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Advent Olden Practice Week Two: 5 Ancestral Gift Ideas for Increasing Joy and Peace

Simple gifts to increase love, reduce stress and enhance ease.

A family gathers at a candlelit table for a Christmas feast.
Old Christmas (1916) Washington Irving

Modern gifting in this season has always been a challenge for me. I have a large and very close family, so many people to gift with, and my simple income will not accommodate big purchases of high quality items. I'm also medically limited, so don't have a lot of time to make gifts by hand--though I love doing this and have a couple of simple, not too laborious suggestion below.

What Olden Practice helps me remember is that most of my ancestors were in similar situations at Christmas, and the traditions of gifting have not changed so much as the circumstances of consumption and pressures of expectation. By this I mean that handmade, thoughtful, useful gifts are always appreciated, and resisting the junk fest of modern shopping (which, I am convinced, would confuse and possibly horrify many of my ancestors) in lieu of heart-centered, handmade gifts does not require tons of time and energy.

Here are five suggestions for gifts I am actually making and giving this year in the spirit of Olden Practice and an attempt toward pacing, health, balance and integrity.

In this Advent week the theme is Peace. With peace as a central approach to holiday gifting, how can we change our attitudes and behaviors toward offering and receiving gifts?

For me, focusing on Peace helps take the frenzy from the process of gifting, and invites me to consider the concept of Peace in the gifts I am offering. Here are a few questions I am asking as I prepare my gifts:

How does this gift contribute to Peace in my life, through its creation and/or its offering?

How does this gift contribute to Peace in the life of the recipient? Will it add to their overwhelm this season, or help them relax and appreciate this time of year?

How does this gift contribute to Peace in the world? Do its materials and/or creation processes help or harm other people or the planet?

Where in gifting can I find a center of Peace?

Gift #1: Family Stories & Ancestral Trees

In the past decade I've become the de-facto keeper of family stories and researcher of our ancestry. For my Grandma Mary's birthday gift this year I printed the story of her parent's journey from their ethnic Czech community in Ukraine to the United States. I found online tales from other members of that community, the creation of the first Czech Catholic church after they immigrated, along with stories of Czechs still living in Ukraine and their traditions--including food, songs and clothing. I printed these stories and put them in a binder, along with some photos of her family I'd found through Ancestry and other genealogical websites. I also created a family tree for her using an online, fillable template.

This whole endeavor met my criteria for gifting:

  1. thoughtful and nourishing--my grandmother had not ever seen photos of her aunts and uncles before, and did not know the story of her parent's immigration to the US, the Catholic church they helped to build or the community they came from in Ukraine. These stories nourish her sense of self and the continuity with a family past she does not remember.

  2. free or inexpensive--the materials for this project were either free (I had them on hand or could borrow them) or inexpensive--second-hand or affordable

  3. waste not--this means minimal packaging and the gift has the possibility of being passed down rather than trashed or forgotten

  4. contributes to more than just the recipient--this collection of lore was of interest to everyone in my grandmother's very large family (she was the youngest of twelve) and has already been shared widely through our relatives

This Christmas I am working on family trees for other family members, and my grandmother has given me a draft of her memory book--a handwritten record of her life memories--that I am typing up and will print with photos for her children and grandchildren.

What family stories or ancestral information do you carry?

Are there ways you could share this with your parents, children or extended family?

If you don't have family stories or your ancestry is unknown, could you find a way to gift the research of these things--a recording session with an elder relative, a subscription to Ancestry or another research-based website?

If you have children can you record some family stories for them? My children have always loved to hear the story of how I met their father, the stories of their births, stories of fun things they did or said when they were small, stories from my childhood...for children our lived experience is their history.

Any story is a gift, as it illustrates how important people are to us--in heart, mind and memory--which is the truest gift of all.

Children nestled in a bed by the fire with stockings hung by the mantle and a man bringing in gifts.
1894 Christmas A. Shuman, Boston

Gift #2: Food and Recipes

One of the great ancestral traditions is the holiday meal, and I've found one of the easiest ways to connect with my ancestors and my gratitude is through cooking and eating.

Last year my son asked for a book of family recipes for Christmas. I began work on the project--soliciting family members to send me photos of our favorite recipes--but illness and other obligations prevented me from finishing it in time.

This year, however, the book is well on its way.

In its simplest form, it is a collection of photocopied recipes from various family members. Many of the recipes are also attached to memories, some with people who are no longer with us--our family's Fudge Bar Cake is the birthday celebrator supreme, and the recipe we have is from my maternal grandmother, Barbara, who died in 2015.

The vision is to photocopy and three hole punch the book, adding in a few classic photos from the kitchens of my family over the years. Then the book can be amended each holiday season with a collection of our favorite recipes from the past year.

Other recipe and food centered gifts include:

recipe cards and boxes

homemade cookie kits (the dry ingredients in a mason jar with the recipe attached)

Food is the great unifier, and our memories around sharing and crafting food together can be a beautiful link between generations.

(The above recipes are all from BBC Food and Yep Recipes, websites without advertising and minimal narrative, easy recipes and search features.)

A woman and child wrap gifts by candlelight with a Christmas tree in the background.
Venny Soldan-Brofeldt - Mother and Son Child Wrapping Christmas Gifts

Gift #3: Dream & Prayer Pillows

I'm noticing a penchant for including one sensory craft in each of these posts--in the last post it was candle recycling. This craft is a gift that first originated in a winter workshop I taught in 2008. That year I made a dream-prayer pillow for each of my children and they still remember and talk about them today.

This project requires some basic hand sewing skills--if you don't have these I recommend the 1970 book Living On the Earth, which is where I learned some very easy stitches. Or the more modern Wear, Repair, Repurpose by Lily Fulop, which also has some simple sewing guidance.

Dream and prayer pillows are small pillows filled with scrap fabric, herbs--for fragrance and dreaming--with a tiny pocket or pouch sewn to one side. The pillows can look almost any way you might imagine: square, round, heart shaped... And they can be crafted from almost any materials. I use clothing scraps and have found that polar fleece is durable, easy to sew and very forgiving of my mistakes, but any fabric will do. The pocket I usually make out of a bit of cotton or lace, something with an interesting design on it.

For the filling I use lavender and chamomile with some rose petals--especially for children. For adults who might want more vivid dreams, mugwort or skullcap can also be used.

The purpose of the pouch is to hold written prayers while you sleep and dream.

When my children were troubled I would have them write their prayers or wishes on a slip of paper and then put them in the pillow. In the morning we would see if any dreams came to help illuminate those wishes and prayers.

This simple, sweet gift can be shared with almost anyone, and the "prayers" can be adapted to include hopes, wishes, thoughts, loves and more...

My children's dream pillows were lost or destroyed in the great mold purge of 2017, so this year I will be making them three new pillows which I hope will see them into their adult lives with sweet dreams and answered prayers.

Three elves with red caps wrap gifts in a barn by the light of a full moon and lantern.
Christmas card by Jenny Nyström showing the jultomte she popularised.1899

Gift #4: Use What You Have

The first Christmas I spent with the man who would become my husband I had no money for gifts--less than $20 in my checking account. I spent the weeks after the University let out for vacation with my children, and in the evening after they were in bed I scoured my belongings for gifts.

Some of the things I gave that season are still remembered and loved--including the above dream pillows made from fabric scraps, which I remember stitching into the night. I also regifted books that I loved, and made displays out of natural materials--pine cones, passionflower vines--in glass jars. Everything was wrapped in brown paper bags and twine, garnished with greenery and madrone branches.

It was a beautiful, simple, holiday. And while sometimes I wish I could say I was less constrained these days, that same sense of constriction has often been present in my life at this season. One of the writing techniques I teach is "limit as expansion," meaning that when we set boundaries for ourselves something miraculous happens--we engage our boundless creativity.

Using what we have, "regifting," requires two really important exercises:

  1. it forces me to see how much abundance surrounds me, and the immense well of creative potential I have to draw from

  2. it engages my refutation of the modern push of "new" as better. In the old stories many gifts were remade, repurposed or shared. By embracing this idea as an Olden Practice I am able to feel myself in the flow of past traditions, pull myself out of the push to buy more, spend more, and create less.

Some of the things I have in abundance to share this holiday season:

  • Saved seeds from my garden--poppy (gifted by my sister-in-law several Christmases ago and now on the third year of planting), morning glory, sunflower and Angelica

  • A tea blend made from plants in my yard, harvested this past summer--raspberry leaf, oatstraw, spearmint

  • Books I love--novels, poetry, reference books, picture books collected through the years that I have enjoyed and can now pass along

  • Music--records (we have inherited several collections and have many duplicates), mix tapes or CDs (don't laugh, kids, they will outlive your playlists...), songs written and performed

  • Photos--again, duplicates or similar photos, a collage of the best photos of the year, photo albums for the children of meaningful events together through their lives

This list is not extensive but just writing it makes me feel full at heart. I have many things to give, that take only a little thought and time, but may be enjoyed fully by my beloveds.

What do you have in abundance that you can offer as a gift?

A large wooly goat is loaded with Christmas gifts and carries a small child.
Julbocken 1912 John Bauer

Gift #5: Offering to Those in Need

In taking stock of the abundance around me I am made ever more acutely aware that there are many in my community who have significant survival needs. Food, clothing, warmth, shelter, sanitation and healing are elusive necessities both locally and around the globe.

One of the traditions I love to embrace is giving--time, energy, money, belongings--to charity to honor family member or friend. My counselor said that this season his family is only exchanging stocking stuffers and making donations to each other's charity of choice.

The tradition of almsgiving at Christmas is an Olden Practice for sure. The word alms means, "charitable relief of the poor," especially as a religious duty, also "that which is given to relieve the poor or needy," from the Old English ælmesse "almsgiving, act of relieving the needy," from Proto-Germanic alemosna".1

It is a tremendous gift to volunteer time, or offer financial or material support, to those who need it most.

In the past we have given to global organizations like Heifer International and local organizations like Street Roots. We have helped purchase gifts for children in need, and donated coats, hygiene supplies, food and other nonperishable goods to local community groups. Prior to the pandemic one of our family activities for a few years was to make dozens of hot burritos to hand out on the streets Christmas Day as people were waking up.

This year, even with limited health and financial constraints, there are many ways to be of service and to make that service or donation a gift in honor of those you love.

May the peace possible in this season find its way into your heart, and may your gifts spread this peace further into the world of those you love.

By this and every effort may the balance be regained.


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