Money is tight, yet the season of giving is here. As Christmas arrives amid a most unmerry economy, some are looking for nontraditional -- and affordable -- ways to celebrate.
That doesn't just mean giving fewer gifts. It means getting creative in how to express love, generosity and good cheer.
"A struggling economy, especially during this holiday season, gives us the opportunity to reconsider how dependent we are on materialism for our inner meaning," said Ken Owens, pastor at St. John's United Methodist Church in Rock Hill. "Our opportunity here is to consider that perhaps true meaning might come from more intangible things, things like love, peace, contentment, simplicity, relationships, and the wonder of creation. ... These alternative gifts may prove to be much more meaningful."
The Herald asked readers to share how they're doing Christmas differently this year. Here are some of their stories:
Coupons for Christmas
Cathy White-Stewart had an idea for a money-saving alternative to traditional Christmas presents: Personalized Christmas coupons.
So for the past couple of years, her family's holiday has been one of unique IOUs.
She might give her four grown children coupons for free baby-sitting. Her husband might get a coupon that allows him to choose how they spend their night out -- meaning she has to go along with it no matter what. Maybe her mother gets a coupon for dinner and uninterrupted conversation, whenever and wherever she chooses.
No gift cards, no gadgets, no clothes that might be returned anyway.
"They thought it was the cutest thing," White-Stewart, 44, said of her family's reaction. "It didn't take anything away (from Christmas); it actually added because it added a personal element to it."
With a traditional gift card, money is spent up front, and the store is usually predetermined. Plus, "There's no telling when the person is going to actually use the card," said White-Stewart, a Rock Hill Realtor.
This way, no money is spent until the coupon is redeemed and that special dinner takes place.
"Not that you don't put thought into tangible things, but you put a lot of thought into it," White-Stewart said of the coupons.
White-Stewart said she has come to realize that, more than anything, her family and friends really just want time together, enjoying life and each other's company.
"Gift cards and all that jazz are good, but you're really only guessing at what someone wants," she said.
'I'm thinking about the animals'
This Christmas, Marcia Kort Buike is focusing on creatures of the four-legged variety.
Saddened that pets are being abandoned because of home foreclosures or other financial struggles among families, the Tega Cay woman is doing her best to make sure those animals are cared for.
This means she's decided to spend less money on gifts for her family -- she's baking Christmas cookies to give -- and is settling for fewer Christmas decorations this year.
"It's heartbreaking," Buike, 56, an artist and arts promoter, said of the abandoned animals. "You see all the time people needing food ... (but) not many people think of the dogs, and they're victims of this economy, too. So I thought, 'That's what I'm going to do.'"
Buike has sewn pads for animal cages to help keep the animals warm. The pads will be a Christmas gift to the Humane Society of York County. She's also scouring her house to find items to donate to the Humane Society's resale shop and is sending donations to the Horse Protection Society and the Animal Adoption League, among other efforts.
Buike's dog died a year ago, so she's using money she previously used on dog food to spoil those shelter animals.
"The food budget is still the same, but someone else benefits," she said.
Buike doesn't plan to stop her mission when the holidays are over.
"I still love the lights and the Christmas music, and I just can't sit there and be depressed about the economy. I can't control those things," she said. "But there's no sense in making yourself stressed out ... so I'm thinking about the animals."
'We need to bless others'
A half-eaten sausage dog determined how LaToya Durham would spend Christmas this year.
While in Washington, D.C., over the summer with her mother and sister, Durham bought a sausage dog from a sidewalk vendor. After several bites, she accidentally dropped it.
"I'm not going to finish this now," she thought, and tossed it into a trash can.
A homeless man quickly retrieved it, happy to have some food.
"I wanted to cry," said Durham, 23, who works as an office assistant at a Charlotte law firm. "I was sitting there watching him eat it. It was crazy."
From that moment on, Durham and her family have been focused on helping the homeless any way they can. And on Christmas, that means a special road trip.
Durham, her mother and sister plan to drive from Chester to Charlotte on Thursday, armed with blankets and soup to hand out to homeless people they see along the way. They expect it will take all day. They also expect it'll be challenging, but rewarding.
"We don't know what we're getting ourselves into," Durham said. "But at the same time, I think it's going to be mind-blowing, and I just can't wait."
Their plans to help the homeless won't stop there. Rather than buy Christmas presents for the dozen or so people in their extended family, Durham and others will draw one name from a hat and buy one gift for that person. The money they'll save will go toward a foundation for the homeless they plan to start.
Thanks to an unfinished sausage dog, a family has a new mission.
"I don't want it to just be a holiday thing," said Durham's mother Bridget, a teacher at Chester Middle School. "We are so fortunate and blessed, and we need to bless others."