Once Halloween is history, the winter holidays are upon us in the blink of an eye.

This is not the year for the must-have toy that causes fist-fights and prompts parents to shell out big bucks. U.S. consumers are paying off debt at record levels and spending only on essentials, leaving retailers with more nightmares before Christmas than Charles Dickens’ Ebeneezer Scrooge.

It’s a sad irony that we trade prosperity for introspection and thrift, convinced that we may have one but not the others. Something has to pry our attention away from the shopping malls and TV sports, however. And there’s nothing so good at dispersing distractions and focusing attention than a mound of bills without a paycheck, or one too small to make it through the month.

If not a record retail season, then, what do we have to rejoice about for these winter holidays? Maybe it can be found within the dearth itself. When money doesn’t flow so freely, it’s less likely to drown the spirit of the season.

We all have our own definitions for said spirit, depending on our religious convictions, or lack thereof. But perhaps this time of year boils down simply to love and appreciation. Even without a penny to our name, we are wealthy indeed when we have someone to love and to love us in return, and are able to show and express appreciation for this greatest of all blessings.

Appreciation is the key, and it is the true foundation for seasonal giving. A gift is a material token that states, “I appreciate you and your love.” Gifts selected to flaunt money or one-up the neighbors devolve into a burden and a curse. No wonder so much “giving” has landed us into debt. We seldom pay attention to the motives that drive our holiday sprees. Now at least we are forcing ourselves to watch our wallets. (One website designed to help us do that this season is PoorSanta.com.)

The simplest gifts are often the best. Two of my favorites are a decorative pillow with my initials in needlepoint done by a colleague from a job long ago, and a hand-carved print of a winter snow scene made by a childhood friend. Neither was fancy or expensive, but I have kept them both for decades because they are authentic works of the heart. The feelings that went into these presents make them literally priceless to me.

Above all, this is the season for love, appreciation, friendship. The true challenge is not how much money to spend, or how much to save. It is how do we best express these feelings?

For most of us, part of such expression involves getting together with loved ones – friends and family from near and very often far. Yet even that dissolves into a stressful grind if we do it out of a sense of duty and obligation or try to put on a lavish spread to impress others.

The truest spirit of the season is gathering only with those we want to be with, giving only what we may offer with joyous, unencumbered hearts, and telling them in any way we can how much we love and appreciate them. Those are the real gifts for this time of the year, and they are not usually found close to where money changes hands.

(Talmadge blogs at StoneScribe.)

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