At this time of year a lot of magazines and newspapers have articles on thrifty Christmas ideas, ways to save money at Christmas, Christmas on a shoe-string, and so on and so forth. However, you simply cannot make a Christmas gift out of thin air (with the exception of something like good-will). It’s an indisputable fact that Christmas costs money and it has always been associated with the spending of money and the giving of valuable gifts. Think of the thirteenth-century St Nicholas who made anonymous donations of gold coins to a man in his village who was so poor that he was about to sell his own daughters into prostitution. This is the origin of our modern Santa Claus. Think too of the biblical account of the birth of Christ. At the centre of that story is the giving of treasures and highly valued gifts by the three wise men.

There is no getting away from it. At its heart, Christmas means spending money and giving gifts. That’s not to say that’s what it should mean. But when you look at the legend of St Nicholas and the New Testament you see quite clearly where our ideas of spending money and giving gifts at Christmas time come from. It’s not a modern phenomenon as some people say. It was always there, but most of us just don’t realise it.

That said, it doesn’t mean we have to spend heaps at Christmas. The gifts of gold, frankincense and myrhh given to the new-born Jesus were high-valued and extremely expensive at the time. They were considered appropriate for the celebration of Christ. St Nicholas was renowned for being generous because he gave gold coins to those in need and grain to the starving. Again he did what was appropriate. That’s what we should take from this. Spend appropriately and spend responsibly at Christmas. Here are some of my ideas for giving gifts that hardly cost a cent.

2010 Diaries are often reduced at this time of year so you can pick up a Collins Debden 2010 Diary A5 for as little as $5 from Office Works. It’s a simple but wonderfully practical gift. For something in a colour other than standard black, try the Collins Debden Silhouette Slim Pocket 2010 Diary in lilac, powder blue, hot pink, sage green or mustard for $6.49.

Bookmarks are great for people who read. I come from a family of keen readers so nice bookmarks are always appreciated. Kikki-K have gorgeous magnetic bookmarks in a range of designs which sell for $3.95 each. Also see their Metal Page Markers in the shape of houses in a pack of 6 for $6.95. Most book stores also sell bookmarks.

Soaps are always a lovely gift. Try The Body Shop‘s huge range of full-size 100g soaps for around $5 each. Crabtree & Evelyn have packs of guest soaps like the Jojoba Oil Bath Soap Sampler of 6 bars of 25g soap for $17.95 which is around $3 per soap. L’Occitane also have beautiful soaps in bars of 125g for $8.95.

Gardener’s Pack made up of a small terracotta pot from your local nursery from around $1 and a few packets of flower and vegetable seeds placed inside the pot. Wrap a ribbon around the pot or wrap the whole thing in paper with a gift tag. All up it should it come in at around $5.

CD burned from i-Tunes for around $15 depending on the selection of songs you choose. Or you can burn onto a blank CD a selection of songs you already own. You need to have spare blank CDs for this or buy a pack of four from Woollies or Coles for around $7.

Mug Full of Goodies made up of a cheap but nice coffee mug from a discount store like K-mart or Go-Lo filled with a couple of chocolates, two or three Christmas candy canes, gold wrapped chocolate coins, or anything else you find in the typical sweets isle of a supermarket. You shouldn’t need to spend more than $10 on this.

Popular Penguins for $9.95. What could be more perfect than a classic book to read over the holidays? Publishing company Penguin has released a series of classic titles at $9.95 each. There’s heaps to choose from and they’re available from all good bookstores. For online shopping, see Abbey’s, Gleebooks, Angus & Robertson, and Dymocks. As someone with a PhD in English Literature I can’t help but have an opinion about what is and isn’t a good read. My picks from the Popular Penguins are:

  • Lady Chatterly’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence (still a damn good read after these years)
  • Persuasion by Jane Austen (this is my fav Jane Austen; what can I say except the woman knows how to tell a good love story)
  • Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (one of the best writers ever and everyone should read at least one of his books)
  • The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (for crime fiction lovers)
  • A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (because you can’t really say you’re well-read until you’ve read this)
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (just to freak you out)
  • The Bodysurfers by Robert Drewe (because this makes great summer reading and leaves you thinking a thing or two about your own relationships)
  • Regeneration by Pat Barker (one of the most disturbing and interesting books I’ve ever read)
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (I re-read this every five years or so and it always impresses me)
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (for those who love magic realism and want to escape into another world this summer).

Vintage Finds from second-hand stores can make wonderful gifts depending on the recipient. Be careful here, though, because some people, like my mum, would never eat off a second-hand plate or drink from a second-hand glass no matter how special it was. Then again my mum also stock piles toilet paper in case there’s another world war. I suppose we all have our foibles. Anyway, good gift ideas from these places are vases, candlesticks, trays, fruit bowls, matching tea cups and saucers. Be weary of paying too much. Ever since the term “vintage” started being thrown around in the vicinity of the old and not-wanted, the prices have gone through the roof. Set you price limit at around $10.

Cards always cost more money at Christmas than any other time of year. If you’ve got your own printer and plenty of spare ink on hand, make your own cards. Experiment with the size of the cards you want. Use standard word processing design features like borders and shading. Don’t forget about the Insert Symbol feature. In Word click on the Insert tab and go down to Symbol, click on Symbol and then in the new window where it says Font choose Webdings, Wingdings, or Zapf Dingbats and check out the symbols you might like to insert, you simply click on the symbol you want and then click the Insert button. Word also has Insert Picture which you access again from the Insert tab, then go down to Picture and then choose Clip Art. All the standard Clip Art pictures will come up. The good thing about printing your own cards is that you get to say what you want in the card instead of those soppy Mills & Boon style messages that so many cards have.

If you can cook, make your own gifts such as shortbread, Christmas cake or chocolate truffles. They look great wrapped in pretty paper and people love homemade food. And only the most hard-hearted of friends and relatives wouldn’t appreciate the effort you’ve made. Because Christmas falls at summer time in Australia, you can also make lemon cordial and strawberry jam as gifts. Not all Christmas food gift ideas have to come from the northern hemisphere. My never-fail recipes are:

Shortbread: Preheat the oven to around 180 degrees celsius. Grease an 18-20cm square or round cake tin with margarine. Cream 150 grams of castor sugar with 250 grams of butter until light and fluffy then mix in 300 grams of plain flour. Press mixture into the cake tin and bake in the oven for 25-30 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven, cut into slices and press a fork into each slice to make a decorative hole pattern, then leave the shortbread in the tin to cool. When completely cooled, remove each slice from the tin carefully with a knife.

Chocolate Truffles: Place half a cup of thickened cream in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Remove pan from the heat and drop into the cream 300 grams of chopped up cooking chocolate. Stir until the chocolate is melted and then add two tablespoons of Grand Marnier (or other liquor of your choice or nothing at all if you like) and stir mixture until combined. Allow mixture to set enough until you can easily roll it into balls. This will take around 10 or so minutes depending on the temperature on the day. Don’t let the mixture become too hard so that you can’t handle it at all. As you make each ball roll it in cocoa to coat the surface. Now you’ve made chocolate truffles. Store them in the fridge until you’re ready to wrap them up as a gift.

Christmas Cake: Preheat the oven to about 150 degrees celsius. Grease a 20 cm square or round cake tin with margarine. Beat 225 grams of butter with 225 grams of brown sugar until light and fluffy. Add four eggs and beat until smooth. Add one teaspoon of vanilla extract, four teaspoons of orange juice and four teaspoons of golden syrup or maple syrup and stir in. Now get your muscles ready and mix in 1.25 kilograms of mixed dried fruit (you buy this in a pack from the supermarket) until all is combined. Fold in 225 grams of plain flour and 50 grams of self-raising flour, one teaspoon of ground cinnamon, two teaspoons of mixed spice, and 120 mls of rum or brandy or Benedictine (or anything else that you think will taste good). Spoon the mixture into the cake tin and bake for one and a half hours. Check the cake after 50 minutes to make sure it’s not burning on top. If it is, turn down the heat to 130. After an hour and ten minutes, stick a skewer into the middle of the cake and if it comes out clean, the cake is cooked. Otherwise leave it for another twenty minutes. When cooked remove from the cake tin and cool on a cake rack. Give as a gift either whole or cut into ready-to-eat slices and wrap in Glad-wrap to keep fresh. Tie with a ribbon and add a gift card.

Lemon Cordial: Dissolve 2 kg of white sugar (no, that’s not a typo, you do need that much sugar) in one litre of cold water in a very large saucepan on the stove top. When the sugar is completely dissolved and you can no longer see the little grains, add 30 grams of citric acid and 30 grams of tartaric acid (you can buy these at the supermarket) and stir in. Remove the saucepan from the stove and let the mixture cool completely. Now squeeze the juice from six lemons and strain out the seeds. Stir the lemon juice into the sugar mixture. Pour the cordial into a clean bottle, tie a ribbon around the neck and there’s your gift.

Strawberry Jam: Remove the green leafy bits from 500 grams of strawberries and wash the strawberries. Cut them into quarters. Put them into a saucepan and cook on the stove top at low heat until the berries are soft (around 15 minutes) stirring all the time. Do not add any water yet. Add 750 grams of white sugar and a quarter of a teaspoon of tartaric acid (which you can get from the supermarket). Stir the mixture until all the sugar has dissolved. The mixture will quite quickly become liquid because sugar melts into liquid when you heat it. Increase the heat so that the liquid boils and leave it boiling for 10-15 minutes until the liquid sets into a jam. This is a bit tricky but 10 minutes usually does it. You want the jam runny enough to spread. Let cool and bottle it in clean jars. Decorate the jars as you please.