Gift cards, love smiley face: Reporter's Notebook

Giving and getting. It’s that time of year.

Feels good to give, but what about those who like to give and don’t have the means?

I feel bad for them.

So I’d like to make a case for the gift card. I know, I know. How unimaginative! How cold! Right? I’m not talking about the family gift exchange. And I’m not talking about the gift you are thinking about for your sister Gweneth, who has it all.

If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that there are families to my left and right, upside down and sideways, driving their cars to drop off their kids like we do or did or will, looking perfectly fine, and financially sound and lovely.

But they’re not. They’re sad because they can’t buy presents.

Or food.

The Christmas lights are up and their children are making their beds ever so nice because Santa’s watching. But many have an undetectable look on their face — the frown under the mother’s smile, and the tick beneath the father’s eyebrow — the worry that the American Christmas expectations are too high, and they have no idea how to get through Christmas. They want to give gifts, because that feels great, but first they need to pay life’s living fee: there are the mountains of bills, the rent or the mortgage and the lunchboxes to fill.

These people aren’t the needy/needy, the chronically homeless, dirt poor, or the mentally ill (who, I believe, need regular help and it is the entire community’s civic duty to help them, and it does — about 1,200 families signed up for Loaves and Fishes this season).

Official or not, we are in a recession, in my view, because I know of too many families in low paying jobs, with two wage earners who are not making ends meet. And we have a new kind of needy: the working poor or ‘missing middle’ as Peoples’ Self-Housing John Fowler has dubbed the group of folks with no extra cash for the holidays. Those who are one injury or illness away from becoming homeless.

I always have poo-pooed the gift card because I love giving thoughtful gifts – personal, handmade, not-made-in China presents. I love shopping at special little boutiques for my sister and gals and ordering Japanese stuffed animals and funny trinkets for my sons and hilarious items for my dad and brothers who all unofficially compete for ‘most witty.’ The feeling of giving just the perfect gift to someone you love and seeing them light up at your thoughtfulness feels like diving into a pool of warm water under a rainbow and an exotic waterfall.

So why the gift cards?

No offense to the Earth Angels providing all kinds of help for all in need over the holiday, but in my experience, I think the best way to give to a family in need over the holidays is to give them a stack of three gift cards: one to a grocery store, another to a toy or gift store and the other needs to be a gas card.

That way they can pick out the gifts for their loved ones and experience one of the best part of the season: the joy of giving.

It’s amazing to give your child a gift when you can’t afford one. But it’s even better when you can pick it out yourself.

I mean no offense to all the amazing organizations helping those in need for the holidays. I love you all! I’m just saying, the people I know who are in need, love the act of giving as well: the personal, heartfelt, activity of picking out a gift that fits the loved ones personality and character.

And the other things they need are food and gas.

Now I know people who started a long time ago with the right idea. I have a friend whose idea of Christmas shopping is the same every year:  a one stop shop at CVS. His entire Christmas stash fits into one plastic bag, which means some lucky relatives get new toothpaste every year — score! I’m mad at him for figuring this out early enough so that he doesn’t have to live up to impossible expectations in hard times!

Many parents I know break their backs every year trying to keep up with a standard of holiday gift giving that was set the very first time they had kids or began when they themselves were children. Then every year after that the man in the red suit better deliver the same standard or “You’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do.”

If a parent loses a job, or a financial crisis of whatever sort strikes, not many folks cancel Christmas. This is the same category of people who would rather rob a Circle K than ask for help to buy their kids Christmas presents. It’s a pride thing. Not a virtue. Not deserving of pity. But an American truth nonetheless.

Those parents are sitting right now, as I speak, trying to figure out dinner, with five bucks in their checking account. They want to buy funny little gifts for their kids and loved ones for Christmas. And the probably want to cook a real dinner. But their pockets are bare.

Many of them secretly hope the movie, “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” comes true so that food will start falling from the sky. Not a realistic miracle, so I think we need to help them.

We all know the needy/needy. They are ones signed up with Loaves and Fishes. But how about our neighbors who we heard just lost a family member in a tragedy, or a job, or pension?

Imagine one day around Christmas time, they open up their mailbox and find an unstamped envelope containing a handful of gift cards: One to the grocery store. One for the gas station. And one for a toy or gift store.

Love, Smiley Face.

I imagine those parents would be grateful to be able to cook their children dinner and fill their lunchboxes with food. They could shop for holiday gifts that they pick out themselves. And feel good about the amazing reaction their loved ones felt after receiving a personal gift.

Might I add that “virtue signaling” has gotten a little out of hand. If that anonymous gift had come to a family in the fashion that people are toting their generosity in 2017, there might be a GoFundMe account started in that person’s name, or a series of Facebook posts with hashtags that read #igavetosoandso and maybe a secret video posted all over the internet of the needy person opening their mailbox and reacting to those gift cards as five secret givers hid behind the hedges.


As my mom always said, bragging about your selfless, giving ways makes you lose Saint Points.

So I’m for anonymous gift cards.

Because getting is great, but if you really want to help a person in need, I’m in support of sending them a fat stack of untraceable anonymous gift cards.


Smiley Face


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