Every year, the almighty Oprah does her favorite things special. In the past, she's given away DVDs, Philosophy products, expensive handbags, electronics, diamond watches, and the obligatory holiday junk food (twice the woman has given key lime pie), all to surprised and weeping audience members. It is always her most watched show of the year, and, minus whatever she decided to do in 2006, it's a lavish event that even I don't mind watching. A woman not only putting her popularity to use by giving out gifts most people could never afford, but singlehandedly turning little companies into big ones by the sheer force of putting her stamp of approval on them. It's Oprah throwing around her money and power, the one day of the year she unabashedly flaunts who she is and doesn't apologize.
So this year, I was disappointed to hear that Oprah did her holiday special without giving anything away to her audience. There were no gifts of expensive lotions and cashmere scarves, no J-Lo perfume or horrendously costly but delicious supplies of key lime pie. No. Oprah "could not in good conscience give away lavish gifts in such a time of economic struggle" (quoting Wikipedia, not Oprah). One of the richest women in the US decided to give the commoners a list of low-cost or free gift ideas. Included in her list of favorite things this year were:
- Gratitude boxes, filled with notes of gratitude from various people
- "Oprah's Holiday Hits" compilation album (given away for free on the show Web site)
- Treasure boxes filled with mementos
- Hot chocolate cones
- Regifts (a.k.a. "swap parties"), exchanging unwanted used items of your own for others' used items you would be more likely to use
- Gift baskets that include fruits and vegetables from your own garden
- Time with a loved one
First off, you cannot put "time with a loved one" under the tree. Try explaining that one to your kids when they hear their school friends talking about all the wonderful things they got for Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa (I'm going with the broad term "holiday" from here on out). No, we don't need to give our kids or families lavish gifts to prove we love them. But this is the holiday season. Buying stuff for other people we wouldn't consider buying ourselves is tradition, and evil or overly commercial as it sometimes may be, most of us still do it. I do not advocate putting yourself in debt over it, but there are better ways to go about gift giving than some of the things the oh so wonderful Oprah suggested this year.
Second point: How is it that a woman who owns seven homes, has called Hermes "racist" for not admitting her after store hours to let her shop, has built a school for poor African girls that contained a beauty salon and yoga studio can in her right mind try to tell us how we should handle our finances in any way? I know she grew up poor. She won't let us forget it. But Oprah has been a millionaire since the age of 32 (she is now 54). I wouldn't go so far as to say she is "in touch" with the struggles of the middle class. And trust me, it's pretty depressing to hear about the financial crisis day in and day out. Now we've got to hear how Oprah would handle it if she were us? Come on, woman! Haven't you heard about people using television as a form of escapism??
Third, and last, point: I live in the South, and Miss Winfrey was born in Mississippi. Maybe regifting is a good idea when you get 20 of the same Burberry scarf from one of your Hollywood friends, but that doesn't fly here. Giving a gift is an art, an act that shows you cared enough about someone to put some thought into what they might enjoy. Good manners dictate you don't regift. And if you do, it's to some far away relative who will never, ever know. Public regifting. For shame.
This brings me to my list. It is a mix of the hideously expensive and the unbelievably cheap; a potpourri of the crazy ideas that have popped into my head. And while I cannot give you all the gifts I am suggesting (I am not a multi-millionaire), I will at least have the respect to give you tangible presents to wrap and put under the tree. So here goes!
-The Body Shop Vitamin E Lip Care Stick: I have not come across a better chapstick in my life. It tastes good, and it really works. I bought mine in an airport when they were having a buy two, get one free sale, and have one stashed in each of my purses. Feeling generous? They have a complete Vitamin E line.
-Gifts from Blarney Woolen Mills: I visited this store in Ireland earlier this year, and didn't actually buy anything woolen. But I signed up for their email list at the checkout, and found that not only do that have great products, they quite often have clearance sales and free shipping specials. Warning for the holidays: you need to order well in advance if you want something to arrive in time. They sometimes ship free, but they ship parcel post from County Cork. Shop about six weeks early. That's how long it took when I ordered.
-Give a vacation: Alright, in no way am I going to suggest you spring for a hotel and airfare for your loved ones to some exotic location. But is there someone in your family who has a dream destination that they'd love to see in their lifetime? Foster that dream! Here is a mini-list of ideas to help your loved one keep dreaming!
1. Lonely Planet Phrasebooks: I have three of these, and can't live without them. They contain basic (and sometimes off the wall) words and phrases, menu guides, and handy tips on navigating a country and its language.
2. Rick Steves Guidebooks and DVDs: Ok, so the man's a bit stuck in the 80's and does PBS specials. But he knows his stuff, and if you're strapped for cash, you can always buy the previous year's edition used on Amazon. The information changes very little, but he only covers European destinations.
3. Books that aren't guidebooks: There are travel books out there that aren't necessarily a list of what to see and do. Fabulous writers like Frances Mayes, Peter Mayle, and Bill Bryson cover their own experiences, and inspire the imagination (happy to give recommendations on this one).
4. Luggage: JCPenney has great sales every Christmas on luggage sets, as does Walmart. Remember to buy something durable and in a dark color, but don't spend a ton of money. The airlines will beat the heck out of them.
-Polish Chocolate: I don't care what anyone says about German chocolate. The best I've ever had was at E. Wedel in Warsaw.
-Paired wine and cheese: Giving a bottle of wine is common around the holidays, but have you ever thought about what goes well with it? Nurse someone's inner wine snob and give the perfect cheese to go with their bottle.
-Nikon Coolpix Digital Camera: Coming from someone with a camera that cost more than her computer, it was a stretch for me to buy something I could fit in my pocket. My husband actually recommended this one to me, and Walmart has it on sale for $90. It's small, pretty good on battery power, and uncomplicated. A good gift for someone as a first digital camera or even someone who has a tendency to beat the hell out of them. And it took nice pictures in cloudy Prague.
-Anthony Bourdain's books: He's such a snarky bastard. I tucked into The Nasty Bits in a cafe, and ended up sitting happily for hours.
-Tea: It's a spin on the classic mug and hot chocolate. Pick up a pretty box of tea, put it in a basket with a fancy tea cup and some little cookies, and it's a cute little gift set.
-Timex Digital Grip Clip: Jere bought me this when I couldn't decide on what style of watch I wanted. I clip it on my belt loop or my purse. It's a Godsend.
-Movie night in a box: My aunt did this for me one year, and I haven't forgotten it! She sent me and my first husband a box with a Blockbuster gift card, microwave popcorn, and movie sized candy. I believe there might have been a Pizza Hut gift card in there, too. And you know what? We really made the effort to use it as our date night, so it there you go. That's how you can put "time with loved ones" under the tree. There are so many different ways you could do this gift, whether it's with a DVD or rental gift cards or even a prepaid subscription to Netflix.
-Champagne and flutes: I'm a sucker for stemware, and am constantly surprised at the beautiful and affordable things I find. You can get a couple of cheap Target champagne flutes and a $10 bottle of bubbly and make a gorgeous gift. Or if you really want to knock someone's socks off, give them these, and opt for them to be gift wrapped. The blue box is always striking.
Thus ends this year's list of Kristin's Favorite Things. I promise next year to stay home long enough to get this out earlier so it might actually be useful. Happy Holidays, everyone!