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Series 2 - A quiet gift guide

This essay is available in audio format and text.

There are 3 promises that I made to myself in my first winters of motherhood. These pledges have become a sort of gift guide; a compass helping me find my true north during the gifting season.

And while we do, as a family, spend some time shopping and invite our children to write wish lists, there are many quieter and more meaningful moments that fill our holidays. There’s a sort of magic in this return to slow gifting traditions that I hope will inspire you and yours.

Promise #1

Take the hours I would spend browsing for gifts, and spend them connecting with my little ones instead.

Not only do I ask this of myself, but of those that come to me with questions like “what can we get Isla this year?” and “What has Flora been asking for?”.

Their well-intentioned requests for insight have led me to wonder, why do we gift?

Love languages, generosity, guilt, reciprocation, flattery, tradition? The act of gift-giving in humans is complex and delicate. 

The phychology of gift-giving tells us that, at it’s most basic, gifting is to re-confirm or to establish our connection with others. This study found that even charitable donations active the parts of the brain associated with social bonding. I feel an odd reassurance in humanity’s capacity to love and live well knowing that the root of these offerings is in connection.

In Canada, Thanksgiving in mid-October begins our season of gratitude. Then comes November, the month of blustery-winds that signal the years-end is approaching. The naturally slower pace gently calls on us to do more together. We make handmade gnocchi. We forage for materials to make our winter garland. We cut and dry orange slices for decorating with. We dip our pressed autumn leaves in bees wax for next year’s seasonal decorations. We practice calligraphy, play chess, and build robots.

We’re challenging them norm. The pressure to buy ready-made, factory-made, or plastic-made, when our hearts feel otherwise. Have you also questioned what quality time looks, sounds, smells, tastes, and feels like?

Promise #2

Create or purchase, and then wrap gifts for friends and family together with my children, imparting stories, values, and lessons along the way.

In the arrogance of my twenties I thought I could entirely replace gifting with time together. Couldn’t proximity over delicious holiday dishes satisfy us? Why didn’t it? 

Gifting is not unique to humans. 

It’s common knowledge that cats drop off small prey on their owners doorsteps. In the wild they would bring home prey to show their young what and how to hunt.

Male penguins gift pebbles during courtship, a sign of monogamous commitment, as those pebbles are used to build nests. 

Great Grey Shrikes, a little bird from Eurasia and North Africa will offer nutritious food during courtship, a gesture that leads to more eggs and healthier young. 

Bonobos gift much sought after fruit like apples and bananas to those outside their tribe to increase their social network. The safety and companionship gained means that some can be found traveling for days with a Bonobo from a different group. 

As it turns out, I didn’t need to abandon my intuition to gift. I just had to reimagine it:

First, in our modern context.
One where everything is available, instant, personalized, programmable, deliverable, and most of it, not durable, repairable, memorable, or compostable. What does a thoughtful and meaningful gift look like in 2022? Perhaps we should be turning our focus to the circular economy, like I wrote about in this Ode to MC.

Second, through a behavioural lens.
From wild cats to Bonobos, gifts in the animal world are nourishing. Can we get back in touch with that intention?

Third, in their origins.
Did we grow and or harvest the raw materials ourselves? Are we passing on a family heirloom or much loved item of our own? Is it from a small or local shop that shares our values? Did it require our time, expertise, or travel? Perhaps it’s not a thing at all, but rather an experience we want to share or send them on? What if we made the origin story part of the gift?

There is a magic when we merge these 3 considerations into one determined action. We gladly exchange leisure for what could be seen as work. After all, making home made gnocchi with 3 young kids requires a level of patience, planning, and washing that might not be available to us daily. However when called to the higher purpose of holiday gifting, we can unlock a state of steadfastness we haven’t had access to all year.

Pair these considerations with a commitment to sharing stories of our lives or of loved ones past and you can see the power in generational wisdom, in the traditions, values, and sense belonging.

Promise #3

Invite our parents, siblings, and friends to share their gifts with our children during the holidays. They all have something valuable to impart, and it will get passed down if they are thoughtful about their gifts and time spent with these little people.

Years ago, while pregnant, I wrote a letter to my family. While I never shared these exact words with them, they brought forward the words I needed to say in the moments it mattered. Perhaps you’ll share it, make it your own, or sit quietly with it for a while.

Dear family and friends,

I am small. I have not been around for long. I am absorbing everything I see around me.

The way to talk; your facial expressions, words, body language, and tone.

The way to love; your patience, guidance, boundaries, open-heart, generosity

The way to learn; your persistence, resourcefulness, curiosity, and teachability

The way to care; your gentle hands, listening ears, keen observations, and respect for others

The way to take care; your systems, routines, rituals, and thoughtful approach

You have so much to offer me. Help me learn. Don’t distract me from what really matters. Don’t overwhelm me with stuff when I don’t have the skills to take care of it, or distinguish between what is good and bad for me.

Love me by helping me become my best self. Use our time together together to show me what matters. Use our exchanges of words or items as seeds planted in a garden - ones that will mature and nurture me.

The best gifts from you will be the ones that I can bring into my future with me.

Gifting thoughtfully

My 3 promises have provided me with guidance on how to gift. Let’s consider what to gift? After all, reimagining gifting in our modern context, through a behavioural lens, and considering the origin stories can feel daunting.

We look for items that combine as many of the following categories as possible:

If not loved increasingly over time, then consumable

Are character building

Deepen connection to self/place/people 

Are good for the earth and us 

For children, that behavioural lens leads us, often landing at functional and consumable gifts like earth friendly art supplies, cooking/baking ingredients/equipment/recipes, nature observation/collection, science experiment ingredients/instructions, books, notebooks, and experience gifts (like those available in bueno market’s holiday shop.

For adults, the origin story can play a bigger part. We often create many of the same thing, whether it be nursery of baby plants we’ve started from seed, a condiment we made from local or home grown ingredients, or practical items from shops we want to support, giving us something to chat about in the months to come.

And then of course there are those times when you notice a spark, an ember of budding interest or love, in someone you hold dear that inspires you get something a bit more substantial. We gift small and light most years, leaving space for the times when that big inspiration hits.

Each family’s interests are so unique. Comment below if you’d like some nurturing ideas for other categories.

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Always learning with you,


Raise In Place is written by Erika Fraser, founding partner and designer behind the shop + studio Bueno Market - Montessori expanded for modern families.

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