Giving Meaning
Eight Luminaries Reflect On Holiday Spirit And Share Stories Of Their Favorite Heartfelt Gifts

By Radha Marcum

It's 6 p.m. on December 20th. You're wandering from shop to shop bearing so many gifts that you feel like an overburdened donkey, all the while trying to remember where you parked your car. What can I give my nephew this year, you wonder, Does he still like dinosaurs? As you head off to the grocery store, you mentally rehearse the ingredient list for Aunt Ellen's spice cake, which you plan to bake for a friend who has just become a new mother. This year, the season feels as full as ever—so many details, so little time.

Whatever your end-of-year rituals may be, it's easy to get overwhelmed by to-do lists and forget what's truly special about the season. To help remind us, we spoke with several notable proponents of the natural lifestyle. Those we interviewed point to the importance of slowing down to spend time with friends and family, taking a moment to think about one another, and emphasizing the symbolic, rather than the material, value of gifts. Rather than "things," many want time, healing, positive global changes, and simply to be with their families. Here's what those who inspire us, who help keep our environment and global community beautiful and energized, had to say about finding the true meaning of the holiday season.

Baron Baptiste
The son of two yoga pioneers, yoga master Baron Baptiste has trained Hollywood celebrities and Fortune 500 CEOs, as well as athletes from the NFL, NHL, and NBA. Owner of the Baptiste Power Yoga Institutes in Cambridge and Boston, he is the author of Journey Into Power: How To Sculpt Your Ideal Body, Free Your True Self and Transform Your Life With Yoga (Simon & Schuster, 2002).

Q: What do you like most and least about the holidays?

A: What I like most is that the holidays give you an opportunity to slow down and connect with family and friends as well as with the sacred within us. What I like least is that there is too much focus on material commercialism and forgetfulness about the spiritual significance of the holidays.

Q: What gift have you most enjoyed giving?

A: I helped a friend, who was going through a very challenging stage of her life, attend a ten-day, silent meditation retreat that otherwise would have been financially impossible for her to attend. This gave her the opportunity to focus on much-needed inner healing. She gained a whole new perspective on her life and recommitted herself to what she knew was right in her heart. She told me it was the greatest gift she ever received because it transformed her life and her children's lives that were otherwise moving in a downward spiral. I believe when people give of themselves in an honest and authentic way, they give the greatest gift of all.

Q: What's the best gift you've ever received?

A: The birth of my children. They are my ultimate teachers. They challenge me to look at myself with an honest eye. Ultimately, I want to be an inspiration and an example to my children. The father-son relationship is so special because it requires me to stay on an introspective path, a path of never-ending growth. This chance to grow is a gift to myself and everyone in my life.

Q: What's on your wish list this year?

A: I wish that the world would flow from a place of love, not fear. My ultimate gift would be a week in Kauai, Hawaii, where I could do nothing but yoga, meditate, and purify and cleanse my body and mind.

Susan Davis
Susan Davis is the founder and president of Capital Missions, a social-investment consulting firm that works to bring venture capital to socially responsible businesses through investor networks. During the past 30 years, Davis has helped start five socially responsible businesses, including the South Shore Bank, founded on "local control and a commitment to the needs of the community rather than to the demands of investors."

Q: What do you like most and least about the holidays?

A: What I most like is that they are designated as sacred time to revisit sacred experiences. What I like least is the materialism attached to the holidays.

Q: What are your best and worst holiday memories?

A: One of my most memorable holidays was when, just this last year, the 21 members of my family went to Costa Rica for Christmas. They came from eight different states. One of the worst was when I took my kids to Disney World in Florida. Everyone was too revved up and not relaxed.

Q: What's the best gift you've ever received?

A: My best friend is older than I am, and when I turned 30, she gave me a check for $1,000 with instructions to spend it at any store in town, but first to use my imagination and "spend it a thousand times" in my mind. What she meant was to think hard about what I wanted, to extend the fun of spending the money, before actually purchasing something. That was a nice surprise for me—I was supporting my kids alone. When my kids graduated from college, I did the same thing for them—wrote them each a large, post-dated check and told them to spend it a thousand times before actually purchasing anything. It really gave them an opportunity to think about what had value for them.

Q: What gifts have you most enjoyed giving?

A: This year, I found some beautiful slabs of stone that could be used for hotplates that I gave as gifts to thank my friends and associates—people who really want to make a difference in sustainable, global business. I wrote them each a letter telling them that their contributions to the industry have been as beautiful and unheralded as this simple stone.

Q: What gifts do you recommend giving to others?

A: When giving gifts, it's really the thought that counts. Give gifts that represent how much you appreciate that person. The symbolic value is most important, as is communicating good feelings for each other rather than materialism. Buy gifts that are friendly to the environment and the world's people, such as crafts from indigenous tribes that can benefit from the income.

Steven J. McCormick
President and CEO of The Nature Conservancy—which has protected more than 98 million acres around the world—Steven J. McCormick is a nationally recognized conservationist whose work has helped to preserve natural landscapes in California, Utah, Nevada, and many other locales. His awards include the Department of Interior Silver Award (1986), the Chevron Conservation Award (1989), and the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Award (1999) for excellence in his field.

Q: What do you like most and least about the holidays?

A: I like spending extended, relaxing time with my family. My least favorite aspect of the holidays is all the frenetic activity that seems to infect people.

Q: What are your best and worst holiday memories?

A: One of my favorite holiday memories is of going to Panama last year. My least favorite? The year my daughters stopped believing in Santa Claus.

Q: What's the best gift you've ever received?

A: One of the best gifts I've ever been given is a framed photo and original signature of John Muir that my wife gave me. I look at it every day for inspiration.

Q: What gift have you most enjoyed giving?

A: Once, I surprised my wife by taking her to the airport on the premise we were going to San Diego for a couple of days. Instead, we got on a plane to the big island of Hawaii for a week. She didn't know until we were at the gate.

Q: What's on your wish list this year?

A: More time!

Q: What gifts do you recommend giving to others?

A: I recommend giving anything that is done with thought and care and is very personal. You can adopt a bison through The Nature Conservancy as a really great gift for someone.

Tom McMakin
Business guru Tom McMakin is the former COO of the Great Harvest Bread Co., a franchiser of high-quality, whole-wheat bakeries that encourages creative, community-oriented entrepreneurship. He now advises private-equity firms on healthy lifestyle investments and lives with his family in Montana where he enjoys running and backpacking. His recent book Bread and Butter: What a Bunch of Bakers Taught Me About Business and Happiness (St. Martin's Press, 2001) is about the success of Great Harvest.

Q: What's the best gift you've ever received?

A: I served in the Peace Corps in Cameroon during the mid-1980s. When I left, the fellow I had lived with gave me his deceased father's ceremonial robe. It hangs in my office and remains very special to me now.

Q: What gift have you most enjoyed giving?

A: After my wife gave birth to our daughter, I gave her a ring—a gold band with diamonds and rubies made by my grandfather, who was a jeweler. She wasn't expecting it at all. I wanted to celebrate this beautiful thing we'd done—creating a child together.

Q: What gifts do you recommend giving to others?

A: I recommend giving the gift of experience—a meditation or yoga class, a trip, a chance to do shared service. We have too many things. I also recommend giving anything that has to do with ancestors or forebears. For my 40th birthday, I received framed pictures of my four great-grandfathers along with biographical stories about their lives. I think it's cool to know the people you have come from and the spirit that animated these people. It's important to know the ground from which you've grown.

Nora Pouillon
Internationally acclaimed chef Nora Pouillon is a leader in organic food philosophy. Her restaurant, Nora's, in Washington, D.C., became America's first certified-organic restaurant in April 1999. Author of the seasonal menu cookbook Cooking with Nora (Random House, 1996), a collection of her most popular recipes, she lives in D.C. with her partner, Steven, and two of her four children.

Q: What's the best gift you've ever received?

A: My partner, Steven Damato, hates to give presents—he hates the gimmick of the holidays—but one year he saw a beautiful antique pearl necklace and bought that for me. And I love to receive gifts from my children—things they've made personally.

Q: What's on your wish list this year?

A: I'd really like to go on vacation this year with all my kids and family together. It's difficult to get my four kids together. We have a country place in Austria that we like to go to.

Q: What gifts do you recommend giving to others?

A: When giving gifts, it's important to really think about what people want. I might give my partner private yoga classes, a piece of clothing he'd never buy for himself, kayaking equipment. It's important to think about what they want but won't spend on themselves, and it's important to make an effort to get something that will make them happy. Giving something unexpected is fun.

Alice Waters
From the opening of the groundbreaking Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California, in 1971, chef and author Alice Waters has been a supporter of sound and sustainable agriculture, working to ensure that pure, fresh ingredients will be available for generations of cooks to come. She was recently awarded the Rachel Carson Environmental Award from the National Nutritional Foods Association.

Q: What do you like most and least about the holidays?

A: My favorite thing about the holidays is an annual Christmas Eve Seven Fish Sicilian that I cook at home. My least favorite thing about the holidays is thoughtless consumerism.

Q: What gift have you most enjoyed giving?

A: I love to give away a picnic lunch. My friends tell me when they would like to go, and I put together a basket lunch for them.

Q: What gifts do you recommend giving to others?

A: I think that it is important to give people useful things—maybe a bottle of olive oil, or homemade vinegar, or a favorite homemade jam made with summer fruit. A mortar and pestle also makes a fine gift. I've always found it to be an essential tool for the kitchen.

Mollie Katzen
Widely known for her healthful yet delectable recipes, chef Mollie Katzen is the author and illustrator of the classic Moosewood Cookbook, recently updated and rereleased as The New Moosewood Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 2000), as well as many other award-winning cookbooks for adults and children. She is also the host of Mollie Katzen's Cooking Show, aired on public television stations. Her latest book is Mollie Katzen's Sunlight Café (Hyperion, 2002), a collection of 400 breakfast recipes.

Q: What do you like most and least about the holidays?

A: I like that people slow down and are available to one another. My least favorite aspect is the frenzied shopping and people feeling stressed out and pressured to buy things.

Q: What are your best and worst holiday memories?

A: Every year my mother would buy all of us kids eight Hanukkah presents, one for each night. She wrapped them all and put them in separate cardboard boxes for us, and then we received the entire box on the first night of Hanukkah and got to choose just one per night. I loved the suspense and the process. My least favorite experience was being uncomfortable in grade school when being required to sing religious Christian songs.

Q: What's the best gift you've ever received?

A: The coolest gift I ever received was a kaleidoscope filled with vintage plastic vegetable charms.

Q: What gifts have you most enjoyed giving?

A: I like to give hand-written, illustrated personal letters, baked goods, and framed photos or sketches.

Q: What's on your wish list this year?

A: This year, I don't want things. I want time—both time alone to relax and be quiet, and time with the people I love.

Jennifer Ferenstein
President of the Sierra Club, Jennifer Ferenstein grew up in Berkeley, California, and on her grandparents' ranch in central Oregon's Twickenham Valley. The youngest woman to serve in her current role, she is also president of the board of directors of the Center for Environmental Politics, a nonpartisan grassroots organization that supports environmentally minded political candidates.

Q: What do you like most and least about the holidays?

A: What I like most is eating good food and seeing friends. What I like least is the emphasis on consumerism and advertising hype.

Q: What's the best gift you've ever received?

A: A set of cloth napkins that were made out of a colorful tablecloth that my mom found at a thrift store. I liked them because she made them for me and they were "recycled." I use them nearly every day—they remind me of her.

Q: What gifts have you most enjoyed giving?

A: I've enjoyed giving gifts that are a bit unconventional and match the interests and values of the recipient, or things that I have found at thrift stores, such as a carved jewelry box, vases, and linens. Also, service-oriented gifts, such as donating money to local charities or international relief efforts. I also always pick a kid from the local "in need" program and anonymously give her something she's requested. Last year I gave a scooter away that I had received as a birthday present.

Q: What gifts do you recommend giving to others?

A: I like giving gifts to kids the most—things that can encourage interest in the natural world: books, kits to make birdfeeders, garden supplies, magnifying glasses. Magazine subscriptions are also good.

Q: What's on your wish list this year?

A: Peace on earth and a commitment from the Bush administration to implement an energy policy that actually conserves energy and reduces our dependency on fossil fuels. I'd also like a food dehydrator.

Freelance writer Radha Marcum lives in Colorado. This holiday season she looks forward to celebrating the one-year anniversary of her marriage and to spending time with family.