How to Have a More Meaningful Holiday Season

Household hints and helps: Meaningful Christmas gifts, dangerous candle soot, and eliminating carpenter ants.

Photo from Shutterstock.


Dear Annie & Doug,

Christmas is fast approaching, and I would love some ideas to make the holiday - particularly the gift-giving part of it - more meaningful. —Uncle Scrooge, Toronto, Ontario

Dear Uncle Scrooge:

Christmas as a time of shopping mall madness and second mortgages has happened only in the last 50 years or so, since the advent of television. Even so, you might feel a bit too Grinch-ish declaring, "I'm done with all that. We can have a nice dinner, but no more of this gift nonsense."

Besides, there's nothing wrong with gifts. There's just something uncomfortable about turning an occasion for expressing your tender feelings into an indenture to the manufacturers of fad disposables.

If you're ready to stop being ground on the American Christmas wheel, some folks have pioneered the path to freedom.

If you think back on the gifts you cherish most, chances are they're ones that represent someone's time, attention, and creativity. That's what Ellen Twist of Salem, Oregon, found: She still treasures a scrapbook her father made collecting memories of her growing up.

"The time he spent meant so much more than something bought," Twist says.

She began looking for gifts that showed the same personal involvement as her father's scrapbook and that were also lighter on the Earth. One year, she planted tulips in her daughter's yard, then gave her daughter a map showing where the bulbs had been placed.

Last year, Twist's gift to all the folks on her list was to use her Christmas budget as prize money for a contest seeking the best nonconsumptive gift ideas. The local paper ran an article on the contest; she received more than 150 entries. Among her prize winners:

  • A couple who give their adult children time by cutting up a calendar, putting days in a jar, and letting them draw time as needed for babysitting and help with projects.

  • A woman who buys thrift-store towels, wraps them around sample-size toiletry articles, and donates them to homeless shelters.

Twist has collected all the contest entries in a pamphlet, "The Best Gifts Are Tied with Heartstrings," available free via e-mail at [email protected], or in hard copy for $1.00 from Creative Twist, 1007 Newport Rd. SE, Salem, OR 97306.

If the ideas from Twist's contest aren't enough, you can find more alternative gift ideas at the Center for a New American Dream's Web site: Or check your library for Amy Dacyczyn's Tightwad Gazette collections, which include frugal gift suggestions.

For a comprehensive re-examination of the whole American Christmas phenomenon, read Unplug the Christmas Machine: A Complete Guide to Putting Love and Joy Back into the Season, by Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli, or try Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a Joyful Christmasby Bill McKibben.

The point is to move outside the American lockstep of Christmas as nothing more than a shopping extravaganza. Give what gifts you will. But for each, ask the question posed by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin in Your Money or Life: "Is this expenditure of life energy in alignment with my values and life purpose?" For the gifts that come from your heart, the answer will be easy; the question may be a little harder to answer in the affirmative for gifts that come from the TV set.


Dear Annie & Doug,

Several of my coworkers in my unventilated office burn aromatherapy candles to reduce their stress levels. I am concerned about the toxic qualities of these candles, especially since the other night as I was leaving the office, I felt as if I had been inhaling smoke all day. If you can illuminate me on this subject, I will enlighten them. —Michelle Cox, via e-mail

Dear Michelle:

Unfortunately, you have unwittingly stumbled upon an emerging and serious air quality concern: soot from candles. The major culprits are scented and aromatherapy candles. I came across this problem because a friend found his office covered in soot after burning an aromatherapy candle, and his computer had to be completely overhauled because of soot damage!

One expert told me my friend was lucky his computer wasn't ruined. There is so much soot generated from burning certain candles that it is causing severe damage to many homes and furnishings, and homeowners are mistakenly suing their builders, furnace, and HVAC companies for improper installation of the systems.

Soot from candles can also be very toxic. Breathing soot is not recommended at all. The soot particles can travel deep into the lungs. Those with asthma, lung, or heart disease are particularly vulnerable. To make matters worse, most scented and aromatherapy candles are made with paraffin and fragrance oils. Paraffin is a petroleum product - a byproduct of oil refining - and most fragrance oils used for candle making are petroleum-based synthetics. The soot from these materials can contain carcinogens, neurotoxins, and reproductive toxins. Testing and air chamber analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency has found the following compounds, in significant quantity, in a random group of over 30 candles tested: acetone; benzene; trichlorofluoromethane; carbon disulfide; butanone; trichloroethane; carbon tetrachloride; carbon black (soot) particulate matter; trichlo-roethene ; tetrachloroethene; toluene; chlorobenzene; ethylbenzene; styrene; xylene; phenol; cresol; cyclopentene; and lead.

Besides these chemicals, Dr. Kaiss K. Al-Ahmady of Indoor Air Solutions, Inc. in Tampa, Florida, found in testing of over 20 candles that 30 percent of the metal wire wicks used contained lead.

The reason scented and aromatherapy candles are the usual culprits causing soot is that the fragrance oils are unsaturated hydrocarbons, and they soften the wax so that it doesn't burn cleanly. Container candles are even worse since the oxygen necessary for a clean burn doesn't reach the flame properly.

Diffusers are a safer way to practice aromatherapy, and they are available in most health food stores.


I read your suggestion in the fall issue of YES! for removing termites. Our house in the Pacific Northwest is riddled with carpenter ants. Are there ways to remove them without poison? —Carole Raymond, via e-mail

Dear Carole:

Carpenter ants differ from termites in that they have no notches in their back, but a smooth convex curve, and whereas termites have straight antennae, carpenter ants' antennae bend at a right angle.

First, you need to find and eradicate the nest. Seventy-five percent of these are found outside, near a source of moisture. Remove the nest, eliminate the source of moisture, and remove other potential places for the ants to nest, such as firewood stored against the house, and trees and shrubs that brush against the building.

Some of the methods for coping with termites apply to carpenter ants. Dessicating dusts such as diatomaceous earth (not pool grade) work well sprinkled around problem areas. Or search out a local exterminator that uses an Electro-Gun; this technique works for small infestations of carpenter ants.

Exterminators can lease this equipment, if they don't already own it, by contacting ETEX., Ltd. - 800/543-8894; Web: . A nontoxic method for larger areas (such as an entire home) that not only kills wood boring insects, but disinfects as well, is heat. Certain exterminators will heat the entire house until wood-core temperatures reach 130 degrees Fahrenheit for one hour. Thermal pest eradication reportedly doesn't cost more than a traditional exterminating expense, and it is available nationwide. One resource is Hydrex Pest Control - 800/750-3028.

Do you have a question for Doug & Annie? Send it to: Doug & Annie- YES!,  PO Box 10818, Bainbridge Island, WA , 98110 or E-mail: editors