A gift of goodwill, sans the wrapping

Our first Christmas card of the season arrived earlier than usual this year. Sent by friends in Pennsylvania and decorated with evergreens and red berries, it carries an intriguing heading: CHRISTMAS GIVING.

The couple's letter begins:

"Every year, when we start to plan for Christmas, we think about not giving small and perhaps unnecessary gifts to our family and friends, but giving our whole Christmas budget to a charity instead. This year, we have determined to do it!"

They go on to explain that instead of sending gifts, they're making a donation to a favorite charity. Then they say, "If we are on your Christmas list, we hope you will make a contribution ... to a charity of your choice, instead of sending us anything."

It's an appealing letter. The idea isn't new, but they're the first ones I've known who are doing it. For them, it's not a matter of frugality, but of using money - and presents - in potentially more meaningful ways.

Economists expect the average consumer to spend an impressive $702 on gifts this year. This is the season when we're all urged to head to the mall and make those cash registers ring, big-time. It's our civic duty to keep the economy humming.

Yet choosing the right presents can test the ingenuity of even the most committed and generous shopper. The impulse to give - to send the message "I care" - often comes with the perplexing question: What to buy?

In some respects, holiday gift buying has never been easier. Just flip through glossy catalogs, make your choices, and call a toll-free number where operators, as they say, are standing by, even at midnight when you're in your jammies and slippers. Shopping online is equally simple. A few mouse-clicks and the gift is on its way to the recipient. Ah, bliss - no crowded stores, no lines at the post office.

Yet in other ways gift-giving has never been harder. So many choices, so little time. What do you buy for someone who already has, if not everything, at least a lot?

It's also an era when many people regularly perfect the fine art of treating themselves to gifts. See something you want? Then buy it - now. Making a wish list and waiting for Christmas seems so old-fashioned.

So far, our friends in Pennsylvania report that their Christmas-giving letter is producing positive responses. "Several have said, 'What a good idea,' " notes the husband, a retired college dean. But he adds a few caveats: "The trouble is, I keep seeing neat things to buy for friends. Also, I don't know how we will feel about it on the day," when there are few gifts under the tree.

Whatever the outcome, it's a noble experiment. Who knows how many other people around the country might be secretly relieved to receive a similar letter from someone? Many in midlife, in particular, find that while their nest is empty of children, it's full of possessions accumulated over a lifetime. Who needs more stuff?

Yet the pleasure of giving something tangible - wrapped and beribboned - to those we care about can make an intangible gift seem like no gift at all. Still, I plan to follow my friends' lead. Instead of sending them a gift this year, I'll increase my donation to a favorite charity that serves the poor. Unlike our homes, overflowing with the fruits of success, the coffers that help the needy are never full.

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