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Craig and Marc Kielburger founded Free The Children and Me to We. Their biweekly Brain Storm column taps experts and readers for solutions to social issues.

If there's any rival to hockey as Canada's national extreme winter sport, it just might be holiday shopping. The annual ritual requires us to put our sanity on hold to secure a singing Frozen Disney Elsa doll, a Lego Movie spaceship, an XBox One, a pair of socks for each cousin and dozens of gift cards from stores in every corner of the mall.

The headache – er, act of love and joy – is all for that moment when our carefully chosen gifts are opened in a mad frenzy not unlike a scene out of the Discovery Channel's Shark Week. Come Boxing Day, we are left with heaps of loot that we have no idea what to do with and may find ourselves asking, "What was that all about?"

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Studies find holiday happiness is highest when the commercial side is de-emphasized in favour of family and faith – and when gifts of things are replaced with gifts of experiences. Craig's favourite gift of all time, for example, remains the day pass to circus school his friends gave him for his 30th birthday.

We're all in favour of creative ways to gift thoughtfully that eschew the materialistic excess we all bemoan. From consumables like homemade cookies and experiences like concert tickets, to "buying a goat" for a family overseas on behalf of a friend – and other "gifts that give back" such as fair-trade artisan jewellery and crafts – we can reduce the amount of "stuff" we buy without sacrificing the smiles.

Still, the modern holiday shopping list poses challenges to this approach. It's filled with loved ones and close friends, but also distant relatives, casual work colleagues and party hosts. Does that guy from the office whose name you drew in the gift exchange like ballet or basketball? Do you really want to promise Aunt Bess a foot rub? And does getting homemade cookies each year ever get old? (Note to our friends: for us, it definitely does not. Bring on the baking!)

This week's question: What's your best non-material Christmas gift idea?

THE EXPERTS

Elizabeth Dunn, co-author of Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending

"Consider buying time for the people on your list. For the new parents who haven't been out on a date in months, buy a gift certificate for a babysitting service. For the busy neighbour who never has time to cook, order a personalized healthy home-delivered meal."

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Heather Lynne, founder of RaisingMemories.com

"We did a special treasure hunt for our kids – the end was a box filled with tokens from the local Chuck E. Cheese's for a holiday family outing. Another time, we wrapped their favourite princess dresses tickets to the Disney on Ice show. Passes to Canada's Wonderland, a hotel sleepover in the city to visit the museum and aquarium are other favourites."

Josh Martin, development co-ordinator for Ottawa-based sustainability non-profit The Otesha Project

"Agree to a 'Buy Nothing Christmas' with your friends and loved ones. Make each other gifts or give a 'coupon' book with a different voucher for each of the 12 days of Christmas – back massages, a romantic day off work together, a guitar lesson or help on a project using your expertise as a handyperson."

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