Celebrating the holidays without expensive gifts is a little like taking television out of the house: good for your children in the long run, but probably not worth their immediate disappointment.
But so long as you're giving gifts, you can devote one stocking, or one night of Hanukkah, to something more spiritual than Sega or scooters. Some ideas:
For books both instructive and exciting, Chaim Potok is among the best. Potok, a rabbi and novelist, is famous for "The Chosen," the story of the troubled friendship between a secular Jew and his orthodox friend, which was made into a forgettable movie with Robbie Benson; but he's even better in the sequel, "The Promise," which follows Reuven and Danny's friendship into their college years.
Lucy Kaylin's "For the Love of God" takes a nonfiction look at convent life; Ridgefield native Mark Salzman's "Lying Awake" has won acclaim for its fictional depiction.
Religious experience is hard to capture on the page, and nobody has done it better than James Baldwin, wayward stepson of a Harlem Pentecostal preacher. "Go Tell It on the Mountain" is his thinly veiled memoir of being a boy preacher in Daddy's church.
Religious magazines, from the mainstream Christian Century to the Jewish feminist Lilith, are more polished now and would make fine gift subscriptions. Books & Culture is the Christian New York Review of Books, both intellectual and godly. Christianity Today is the glossy magazine for evangelical Christians. Tikkun, once the hip bible of leftist Jews, has lost its flavor, but remains the best 1960s magazine founded in the 1980s.
For music, it's hard to beat the old religious classics. Besides the obvious Handel's "Messiah," some of the great religion-themed music is Jacques Halivy's 1835 opera "La Juive" ("The Jewess"); Bach's "Christmas Oratorio"; and Mozart's "Requiem." If you want to go 20th century, invest in contralto Marian Anderson's "Spirituals" or Mahalia Jackson's "Christmas With Mahalia."
Standard seasonal movies include "Miracle on 34th Street" and "A Christmas Carol." For comedy, check out "Keeping the Faith" with Ben Stiller and Edward Norton; "Christmas Vacation" with Chevy Chase ; the English film "Priest"; Woody Allen's "Annie Hall," if only for the Christmas in Los Angeles scene.
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