5 No-Shopping-Required Thoughtful Gift Ideas

by Susanah Cheok

Don’t get crushed by the buying rush. Quit the shopping stress club. Take a leaf out of these thoughtful giving gestures that aren’t earth-killing, wasteful nor cluttering.

’Tis the season to get into long check-out queues, stuck in traffic, trawl online shops till you’re goggle-eyed and fret over delivery delays?

Not if you’re going the way of these clever folk, who share resourceful tips on how to bear thoughtful, sustainable gifts that are right out of the (gift) box. Their carefully planned gifts will have their absolute personal touch and the extra special factor of being less wasteful, less cluttering, and much kinder to the earth.

Who doesn’t love being fed? It’s like being hugged and made to feel cared for. Mothers feed their young, pack leaders hunt for their tribe and pack. There is a deep sense of being under someone’s protection and wing when they feed you. Food feeds not just the body, but the soul. Anyone who’s ever attempted to cook or bake anything will know the thought, work and effort that go into it. Sweat and tears literally, at times, and when food is cooked with love, you can taste it in the flavours.

That’s why it’s a no-brainer for Crystal Yap, stylist and private dining chef to gift comforting homemade edibles this year. When the media production stylist is not busy making people beautiful, she can be found cooking in the kitchen. The single rainbow mum of 3 young boys launched No. 11 Private Dining in 2018 and has been connecting people through food ever since. Life and love inspire her, and her kids are the centre of her universe.

Says Crystal, “Edibles as a holiday gift work because I have an innate nature to nurture and feed, so what better way to show my love through food, especially during this festive season. Food is an essential anyway. Everyone’s got to eat. Together with my mum, I’m planning to make 2 types of homemade sambal that we intend to gift to our family and friends. Sambal because I can’t eat anything without chilli and it’s also a very versatile condiment to have in the kitchen.”

When German-born Daniel Pietschmann first came to Singapore 6 years ago, he was bewildered when his Singaporean wife sent him a phone number to text for help on small home repairs. “I was wondering who she wanted me to call? I meant for her to point me to the nearest hardware store. Who calls another man to do his own house repairs?” It’s unheard of where he came from.

That’s how the dive instructor and hobbyist carpenter became the go-to handyman among friends and family members. Spotting a real need and wanting to fill it has given him ideas on how to make people happy by solving their day-to-day problems. He enjoys working with his hands and derives joy and satisfaction from a day of sawing, planing, cutting and hammering.

Says Daniel, “This year, our neighbours were recipients of a foyer paint job. Our lift lobby and apartment doorways were looking a little dreary, with scuff marks and stains on the walls and skirting. A new neighbour had just moved in and I’d always wanted to do something for the other 2 families too. So I got to work with a few tubs of paint and lots of ground sheet. It took me a week to complete, but it was well worth the effort knowing I’ve made their space brighter and cheerier. It was my holiday gift to them.

“As gifts, I’ve also fixed door bells and busted sinks, a sewing machine, and have a bathroom cabinet to build for a friend’s mum. That’s going to take me a few days’ toil, but I’m looking forward to the finished work. It’s hard work, but meaningful. Besides, I’m not good with picking gifts, so I’ve made it a point to give of my time and (humble) talent instead.”

In her former life, Cynthia Chew, now a lecturer for mass communications at a polytechnic, was a well-travelled, well-known, much-read and followed beauty editor. Thanks to her, many women have learnt how to pick the right skin care, the perfect red lipstick, and how to do a proper bedhead. There aren’t enough pebbles in a brook to count the number of beauty brand launches she’s attended over the course of her career as Singapore’s unofficial beauty agony aunt. It almost goes without saying that back in the day, she received beauty products on a daily basis and much more during festive seasons – a deluge would be no exaggeration. As a result, her office space often looked like a mini cosmetics department.

A case of so many foundations, so little face, evolved into the practice of practical re-gifting. But there’s an art to it which Cynthia generously shares: “As it’s been said, I have only one face, and only so much skin on which to try as many products as possible. So, rather than let the products ‘go to waste’ (yes, cosmetics, hair and skin care products have expiry dates too), what better way than to ‘recycle’ the excess and re-gift them?

“I’m very selective and careful with who I gift them to – usually family members and some very close friends whom I know will appreciate them and not think that I’m being a scrooge. Besides, how many people get to receive a full set of Chanel, YSL, or Dior makeup products, or limited edition deluxe coffret sets, as presents every year? I usually put a lot of thought into pairing the right gifts to the recipients. I would consider their lifestyles, as well as their habits and tastes. Once, I also donated my festive beauty haul to church as part of their annual Christmas dinner lucky draw.

Her ultimate tip on re-gifting “is to only re-gift products and items that are brand new and in their original packaging – nothing less will do. It’s counter-productive to giving when someone feels she or he is receiving a hand-me-down or an unwanted gift.”

Since polite society is still wary of the idea of re-gifting, considers it an absolutely no-no, and at best they are ambivalent about it, we asked Olga Iserlis, Events Planner Extraordinaire, Founder of Adagio Events Pte Ltd and writer of the coffee table tome, Save The Date, to weigh in on the practice. Olga and her team plan and manage large-scale events for luxury brands with invite lists that cover the who’s-who in Singapore, the region and around the world.

The high-profile etiquette expert says, “Re-gifting can sometimes come across as a sort of taboo with a stigma around it. I was brought up with the rule of etiquette that implied that ‘re-gifting’ is in bad taste. That said, I do observe more of a tolerance towards the re-gifting concept these days. Maybe due to the conscious attitude of caring for the environment, or simply because I think that there are others out there who may take more of a liking towards a gift I’ve received than I would. It doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate any gift I’m given, just that there are other things to consider when receiving a gift – if you have something similar, it’s not something that would suit you, or if you simply don’t have space for it in your house. There is a saying that I like: “You can break the rules, if you know them well”. Re-gifting is one of those rules that can be broken if done with elegance, thought, and honesty.”

Olga’s well thought out checklist of protocols for appropriate re-gifting include:

“Being honest with yourself and others. Don’t go out of your way to create a story behind the gift if you are re-gifting it from someone else; simply explain that you don’t like the gift yourself. Only re-gift if you feel that whoever you are giving the gift to, would appreciate it more than you. I wouldn’t hesitate, for example, re-gifting an item to my daughter or a close friend. It’s important when re-gifting, to always open the gift completely and re-wrap it before re-gifting.

“Do not re-gift an item that was made specifically for you. It is offensive to someone who went out of their way to create it and put his/her heart into it. I always will treasure a painting that is made for me or a sweater that was knitted for me, even if these items may not necessarily be of my taste. They are precious because the thought that counts always comes first. Make sure the gifts have no hidden personalisations on them.”

Some items that Olga considers appropriate for re-gifting are books, candles, wine and champagne.  She shares, “I wouldn’t feel too bad re-gifting a book I already have, especially if there was no gift receipt given with it. Candles are always timeless options, as long as they have not been tampered with or used. For wines and champagne, make sure the labels on the bottles are not torn and check the value of the wine, liquor or champagne and decide if it’s appropriate for the occasion you’ve been invited to attend.

“Whatever the gift may be, you should always write a personal card. This is a small but important gesture that elevates the level of any gift to a different level. After all, it’s the thought that counts, and your feelings and expressions of gratitude can’t be ‘re-cycled’.”

Noelle de Jesus is many things – wife, mother-of-2, tennis addict, yoga enthusiast and friend – but first and foremost a writer. Throughout her life, she has been “lying to people, exaggerating, telling stories in as honest a way as I could.” The author of 2 short story collections –  Blood Collected Stories (Ethos Books Singapore 2015), and Cursed and Other Stories (Penguin Random House SEA, 2019) – admits that “if I hadn’t written short stories enough to have published two collections, I would no doubt be on Facebook, Instagram or Medium, even more than I already am, constantly and continually posting for sheer want of writing, and would likely be even more “unfollowed” by friends tired of having their newsfeeds monopolised by the likes of me.”

Noelle, who was born in the US, grew up in the Philippines and calls Singapore home, concedes that not everyone may consider receiving a heartfelt missive a meaningful gift. But if we enjoy being recipients of homemade edibles from people who have a way with pot and ladle, why not a well-written, life-affirming letter from someone who lives to write?

Says Noelle, “The affirmation note just strikes me as the quintessential meaningful gift, in that it takes much time, thought and consideration of the person one is giving it to, in many ways, more consideration than if you were going to a chocolate shop and bulk-buying small boxes to be slapped on with Christmas ‘to-and-from’ tags. Despite so many available avenues for telling someone how you feel about them, people don’t do it that often. Maybe because there is risk involved in being vulnerable and opening your heart. But look at the upside! With a lengthy note of affirmation, particularly one that has recollected stories, actual examples that demonstrate the emotion and the affirmation expressed, maybe even remembering something they did or said in the past that they may not even recall themselves or that may make a day suddenly different to them, cast them in a new light, you make someone else feel truly wonderful. And shouldn’t that be the true and ultimate goal of all the gifts you give?”

What would this prolific, ardent writer say in her letters?

“It would have some kind of recollection of a shared moment or instance in the past in which I had an epiphany about the kind of person they are and why I cherish and love them so much and why my life would not be what it is without them. For quite a number, the note might also carry an apology for not being there with them as much as I would like, for not taking the time, perhaps a regret for doing something in a way that might have made them unhappy. But in my notes for every single one of the people I love, I will say some version of this: I see you! I see how you are, and what you do, and I love you and thank you for it. To everyone, I will say this, thank you for being you in my life.”

Audrey Hepburn said, “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” That says so much about a person who grows greens and flora, and much more what he or she wants to convey to people they gift these greens to.

To restaurateur Fiona Manini, it’s a passing on of hope and a way of saying, this is entrusted to you, because I know you will love and care for it, and make it blossom, sprout and grow, which also says much about what she thinks of her gift recipients.

Fiona’s green thumbs mean her home and second home, an Italian family restaurant she runs with her husband, Fulvio – aptly named Casa Manini, nestled in sleepy Serangoon Gardens – are both a jungle of lush, verdant ferns, creepers and succulents. Says Fiona, “I have a huge passion for  plants and decorating with them. I like creating indoor gardens at our restaurant as well as our home.”

Surrounding herself with plants brings this constant gardener great joy, and what better way to spread this joy than to pass on the greens she plants, some of which she’s nurtured from sapling to tree?

“I think plants make the best gift, as they’re gifts that keep on giving. I particularly like gifting plants to kids, so as to show them the value of taking care of nature, as it will in turn take care of us. With urban deforestation, climate change et al, it’s our responsibility to go back to nature, to appreciate God’s gift to mankind,” the greenie expounds.

“This year, I plan to gift whole plants instead of cuttings, as cuttings take time to grow, and it’s nice to surprise someone with a whole plant, unless he or she has specifically requested for a cutting from a particular plant.”

Images courtesy of featured personalities, artwork by Curatedition. All rights reserved.

Related links:

Festive Dreams are Made of These

Shop Local: The Christmas Atelier

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