Spending during the holidays can be challenging at the best of times, and after a year of record inflation and rising prices, there’s no better opportunity to remember the most meaningful gifts usually aren’t the most expensive ones. In fact, the best presents show thoughtfulness and care, rather than a massive price tag.
To celebrate the magic of the holiday season, The Globe asked readers to share memories of their best gifts – ones that had nothing to do with what they cost. We heard from readers about inexpensive gifts that transported them back to their childhoods, brought families together and commemorated the power of love.
These are some of their stories, unwrapped.
Jerry Young, 45, Vancouver
Best gift: A ‘milestone’ rock
“This ‘milestone’ rock is from my best friend, Hennie. She gave it to me when I graduated university, both to commemorate the achievement, and as a reminder to enjoy the achievement of milestones rather than immediately chasing after the next milestone (a bad habit of mine at the time). Any time I get stressed chasing some new goal, I look at this silly rock, and can’t help but laugh at myself – it keeps me grounded and reminds me not to take things too seriously. Fourteen years on, it’s still one of my favourite gifts ever.”
Katie McEwin, 37, London, Ont.
Best gift: A handmade dollhouse
“My grandpa made a dollhouse for me, which looking back was scrap wood and leftover bits of wallpaper, and I loved it so much! Such love was put into it, I’ll never forget the surprise moment!”
Lisa Galanov, 52, Barriere, B.C.
Best gift: Bags of kindling for a wood-heated home
“My husband and I lived in Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia for 13 years, and we lived on the coast in a little house. We lived on wood heat. One year, our good friends were renovating a house, pulling off slats from the side of their house. They knew that I absolutely hated chopping the kindling, the little pieces of wood to start the fire. So for my birthday that year, they came over for dinner. They told me to come downstairs in the garage and there were three big old seed bags full of kindling. They had broken up all the little pieces of wood and it was the most thoughtful gift I could have gotten. It cost them nothing and it was just perfect. I had kindling every day for the rest of the winter to start my fire and keep warm.”
Kimberly Brunet, 39, Kelowna, B.C.
Best gift: Handmade birdhouse
“My dad made birdhouses for his grandchildren, using the wood from an old sawhorse that belonged to his father (and their great grandfather). It included a little inscription of the story for where the wood came from and how old it was.”
Suzanne Scanlon, 60, Ajax, Ont.
Best gift: A hockey stick
“Santa gave me a hockey stick when I was about six, back in the sixties. It was an unusual gift for a little girl back then, to say the least. I didn’t think much of it at the time but in hindsight it was Santa’s way of saying that girls could do whatever boys do, and it was probably the first time Santa gave me that message. A year or so later, I got a doctor’s kit – not a nurse’s kit, which was a popular item for girls at the time, but a doctor’s kit. Yep, Santa was a smart one! And thanks to the messages from him and from my parents, I grew up knowing that I didn’t need to let my gender hold me back from what I wanted to do.”
Laura Kieley, 51, Demarest, N.J.
Best gift: A recording of grandfather’s diary
“My uncle Mike recorded my grandfather’s sealing diary from 1940 and gave it to me as a birthday gift. My uncle’s voice is so clear, and the way he reads the diary is so moving. It connects me to them, but also to my identity as a Newfoundlander. The diary recording is a gift of family history, but also a gift of pure love. The kind of love everyone wishes for. Once in a while, I’ll light a candle, pour a glass of wine and listen. Every time I do, I feel that they are with me.”
Yun Cheng, 43, Toronto
Best gift: Matching family PJs
“The best low-cost gift that I’ve given was a set of matching red and black flannel jammies purchased for our family on a whim! We’re a newly blended family, so it was the perfect gift to bring us all together for the festive season. It was also an ideal gift for the teens in the family, who can be challenging to purchase inexpensive items for. It brings us much joy to see them on everyone at other times of the year as well. We actually call them ‘jammie jams’ after a member of the extended family joked about our jammies and coined the term. I think he just secretly really wanted a pair too!”
Sherrill Tucker, 64, Toronto
Best gift: Hand-painted cards
“I hand-paint my own cards. It all started when I was a stay-at-home mom. Starting from Halloween, every night after dinner and homework, we were at the kitchen table for a minimum of an hour hand-painting things for relatives and friends. It just has evolved to me being a single person and I’ve gone back to my roots, I’ve gone back to being artistic in my gift-giving. I’ve been an artist since I was a child, so to give that gift, which costs me nothing, gives me so much in return of just producing something. The gifts that you hand make, people appreciate even more.”
Wendy Underwood, Toronto
Best gift: Refinished childhood rocking chair
“My husband refinished my childhood adult-sized rocking chair as a birthday gift a number of years ago. The chair was in the kitchen by the wood stove in my home in Nova Scotia for many years. It was a memorable place to read throughout my childhood – my mother would chase me out of it to play outside – and to this day remains so. This was my most memorable gift and so very appreciated by me. I call it a labour of love.”
Victoria Gilbert, 34, Victoria
Best gift: Gently-used books
“I have gifted books I’ve read in excellent condition, meaning no cracked spine, bent pages or scuffs on the cover/back, to family members as part of Christmas gifts. Everyone in my family loves to read and by giving books I’ve read myself it also allows for a shared experience down the road discussing the book and hopefully a new favourite author for the book recipient. Most recently, I have gifted books by Kate Quinn to my mum and my aunt, The Rose Code, The Diamond Eye and The Alice Network. I don’t believe gifts need to be brand new to be meaningful, appreciated or enjoyed. I believe it’s about the gift itself and the meaning it has to you and to the recipient.”
Kate Navarro, 38, Stayner, Ont.
Best gift: A personalized 1,000-piece puzzle
“My grandfather loves puzzles so I created a custom 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle for his 90th birthday. I used photos of my grandparents, their kids, their grandkids and their great-grand kids. It was so amazing to see the excitement of my grandfather when he received this gift. He loved the puzzle, thought it was so memorable. Once he completed it, he had me take a photo and turn it into a printable poster that he gifted to every member of the family, which just made it so much more special!”
Kim Korven, 57, Regina
Best gift: A handmade poster
“About a month into the COVID lockdown, my daughter turned 15. With everything that was going on, I had forgotten (I know, a “bad mom” moment). To save the day, I took out a piece of printer paper and some pencil crayons. In the centre of the paper I printed, “Happy 15th birthday Lucy. I appreciate you because …”. Then, using different colours, I wrote the different ways I appreciate her. Of all the gifts I’ve given my daughter, this is the only one that hangs on the bulletin board in her room. I bet she can’t even remember any of the others. It cost nothing yet has the most meaning.”
Pauline Dalby, 76, Toronto
Best gift: A drawing from a stranger
“A few years ago, a homeless lady gave me a tiny drawing of a tiger lily she had done, and wished me happy Christmas. It brought tears to my eyes. It is still on my dressing table today.”
Patricia Diaz, 65, Charlottetown
Best gift: The gift of prayer
“I have given and received the gifts of prayer, love, company and caring. I have given all of the above to my family and beloved ones, specially to my elderly parents. Praying a novena to St. John Paul II was the last and most precious gift I could give my dying mom on her last Mother’s Day. She was hospitalized in Mexico City, intubated and could not talk at all. But could hear me, and so she acknowledged receiving my gift through tears rolling down her cheeks.”
Doug Lippay, 64, Sunderland, Ont.
Best gift: Grandparents’ vintage wall-mounted clock
“I used to spend a lot of time when I was growing up at my grandparents’ house, and they had a vintage wall-mounted clock that had a prided place in their house. It would chime every hour. The sound just gave me a sense of comfort. When my dad was cleaning up some items, he came across the clock. He polished it off, got it working, adjusted the pendulum so it kept proper time – and he gave it to me as a Christmas present. I don’t think my dad realized how much that chiming clock meant to me when I was younger. The moment the clock chimes, it takes me back to a time when I’m five or six years old staying with my grandparents.”
Frank Fortin, 72, Wyoming, Ont.
Best gift: A chess set
“I was asked to buy a chess set for my brother-in-law. It was fun to search for just the right set. I enjoyed haggling on price. A marvelous afternoon. Was actually surprised Christmas morning when it was my gift. The whole experience was magical.”
Bev Thibault, 61, Ottawa
Best gift: A Bulk Barn buying spree
“When my son, Jake, was about 8 or 9, I gave him a two-minute buying spree at Bulk Barn. My husband and I realized he couldn’t remember previous ‘things’ we had given him, but could easily remember experiences. So, I wanted to give him some memory-making adventures. Jake loved joining me on trips to Bulk Barn. His company would drive me crazy because he wanted to buy everything in the sweet and snack aisles. So it worked out so well. He was so elated and giddy as we approached the store. He laughed and had a great time running between bins. He bought about $25 worth of candy and snacks, which he enjoyed until about mid-February. When my son was 20, I asked if he remembered any Christmas gifts he had received as a child. Without hesitation, he remembers the Bulk Barn ‘extravaganza’ most of all.”