Alternative Christmas gifts from Hertfordshire

PUBLISHED: 15:30 24 November 2020 | UPDATED: 17:26 24 November 2020

Support an Oxfam project, such as these children attending a village school in the hill districts of Puri in Orissa, India. Image: Simon Dack Archive/Alamy Stock Photo

Support an Oxfam project, such as these children attending a village school in the hill districts of Puri in Orissa, India. Image: Simon Dack Archive/Alamy Stock Photo

Credit: Simon Dack Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

From spa days to cookery workshops and animal conservation to helping children in need, here are ideas for gifts that truly give

Oxfam's emergency work for families displaced by conflict in Darfur in Sudan and Eastern Chad. Image: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy Stock PhotoOxfam's emergency work for families displaced by conflict in Darfur in Sudan and Eastern Chad. Image: Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy Stock Photo

Are Liberty face masks, hand sanitiser or homemade tickets for six to Christmas dinner your best Christmas present ideas so far? It’s not easy this year is it? Perhaps we should take inspiration from two positives that have come out of the pandemic - a wave of kindness and a pause to reflect on what we truly value.

Come Christmas, loading our lives with material possessions not only increases our carbon footprint, it can affect our mental wellbeing. Uncluttering guru Marie Kondo captured the less-is-more mood, as has The Home Edit on Netflix. Kondo argues we should only keep items we find beautiful, useful or that spark joy. And I’m sorry, auntie, but that pink toilet seat cover you lovingly crocheted is none of the above.

So maybe this year (and more years), we try to balance out the stuff with gifting experiences, buying local where possible, or signing loved ones up to causes that help change the world for the better. I have happy memories that will last a lifetime of being taken to The Ritz for afternoon tea by my godfather and his wife for my 18th birthday. We had tiny salmon and cucumber sandwiches and beautiful little cakes and drank tea, as the pianist played. My little boy, for his fifth birthday, asked to meet his favourite animal. I have the most precious snapshots in my mind of us feeding giraffes at the zoo. His face was an absolute picture and I had a photo book published of our experience to keep. Even a £30 spa voucher for my mum to get her nails done or have a head massage makes her day. Cinema or theatre tickets can be an affordable way to treat a couple to a night out. And who wouldn’t want a token to their favourite restaurant? Giving experiences to friends and relatives is a culturally relevant, meaningful, more ethical response to the struggling world we live in.

Gifts that keep giving

Polar bears - one of the endangered species you and a loved one could help with an adoption gift this Christmas. Image: National Geographic Image Collection/Alamy Stock PhotoPolar bears - one of the endangered species you and a loved one could help with an adoption gift this Christmas. Image: National Geographic Image Collection/Alamy Stock Photo

Presents such as Oxfam Unwrapped charity gifts cards start at £5 for ‘super seeds’ that support small-scale farmers around the world to grow more. Imagine if every secret Santa fiver was spent on that - nobody would have to pretend to be thrilled with terrible socks again. For between £10 and £50 your gift could support women’s equality, safe water projects, education for girls, care for babies or hope for a refugee. For £250 you can even create a farmyard. There are Oxfam shops in Stevenage, Welwyn GC, St Albans, Hatfield and Harpenden. Go to oxfam.org.uk

Through the World Wildlife Fund you can give the gift of animal conservation. WWF has endangered species such as polar bears and snow leopards for adoption. As long as younger receivers recognise that the tiger won’t be coming to tea, it’s a special way to protect these rare creatures. Ideal for conservationists young and old from £3 a month. An information pack and stickers are sent to the recipient and can pay extra for a cuddly toy. wwf.org.uk

For a project with a difference, for £60, you could gift life-saving sanitation to a community in need. Toilet twinning - creating a twin to a loo in your gift recipient’s home - will give them a cosy feeling every time they take a seat in the smallest room. The GPS coordinates of the toilet are given so they can look it up online and there’s a certificate to hang, maybe above the loo. toilettwinning.org

Workshops

Everyone loves a spa day - good for mental wellbeing and Herts' spa destinations. Image: DragonImages/Getty Images/iStockphotoEveryone loves a spa day - good for mental wellbeing and Herts' spa destinations. Image: DragonImages/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Look out for local businesses offering experiences. Independent home interiors gift shop Cositas, in St Albans, has craft workshops, including making a bang-up-to-date funky neon sign. There’s also a masterclass where you can make two eco-friendly products – beeswax food wraps and a hand-poured soy wax candle. cositas.co.uk

The Cooking Academy in Rickmansworth has vouchers to suit keen cooks. The expert chefs teach in a fun way. A half-day Indian class voucher is £115 and looks very tempting - dishes include chilli and fennel chicken kebabs, fish masala and Bombay potatoes. Participants learn the cooking process in a few hours and no previous knowledge is needed. Lots of different courses are available at thecookingacademy.co.uk

Spa days

Hertfordshire has some exceptional spas and all offer gift packages (restrictions permitting). Supporting local businesses and giving a bit of indulgence and wellbeing to those you love makes a wonderful present. Champneys in Tring, Sopwell House in St Albans and Watford’s The Grove are all stunning venues for luxurious spa days and breaks. Details are online.

Give a cookery class as a present - then they can try out their new skills on you! Image: marimo_3d/Getty Images/iStockphotoGive a cookery class as a present - then they can try out their new skills on you! Image: marimo_3d/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Trust membership

A National Trust membership is perfect for anyone keen on Britain’s heritage and the outdoors. Spending time in one of Hertfordshire’s beautiful trust locations is perfect to blow away the lockdown cobwebs and engage with nature. In this county we have the stunning woodlands of Ashridge Estate near Berkhamsted, George Bernard Shaw’s home at Ayott St Lawrence, and we are on the doorstep of Dunstable Downs and Whipsnade Estate in Bedfordshire. Trust members enjoy additional benefits too. More information is available at nationaltrust.co.uk

The stage

We are spoilt being so close to the theatres of the West End. It is one of the things many of us have missed during the pandemic, and I for one can’t wait to get back. I saw Matilda at the Cambridge Theatre in February, which is just about seeing me through. And I can’t wait to see Sister Act with Whoopi Goldberg and Jennifer Saunders in 2021, if I can get tickets.

Then there are our fabulous county theatres too. What could be more fantastic than giving a real treat to the theatre goer in your life? They can look forward to a show and know they are helping the arts industry rebound for a hugely tough time. Comedy genius Jonathan Pie is booked to play the Alban Arena in May – his lockdown videos were a total highlight.

GIVE DIRECTLY

Feed a family

More than ever, individuals and families are relying on food banks to make ends meet and pressure on these projects has increased hugely during the pandemic. Why not fill a box with tins, packets or other long-life essentials and donate it to a Herts food bank? Throw in some extra festive treats – a chocolate advent calendar, mince pies or a tin of lovely biscuits. Trussell Trust has food banks in Hemel Hempstead, Borehamwood and Watford. Most towns have food banks run by churches or other organisations and can be easily found online.

Help the homeless

Keeping warm is impossible for the county’s homeless, who might need good quality gloves and hat, a cup of coffee and a hot sandwich if you can. This should apply all year round but if Christmas prompts more generosity, even better. Hitchin-based charity Feed Up Warm Up is working to help some of the county’s most in need and get them back on their feet. A team of crafty St Albans ladies began a festive tradition a few years ago, making fabulous knitted ‘toppers’ and putting them on post boxes around the city. They cheer people up on chilly mornings and donations will support this year’s charities, homeless charity Open Door, and St Albans and District Food Bank.

Bring a smile

Our hearts go out to children who are in a refuge this Christmas perhaps because their mothers are escaping domestic abuse. Refuge addresses are necessarily hidden but there are several in the county. Welwyn Hatfield Women’s Refuge would love donations of money or supermarket vouchers. whwr.org.uk

An old favourite

Essential to fundraising and eco-friendly to boot, charity shops are the place to give unwanted items of good quality. These benefit anyone after a bargain (if you’ve never experienced the joy of finding a vintage book, a designer jacket or lovely set of wine glasses, then you’re missing out), make space in your home and raise money for great causes from animals in need to medical trials. Cancer Research UK accepts clothes, accessories, quality homeware, linen, books, CDs and DVDs and even mobile phones. It has several shops in Hertfordshire including Hemel Hempstead, Berkhamsted, Harpenden and St Albans.

Furry friends

Herts has several animal shelters that would appreciate new toys, treats or blankets. You can pick up a bag of Dreamies at the supermarket - but you can’t buy the feeling of making an abandoned cat happier. RSPCA Hertfordshire East branch has a centre in Baldock and warmly welcomes donations money, goods and time. rspca.org.uk

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