapped gift or stealing another person’s gift choice. This continues until everyone walks away with one gift. This reduces the need to buy large numbers of gifts that people are unlikely to want or need.

Jason Cote, executive director of, said the program’s success is a result of the ease, accessibility and privacy it affords.

After a person purchases a gift card online they can opt for an immediate hard copy that can be inserted into a card or used as a stocking stuffer; or opt for a digitized message to be sent to the recipient’s e-mail address on a chosen date. That means a person looking for last-minute gift options can purchase a gift card on Dec. 25, and confirmation of that gift will be received by the recipient within minutes of the transaction.

Once a person receives the charitable donation gift card they can then log onto the site to choose which organization(s) will receive the allocated funds. The recipient can also choose whether the gift-giver will be notified of the charity chosen to receive the donation.

“A person can choose one or many charities,” Coté. “From large national organizations to local charities, the choice is completely their own.”

Ten Thousand Villages

The Ten Thousand Villages company philosophy is that 50 per cent of the fair-trade negotiated price is paid up front to the producers, said Beverley Hiebert, national sales manager. “This allows producers to pay for materials, supplies and living necessities so they can do the work.”

The remaining 50 per cent of the wage is paid before the product leaves the country.

“From a business perspective we are nuts,” Hiebert said. “That means our money is tied up for a specified period of time before we even realize a sale. Yet, while it might not be economically smart for us, it is viable and fair for the producers – and this is good for everyone in the long term.”

While Ten Thousand Villages started by offering tangible products made by developing nation artisans, they now offer a “Living Gift” program. This program enables Canadians to purchase a gift on behalf of their loved one that goes to help a person, family or developing nation. For example, a person can “Fill the Farm with Four-Legged Charm”; this option helps fill a farmyard in India, Bangladesh or Laos with a goat, a pig, a sheep and 18 rabbits for $116. Other options include a $15 gift that goes to help plant 60 trees in Haiti, Cambodia or Burundi, or $45 to help an artisan in a developing nation purchase tools for their trade.

Originally published on on December 21, 2006

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