I have to tell you, giving a non-traditional gift is one of my favorite things to do during the holidays. I like how something highly personalized enables me to exercise all of my creativity in showing someone some love.
We’re all accustomed to buying things as the focus of the holidays. But I’ve found that some of the best gifts I’ve given (and received) have been more about the thought behind them — something unique and considered for the particular recipient.
So this is my non-traditional gift guide: suggestions for what you can do and give that support a memorable moment or set of experiences.
(If you’re looking for an actual gift guide or holiday outfit suggestions, we made those too.)
The handmade gift is what we’re most familiar with, like baking holiday cookies or making homemade soap. A gesture like this can be heartwarming for anyone, from acquaintances to your closest family member.
One of my favorite ideas is cooking something beautiful that takes time. Time is a powerful currency — making someone feel like, wow, they actually thought about me in advance. Home cured corned beef takes a few weeks, and the taste is UNREAL. Someday, I’m gonna do it for my best friend Jon. He’ll lose his mind.
My family has a legendary recipe called “Mom’s mustard.” When my brother-in-law gave a homemade jar to someone in his LA office, she literally said “oh good, I was hoping I was on the list this year!”
And then there’s the classic photo book. Whether you go with the old school scrapbook approach, get digital photos made into a book using a service, or make an e-book or slideshow, collecting visual memories is always something special to share.
Give something used
The power of this gift is your vision and providing them with what they need to get going — equipping someone with gear to begin bike commuting or setting them up to learn how to play guitar. Plus, this approach is as good for the environment as it is for the soul.
I recommend getting used items, both to save costs and to reduce the preciousness that sometimes becomes a barrier to getting started. And don’t forget, the gift here is the curation as much as it is the items themselves, so it doesn’t need to be the nicest product — it’s a starting point for a new adventure.
Think of what your recipient has been dreaming of doing (or a hobby you think they might enjoy) and assemble a collection of low cost or used things to support it.
For a new bike commuter: find cycling clothes on eBay, find a used bike, and map the routes they’ll want to start with. Or maybe you get an old guitar, make a playlist of instructional videos on YouTube, and a folder of sheet music for a few easy but favorite songs.
Nostalgia gifts can be particularly powerful, and sometimes are better used than new. Like buying an old train set off eBay — getting a new one for an adult might be a weird move, but a classic set from their childhood would be magical.
The gift here is the time you put into finding the right information, curated together in a useful format for your recipient. We don’t always take (or have) the time to do it for ourselves, so this can be really meaningful — especially if it also ties into granting them permission or providing support for their future effort.
I recently asked friends for how they deal with kids and certain activities. If someone did that for me — presented a roundup of the best vacations they ever took with their kids, or shared their chore checklists and reward system — it would be of real value in making my life better for years to come.
A favorite in this category is (again) related to food. You can collect recipes, maybe organize them into a meal plan, and shop for some of the necessary spices. The key is not to dump a new chore on them but to empower and equip them for a delicious journey.
I also like to make themed lists of podcasts to recommend, like my list of family-friendly episodes of The Moth. While I also like giving or suggesting books, podcasts are particularly nice because they’re free and easy to access — and they can help make a long trip more enjoyable.
Another gift of time spent doing the dirty work of getting details together — plus a special shared experience.
Whether you get every element of the event planned to the minute or just research an itinerary that can be executed on a future date, you’re showing them that time together is what matters and that you’ve considered their preferences.
For me, trips are always amazing adventures, so I like to plan a weekend away with friends or family. Or you can keep it to a single activity, like going to a sporting event or concert. What can take this gift to another level is getting other people they care about committed to participating.
Another approach is a hybrid of this and giving used items: organize an activity and outfit everyone to participate. Once I got used hockey pads on the cheap so we could all play on the ice without getting hurt. It was a blast.
Give something from your inner self
These are the least material yet possibly most impactful gifts. It may seem simple, but these can be incredibly meaningful for the person — and your relationship.
Granting someone permission and supporting their dreams can be a powerful thing. Think about what they’ve talked about, over and over again, but it always seems too far in the distance. How can you free them up to make the move and get started?
Maybe you can promise to go with them to a class or sit on the sidelines (or wait in a park nearby) while they start a new hobby. It may not seem like much, but you’re helping them dedicate the time and providing the support for them to follow through.
On a more tangible front, you could schedule time to take care of chores or childcare to free them up for a few hours a week.
A commitment to something together, like learning a new skill or just spending quality time, can make all the difference in the world. Whether it’s reorganizing the garage together or taking dance lessons or scheduling a recurring date night, they’ll appreciate your investment in your relationship (and not only the romantic ones).
A million things can be fun to open, but my preference would be to receive a really thoughtful gift, made with love just for me.
I hope you feel inspired to come up with ideas for the special people in your life, and have a wonderful holiday season.
P.S. If you’re trying to plan a special end to your year, here’s my recipe for a perfect New Year’s Eve (and Day).