It's Christmas time again, and I'm facing the usual crisis of what presents to get my nieces. They range in age from three to 11, and each year it seems the gift giving process gets more complex. I shudder to think what it will be like when they all outgrow Barbies and the toy's million and one accessories that make the process of finding the right knickknack just a little bit easier.
Sometime in the near future I plan on adopting my late grandparents strategy to Christmas gift giving. They were first generation Sicilians, and no matter what the occasion, they always gave the same simple present-money. This plan was partially predicated on necessity-they had 16 grandchildren and very limited funds-and culture. The movie Goodfellas was spot on when they said Italians do not exchange gifts, but little envelopes filled with money.
Over the years, they developed a two-tier system of doling out the cash. The kids under 12 years of age got $3, those over received a $5 bill. Eventually, the payments increased to $5 and $10 respectively, to keep up with inflation I guess.
What made it special was the way in which it was presented-my grandmother, dressed up as her version of Santa Claus, would personally deliver the envelopes. Imagine a five-foot two-inch gray-haired woman in a baggy red and black outfit with a scotch-taped beard ringing a bell and yelling in very broken English, "I'm ah Sant ah Claus, Ha Ha Ha."
No matter how it was presented or the amount received, the gift also came with an admonishment. Being from the Old World and having lived through the Depression and numerous other financial crises, my grandparents would warn us not to spend the money now, but save it for the future when we would really need it. They would tell us to put it in the safest, most trustworthy institution they knew-the bank.
I wonder if they were alive today if they would give that same advice. They passed before the whole Thrift fiasco, and of course have missed out on all the recent bad press generated by questionable stock advise from large financial institutions. Maybe now they would tell us to put the money into our 401(k)s or invest through E-Trade.
But I doubt that. My grandparents were pretty shrewd, and they would have realized that the activities they relied on their bank for-savings and mortgage-have little to do with the recent troubles.
When the time comes and I'm giving my nieces money, will I tell them to put it in the bank? I'd like to think I won't, but old habits die hard. At least I'll look a little more like the real Santa Claus when I tape on the beard.