Joan Larsen’s Sleigh Full of Holiday Ideas: Turning Your Selection of Christmas Gifts into Lifelong Memories

Posted on December 14, 2016


by Joan Larsen



Aren’t the feelings of warmth, of joy and laughter .  .  . but, most of all, of love – what the holidays truly are supposed to be?  Shouldn’t the element of togetherness be forefront in this season?  I think we are all nodding yes.  I am sure you are.

But instead, we seemed whipped into a frenzy of having to have a mass of wrapped presents around the tree – and soon, a largesse of crumpled wrapping paper filling the room.  So often, the gift’s donor is lost in the flurry of opening.  And yes, forgotten by the next day.

And so I turned this season totally around on my own . . . and made the whole year one of joy with surprises coming at any month. 

Turning your own holidays and your gift giving around just takes a new way of thinking .  .  . and then the hugs and the love will become a gift in itself that keeps on giving year round. 

And isn’t that what we truly want – hugs, and warmth, and feeling that we are loved?  And knowing that the ones close to us feel love always?  Doesn’t that have the absolute ability to lift us at our lowest moments?

In my life – and, of course, for my family and my friends – I have turned gifts into lifelong memories.  And no, I am never, EVER, going back.  You will know me by my smiles – as this has worked!!

Let’s begin with the growing children and the grandchildren of the family.  I give each of them books that I have personally hand-picked for wonderfulness and long use.  I actually inscribe each book with my feelings of love for that child, feeling pretty sure that those unforgettable stories will be passed on to another generation. . . and hoping the inscription will be read years later, telling them in my own way how much they mean to me.  I actually design the paper wrapping myself into animals or wild things  . . . but I want them to be delighted and laugh.


For my raft of teenagers, just know right now I don’t believe in checks.  We all know the money given can be gone the next day.  . and there is something that bothers me about that.  A lot!  I never go for the easy way out –you know, “the money in the envelope”.  It is COLD.

Once the kids are well into teen-hood and beyond, I begin to get very excited.  .  . as I have a chance to introduce them to what I call “my world”.  And to the excitement that lies beyond our front doors.  I hope you won’t mind if I just toss out a number of ideas that should appeal to many interests.  My hope is that you will begin to spur some of your own creative thinking that fits into your own family’s life.   You know: “get original”.

So, instead of giving material things – most lasting a week or a season at most – I only give experiences.

3_presentsOne of the most popular – and braggable – gifts is theater tickets – and this goes for all ages.  The oh-so-popular “Hamilton” is the current rage in my city of Chicago.  And so my best friends (and I) can’t get seats until May – but who cares?  May sounds perfect, doesn’t it?  OK – now you don’t think I will put the ticket in an envelope, do you?  NO.  Not memorable or festive.


So what I have done is brought the tickets to my big grocery store – the one with the flower shop attached.  I found this darling inexpensive fir tree there.  I took the little tree over to the person who wraps free and asked her to attach them to the trees with a little note in a separate branch of the tree.  We know they wrap those trees free and they look very appealing to open.  Well, I think so!  So the whole thing is a tiny piece of love for now and then, another fun time at the theater to be waiting until May for!

On some other suggestions that I have below, feel free to steal this idea and have the tickets or card of surprise attached to a small plant or tree at the store as I did.  This should melt their hearts — and absolutely make their Christmas . . . or any other momentous occasion!


5-presentsFew people seem to know that their family, including the kids, as well as out of town guests, can go kayaking or canoeing in downtown Chicago on the river.  I promise you will be glad you went!!  And yes, for spring or summer, I already have the tickets set for this surprise – but given at Christmas.  But – if this were your town – it could be horseback riding or a ton of other active sports to try.  The sky is the limit on ideas for joy!  (And speaking of sky, I am a glider flying enthusiast myself. . . and most of my friends have been caught up in the sport, gifting others with rides, as well.  What excitement that provides!!!)


You’ve invited company this summer?  Lots of bragging rights when they get to sail on a Tall Ship, always in harbor — and then have memories forever.  This is how I have wrapped this gift within a tiny ornament that will always be on the tree later — and a memory forever.

7a-presentsFor my teens and adults when the idea seems right:  at the Chicago Yacht Club, I have two choices – a first time sail in a sailboat of varying size on Lake Michigan, OR sailing lessons by experts.  What do you think they are going to talk about this for the rest of their lives after an experience like this !!!  You can bet it will be these glorious experiences on Chicago’s lakefront.  (A miniature sailboat you can wrap up can be gotten at the Dollar Store or put one on the tree as I did.)

9-presentsNow – things that are free.   This is but a single example of many you can think of:  but this is where I was married – U of Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel.  What few know is that the kids – and anyone who likes to climb up 272 stairs in a very cramped space that twists around scarily – can see Chicago from the top in all directions (and if you have a music lover along, see their world-renowned carillon  on the top).  It is FREE . .  . and my legs quiver thinking about the climb (!) but I have done it with all my guests over many years — too many times to count, loving it each time!!  That and LUNCH should really make a day!!

I could write a book just on the free things.  But how do YOU find out about doing just about anything near you?  Easy.  Put the name of the largest town(s) around where you live on the Internet and add “things to do”.   It will lead you onto the most surprising things you did not know existed.   Just keep “friends and families” guest interests in mind, and then blow them away with your creativity.  (Do remember, the gift is far more special if you have a little package memento to unwrap that goes with the surprise of that day.)  Of course, give the little gift on birthday or Christmas, and it will give them time ahead to truly look forward to their exciting day ahead – all signed with love from you!


For close family, my gift of choice always is travel:  a weekend away for a second honeymoon, an overnight at a state park, and the fun goes on and on.  How do I wrap words of an experience to come?  Usually, I wrap pictures of the great getaway and make them guess or cut the photos in pieces to be pieced together just for fun! – but, my idea:  I love to wrap them in easily gotten world map wrapping paper.  It is exciting just to see the wrapping first – and guess what might be inside!

For my one gift in the year for the members of my close family, I give a trip that can vary in length and in cost . . . but it has to be “mind-blowing” and almost one of a kind.  For those you love so much, you are creating memories for a whole lifetime – and they will never forget and probably appreciate them even more in memories over the years.  It is so fun to come up with ideas that have them guessing where the adventure will be, guessing for a LONG time.


OK – how have I packaged this gift of adventure, making this hard to figure out where they are going?  I have done a balloon, crammed with cut up photo pieces or other shells or – just be creative.  I then put confetti in the balloon before sealing it (or having helium put in it).  One pop and it is a party!!!


You may have read about my favorite idea for any gift:  a collage jigsaw puzzle I pieced together, sent to my puzzle company to make and gift wrap, with clues on every piece of the collage of the puzzle – but oh! so hard to figure out.  After Christmas dinner, the table is cleared as the puzzle is big – and then the fun and huge excitement begins.  A while later – SUCCESS!!   The excitement level almost takes the roof off when they discover their faraway destination.



And then, in summer when they usually area able to take trips, the excitement – both going and returning – makes me almost cry and laugh at the same time.  Another winner – and a time that spells love and closeness – and moments never to be forgotten.

It is so much fun to give these holiday surprises  — and then, to see people’s eyes when they receive something so unique is priceless.

May you too have holidays and special occasions that each person there will always remember with love and hugs!!  NOT to be missed.



JoanAvatar2Writer Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth.  But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again.  She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home.”