The season of giving? Maybe, but not necessarily of shopping.

Around about the week before Thanksgiving, the pressure starts. The ads begin to suggest "the perfect gift for the such & such on your list". The list is assumed. Of course everyone has a List. Everyone must be buying. Then that post-turkey Friday comes and the frenzy in the stores begins.

The crowds. The sensory overload of enforced commercial festivity. "Bring on the cheer, dammit!" seems to be the underlying messsage of the barrage of Christmas music, holiday movie promotions, and red & green advertising plastered on every surface. Sometimes it seems like you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a Santa (and as December barrels on, the tempation to do so grows).

O, and let’s not forget the family pressures. Whether or not anyone in our own families applies it, pop culture is more than ready to step in with the traditional holiday guilt. "Welcome to December; here’s your script; you know your parts; it’s magic time! And as our sponsor would like to remind you, magic means presents! So shop ’til you drop! Charge it! After all, doesn’t your family deserve a joyous holiday season?"

There is no time of year more likely to run us all ragged than the holidays. It’s not as though family tensions disappear; if anything, all the pressure to be the perfect holly jolly scene makes things worse. And I don’t know about your financial state of affairs, but I don’t come to the end of the year thinking "Wow! Look at all this extra money! I think I’ll buy some nice stuff for my folks." Like me, you’ve probably felt pressured to overspend at this time of year before and had a lean winter paying it back.

Well, I tell you, holiday gift buying is optional. It is possible to have a happy family gathering without breaking the bank. You can have a blessed season without shattering your peace of mind.

You don’t have to buy presents. Really. You just don’t have to. Most people don’t need more stuff and no one needs more debt. There are lots of alternatives to the holiday shopping madness, many other ways to remind people you care about them. Maybe something for the kids, but, again, you don’t have to break the bank to spread that holiday cheer.

First and foremost, tell them you care. Write them a note, call them on the phone, bump into them at line in the grocery store, whatever, but just say "You know, I am so glad to have you in my life." Maybe suggest you get together sometime, maybe after the holidays when things aren’t so busy, but even if you just let them know that you appreciate them, you can give something much greater than some hastily selected present.

There are many other kinds of gifts which won’t strain your credit or leave you frazzled:

– cooked or crafted things which you actually enjoy making
My friend Kristin makes the most wonderful holiday cookies, but the best part is the conversation we have while I’m nibbling on those tasty treats from her kitchen.

– homemade gift certificates for future fun together
I have had tremendous fun making up little books of these certificates for someone special. Each one becomes a shared dream of a good time I want to have together. The words "A walk in the woods with the smell of damp earth and redwoods and the sound of the wind in the treetops" are already something special, made even better when you both make the time to make the dream real.

– mix CDs (of music or photos)
I’ve been introduced to lots of great music this way, especially by my Uncle Larry and my friend Shannon. Okay, maybe I wind up spending some of that money I saved on gifts buying the albums with a song I particularly liked, but now every time I hear that music I think of the person who first shared their fondness for it with me.

– donations to charities (monetary or, if you have more time than cash, your time in honor of someone else)
My grandmother has a tradition of giving us Heifer Project gifts, which means we get all the amusement of receiving a goat, without the actual goat in the house part.

– memories
Last year my family began "unwrapping" memories for each other. Everyone took turns at telling a favorite memory of each other person. Those stories reminded us of others and it was a lovely way to spend time together.

As I enter my holiday vacation time, I have to say that this year the biggest gift my family has given me is freedom from obligation. We decided at Thanksgiving that we wouldn’t shop for presents this year. Being able to pass through the hectic month December without that pressure has been truly wonderful. We’ll have stockings – even my grandmother, who’s almost 90, likes to open her stocking on Christmas morning – but those are little fun things, no pressure. This year the real gift and the real focus is being together.