Holiday Gift Guide
Yo! There’s not much time left before the holidays are upon us, and we’re probably already passed the safe shipping threshold for ordering things and having them guaranteed to be delivered by Christmas. That means it’s entirely the wrong time for a holiday shopping guide, so it’s a good thing that this is barely a shopping guide, and more of a meditation on giving. There is a gift guide at the bottom, it’s a little non-traditional. The middle bits are about consumerism and death, so maybe skip those if you’re actually looking for a gift guide.
There are a lot of American/Christian traditions that make me unhappy, or uncomfortable, or uneasy. There are a lot of aspects of Christmas that fall in to that bucket. (The salvation army, for example, runs counter to nearly every value I hold dear. Frankly, the entire concept of Santa as he exists in American culture– half advertising mascot, half personification of empty consumerism as religion– is deeply unsettling, and probably actively harmful. But that’s not what I’m writing about today.)
Here, have a song about Christmas Consumerism:
What I love about Christmas
Christmas is an excuse to get together with your friends and family and celebrate one another. In the US, this almost always consists of spending a lot of money on things that no one wants, and wearing very warm clothes to your grandmother’s house, only to remember a few minutes too late that she keeps the heat on 80 and your undershirt, while not exactly Vulgar, would invite questions you’re not ready to answer. Obviously this has the potential to be wildly uncomfortable! I’ve never been more politically and socially alienated from my family, and I’m sure the same is true for many of you who are reading this. I love the tradition in spite of the ways that it is uncomfortable, and in spite of the ways that it is excessive, because of what it can represent: A reminder to slow down, to consider the people in your life and what they mean to you, and to acknowledge the fleeting nature of existence.
The Sad Bit
It’s been a few years since my mom passed. She was 49, had an agressive cancer, and refused treatment. She died a few weeks short of her 50th birthday. Her last christmas on earth, six months before she passed, was a bittersweet affair. By then, we all knew she wasn’t going to recover, and no one really knew how long she had left. My stepfather spoke in a soft whisper about how she was barely getting out of bed, how she seemed to be in constant pain.
We played board games. For 6 or 7 hours, Mom and her husband, my brother and his wife, me and my wife, and an occasional assortment of other family members took turns playing board games. Mom had gone on a quest to obtain a bunch of games that we had enjoyed as kids, many of which were long out of production. It was a good day.
And, obviously, it wasn’t about the games. It was about the time. That day, we each gave to one another our time and attention. We put away our cameras and our computers and our notifications, and spent time together, enjoying one another’s company, entertaining one another. It was genuine, rather than performative. In retrospect, it was a sad day and just one of dozens that bookended it, but it was also a celebration.
The holidays, before that, had become a chore. A thing I participated in out of obligation. The routine was set: Drive 600 miles, barely sleep, drive 150 miles from family to family, barely eat, drive 600 miles home. Spend money I didn’t have on gifts people didn’t want, watch the clock, run the circuit.
And then I was forced to slow down, to focus on the people around me, to realize and acknowledge the fleeting nature of our lives and the fragility of the human condition, and in light of all of that, the holidays are an opportunity! (This does not mean that they stop being awkward, or uncomfortable, or tedious, or exhausting. It means that I choose to look past those concerns to focus on giving as much of my time and attention to my loved ones as I can manage.)
The Happy Bit
Winter is a time of death and rebirth. My little brother and his wife are expecting, the baby is due any day now. We’re going to participate in the sacred duty of raising, educating, and caring for this new life.
My life is full of people I care about, and we’re going to spend time together and play games and sing songs and celebrate life.
I lost my job a few months ago, and I’ve decided to try and make my life work without taking another. I’m striving to be present, to be a part of the world around me, instead of being a ball of anxiety and anger. It’s a work in progress.
Actual Gift Guide
This year, my gift budget was pretty tight. In the recent past, this wasn’t true. I have had to get creative in a way that is a little unfamiliar, so I’m going to write about the process of giving gifts when you’re working on a tight budget.
If you’re not working on a tight budget, I have some other suggestions too, but DEC is 1/3 over, you’re probably done shopping by now right? Right?
I love giving books for the holidays. I love giving people books that I think they’ll like. I love giving people books that I think will challenge them. I love buying books at thrift stores to turn in to presents. I love giving away my copies of books that I’ve read and enjoyed.
In years passed, I have also gone hard for eBooks. Used ebook readers can frequently be found for under $20, and they rarely need any work (occasionally a new battery, but even that is somewhat rare considering how low powered most ebook readers are.) On top of ebook readers being cheap, ebook apps for smartphones are nearly ubiquitous. I like KoReader, but there are a bunch of options. You can give the epubs on a flash drive or SD card (or floppy disk, if you’re feeling nostalgic), or print a card with a QR code that takes you to a free webpage hosted by neocities from which the files can be downloaded.
And, of course, if you’re feeling adventurous, there’s always the DIY binding option. You can laser print and glue bind or stitch bind paperbacks and hardbacks for not a lot of money in a reasonable amount of time. You’ll have to experiment, and find a method that works for you with the equipment you have access to.
Alternately, any printer plus a long arm or swivel stapler turns you in to a zine making machine. Write your own zines, reprint other people’s zines, make digest sized comic book reprints from Comic Book Plus.
But what books?
Books I buy used when I find them cheap to give as gifts:
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
- The Color of Magic
- Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore
- Any ACE Double but especially the works of Andre Norton.
- But the thing is, you know what books people in your life would like. Spend a few minutes walking the Book section at your local thrift stores, and see if anything seems like something your friends would enjoy.
Ebooks I give away, when I’m giving away ebooks (or books to hand print and give away):
- Makers by Cory Doctorow - Near future science fiction about the collapse of the global economy, and the rise of a maker economy.
- Little Brother by Cory Doctorow - Near future social science fiction about the aftermath of a terrorist attack in the SF bay area. Great YA fiction.
- Homeland by Cory Doctorow - Sequel to Little Brother, about politics, journalism, and duty.
- My Own Kind of Freedom by Steven Brust - A firefly novel
- Doctor Who and Shada by Paul Scoones - Based on the BBC television serial by Douglas Adams
- My Man Jeeves or other works by PG Wodehouse
- Edison’s Conquest of Mars - an unofficial sequel to the War of the Worlds in which Thomas Edison flys to mars and takes over. Yes, really.
- I could go on for a while, there are a lot of great Creative Commons or Public Domain books in the world, but I have other stuff to cover. Check the excellent Standard eBooks project for beautiful ebooks, or Project Gutenburg for a huge collection. There’s something for everyone.
Zines to print:
- The Very Little Red Songbook
- Little Red Songbook 1913 edition (or the 1919 edition)
- Various really excellent zines about how computers work, available for purchase as PDFs from Julia Evans.
- Community Media, A Handbook For Revolutions in DIY TV by Andrew Roach - It’s by ME! It’s about building your own TV station. Full text is online and CC-BY-SA licensed.
- Lots of short stories from Project Gutenburg can be formatted in to zines pretty quickly.
- There are lots of great comic books available from Comic Book Plus that are in the public domain and free to remix or re-use.
- The point of a Zine is to DIY. Write something fun and silly or serious and sad. Format it 5.5 x 8.5. Save it as a PDF. Print it out in “booklet” mode on a windows PC (yes, windows. I know. It’s the only OS that gets booklet mode correct in Adobe PDF viewer. It makes making zines much easier.) Have fun with it, that’s the point.
Maybe your friends and loved ones don’t have time to read. eBooks on CD-R, Flash Drive, or QR Code download can be a great alternative. The Librevox project has a bunch of free audiobooks of varying quality. There are also Old Time Radio shows like x minus one and Space Patrol, or modern podcasts like Expedition Sasquatch or Jupiter’s Ghost.
Music, Movies, Video Games, etc.
Again thrift stores are a great source for DVDs and VHS tapes. It takes some digging, but sometimes you can find a particularly poignant tape or disc, couple it with a VCR if you go the VHS route. VHS tapes specifically are cute and nostalgic and very cheap. You can frequently find VCRs at my local thrift stores for less than $10 and VHS tapes are often only a few pennies. (One local shop does “as many as you can fit in a shopping bag” for $2. That usally works out to about ten cents a tape.)
There’s a decent chance that someone in your family had a VHS camcorder. There’s a decent chance they still do. An Easycap runs about $10 on most big box retail websites. Couple that with your VHS camcorder and OBS and you can copy all those old home movies in to a format that might live for another decade.
I don’t know what DVDs, VHS tapes, Cassettes, CDs, or LPs your family would enjoy, but you do! Go dig, find something that brings joy. Consume it together.
Old video games are getting unreasonably pricey, but some shops still have games (and even occasionally consoles) for some systems cheaply. Our local 2nd and Charles has Atari 2600 games, for example, for $4 or less. I picked up a used Retron77 on craigslist, and a couple of games from 2nd and charles, for a total of less than $30. I’m fairly certain it will be the hit of the household.
The Retron77 has the added bonus of playing games from an SD card. Many of the modern retro-consoles do. That has the added benefit of letting you sideload indie games. There is a huge scene making new Atari 2600 games, commodore 64 games, Gameboy Games and a whole mess of games for other platforms. Many of these are given away for free on sites like itch.io
I’m a big fan of Halo2600 (download Final.bin from this page to stick in your emulator or console, or play it online), and Flap-Ping a combo Joust/Pong game, but there are hundreds of homebrew atari games to explore.
And this goes way deeper. Independent and freely distributed Text Adventure games are widely available. Some of them are truly remarkable. You can find all kinds of neat stuff from small creators on the web, and sharing them with your friends and family can often have a bigger impact than spending money!
And, of course, any music recorded before 1923 is in the public domain in the US. You could make a mixtape (CD, Flash Drive, QR code leading to a collection on archive.org) of your favorite public domain tunes from the National Jukebox or the Great 78 project.
Here’s a free christmas album my friends recorded:
I’ve talked about some of my favorite independent music before. Shove a bunch of mp3s on a flash drive or find some other way to get them to your family.
Iron on t-shirts can be done pretty quickly and cheaply, and they’ll last a long time if they are properly cared for. Screen printed t-shirts can be done slightly less quickly, but more cheaply if you’re doing more than one, and they’ll last much longer. My little brother still routinely wears an iron on shirt I made for him 6 or 7 years ago, and the print has barely faded. I have hand made screenprinted shirts that are older than I am.
Your town probably has some kind of office supply store. They’ll do all kinds of print services pretty cheaply. You can usually get a tabloid sized print for a dollar or two, they make excellent posters. Some places also offer even larger “drafting” prints in black and white for the same price. These can be really cool posters!
If your loved one has a car with a CD player, a mix CD on CD-R is still a great gift! If they only have a USB port, you can totally just load a flash drive with mp3s, and the car will play them!
One year, my mom took a bunch of clothes that I’d outgrown and sewed them in to a quilt. Quilts are a lot of work, and it’s too late in the season to embark on a quilt for this year, but there’s always next year!
Photobooks are great presents, and can be done cheaply. Everyone has, for the most part, resigned themselves to photos existing largely through facebook, and being essentially ephemeral. Getting a bunch of prints made for a few cents a piece of a photo kiosk and pasting them in to a scrapbook is magical.
Walmart sells a house brand tablet running Android “Go” for Less than $50. Amazon Kindle Fires are frequently available in the same price point. Sometimes you can find them on sale for as low as $25. Neither of these are good devices, but they’re both capable of a few things that are neat. 1) Reading comic books! There are free comic book reading apps that support the standard CBZ and CBR formats, and a tablet is a great way to read a comic book. 2) connecting to a local media server and playing TV shows, movies, and music.
They also frequently offer a GoogleTV or AndroidTV box for less than $20.
If you have the technical knowhow, and you end up with a cheap android device, I recommend installing something like lineageOS if there is a build for your device. Android devices, especially AndroidTV and GoogleTV devices, are a privacy nightmare, but they’re cheap and widely available and often pretty easy to hack. A hacked up second hand android device with Kodi, VLC, and KOReader can be a really great gift, especially when paired with some ebooks, music, etc.
I tend to have a fair number of old and forgotten computers sitting around at any given moment, and I like to make them useful. One quick way to make a computer useful is to install something like Kodi on it, connect it to the network, and load it up with Public Domain, Creative Commons, and other DRM free media. Couple that with a couple of android devices runing kodi, and you can have a great way to watch movies, listen to music, and even watch independent TV for not a lot of money.
Alternately, revisting the Video Game section above, it’s possible to turn many old computers, android devices, and other electronics in to simple game consoles. RetroPi for the Raspberry Pi family is a popular way to do this, but EmulationStation, Libretro, and lot of other methods are available. Pair an atari 2600 emulator, a sub $15 game controller, and a bunch of homebrew game files with a computer that is too old to do anything useful, and you’ve got yourself a few hours of family fun. Laptops with broken screens make excellent home theater/set-top box PCs.
If you want to get a little more technical, there are lots of ways to host webpages for free. I’m a fan of neocities, but it’s far from the only option. Perhaps your loved ones would appreciate a a wacky little web art project?
If you want to get really technical, you could do something like using yunohost plus spare computer bits (or a $5/month VPS from one of the various cloud providers) to run cloud services for your family, like nextcloud, matrix chat, fediverse hosting, etc. This certainly won’t be the way for everyone, but it can be a cheap or free way to do something meaningful in the right communities.
I’m not really suggesting any of these computer-y things specifically, so much as I’m trying to encourage you to take what you have and what you know and turn it in to something new.
Build an Adventure
The point of the holidays, as far as I’m concerned, is to spend time with people you care about. Make a scavenger hunt, print a print and play board game, download Gameboy Studio and insert your friends and family in to a christmas minigame.
Find some victorian christmas ghost stories and take turns reading them to one another.
Find a local concert venue that brings in artists from your community, get tickets to a show you wouldn’t have usually gone to, share it with a friend.
Go see a local theater production. Find a frisby golf course and attempt to play with the cheapest frisby you can find.
The trick is to do things together. That’s what it’s about.
If you have money to spend and you want to spend money, who am I to stop you?
I recommend the following things, some of which are from businesses that I operate or am involved with. Some of which are just from places I like.
- Coffee from GA Mountain Coffee
- T-shirts or Ornaments from the Ellijay Makerspace
- Tea or pottery from Bonsabi
- Toys from Mountain Town Toys
- Books from Firestorem Books
- Records, tapes, or digital downloads from Analog Revoltion (apparel from this site absolutely will not arrive in time for the holidays)
But, frankly, if you’re going to spend money on gifts and it’s this late in the season, let me offer one last piece of advice: Find something made in your community. Spend your money locally, it’ll go further and do more.
Have a wonderful holiday season everyone. Be genuine. Be present. The world is on fire, time is fleeting. Celebrate, hold your loved ones close.