The gift of 'pre-opened' presents

No one in my family had even ventured near a mall or a mail-order catalog, yet gifts were heaped under the tree and well beyond the reach of its widest branches. This was the biggest pile of gifts I'd ever seen in my parents' house.

It was our first "recycled Christmas." The rules were simple: No gift could be new, and the expense of a gift shouldn't cause any stress. Within those bounds, anything was fair game: treasures from our closets, used CDs and books, thrift-store finds, and, of course, homemade gifts.

We had hauled our gift-wrapped "junk" to Albuquerque, N.M., in the backs of vans and in our checked luggage. In the days leading up to Christmas, everyone chuckled as the mountain of gifts grew with each new arrival from Idaho, Tennessee, and Ohio. But, where once our chortling might have signaled greedy anticipation of the loot in store, this year it was out of pure glee from the secret knowledge of what we were getting rid of. For we had already discovered an important advantage of a recycled Christmas: We'd be starting the new year with cleaner closets, having culled anything and everything we thought someone else might enjoy.

On Christmas morning, we trickled out from our bedrooms to find our stockings. These, we'd decided, were exempt from the "nothing new" rule, and they were filled, as usual, with pens, staplers, film, bubble bath, and chocolate. After sitting around the breakfast table for a while to chat, we moved slowly into the family room to find out what, from the closets of our kin, now had our names attached. If our slow start indicated reservations about what we might be given, we soon learned that we had nothing to fear.

FROM my sister-in-law's closet, I received a lovely white sweater with pastel embroidery. It fit perfectly. From my teenage niece's closet, I received a perfectly good backpack. And with this, I realized another benefit of this low-cost gift-giving. For the first time, the younger family members were able to participate on equal footing with the older generations. Even the youngest family member, then 12, had plenty to share.

My family loves music. Most of us play a musical instrument; mine's the viola. Two months earlier, as we planned this new approach to Christmas, I'd hinted that antiques wouldn't violate our gift-giving rules. I'm sorry to report that no lustrous old instruments or furniture changed hands that morning, but when I unwrapped a gift from my mother I found a wonderful old pin shaped like a violin.

"It's a viola," she explained, making it into a new instrument especially for me. "I must have had it since college." I was delighted with the pin's delicate gold strings and miniature tuning pegs, but most of all I was pleased by the power of her simple renaming and the old feeling of Christmas wonder it restored in me.

Many CDs were unwrapped that morning, and without the frustration of that impossible cellophane that makes new CDs so difficult to open. But the most creative gift in the audio category was my father's. At one point during the gift exchange he stood up, looking very pleased with himself, and handed two cassette tapes to each of his children and grandchildren.

Every tape - containing complete symphonies, a concerto or two - was carefully labeled in the ink-jet-printer type that we all recognized from his letters. No two tapes were alike. My father had recorded each one individually from a box of old records he'd purchased when a local classical radio station cleaned house. Recycled music. What was touching was the amount of time it must have taken him to do all of that recording.

My father did, however, take some heat for using new cassette tapes. But he wasn't finished with giving gifts. Looking a bit defensive, he handed each of us an envelope.

"I figured that used money should count as a recycled gift."

Indeed, the bills we found inside were not the crisp new ones that people put in holiday envelopes. They were dirty and rumpled, clearly having been around for a while. And the colorful, personalized cards that enfolded them were homemade, also computer-printed. So, technically he hadn't violated any gift-giving rule with that gift. There was nothing we could do but thank him and add the envelopes to our growing mounds of gifts.

Not everyone in my family is a radical environmentalist, but, as campers and hikers, we value conservation. It felt wonderful know that we weren't contributing to the landfill problem. We enjoyed the sense of abundance that came from giving many, many gifts at very little expense. We enjoyed the rewards of giving and receiving carefully chosen personal possessions, some sentimental, some ludicrous (like the oversized muscle shirt one of my brothers gave to a fastidious, scholarly family member).

"Quick, take his picture!" my sister-in-law teased when our scholar, wearing the shirt over his bathrobe, struck a body-builder's pose.

Nearly everyone received a sweater from me. I'd found a wealth of beautiful wool sweaters at a thrift store in my city. For about $40 I had purchased a dozen of them. When I got them home I carefully washed them and decided who would like each one. Then I wrapped them (in recycled gift boxes, of course).

On Christmas Day, my older brother put his on immediately and gave me a smile as he patted the bold red, yellow, and blue stripes of his "new" sweater.

Another brother gave me a pair of tall brass candlesticks he'd found in a secondhand store. He stretched the rules by including new candles, but I didn't mind. They look elegant on my living-room mantel. More important, they remind me of a festive, humorous Christmas when our giving was a little more caring to ourselves, one another, and the world.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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