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Four years ago, my ex-boyfriend gave me an expensive diamond necklace for Christmas. Most women would have been overjoyed. As for me … well, I did refer to him as “ex.” Our relationship ended five months later and the necklace definitely played a role. No, I don’t have something against expensive jewelry. The necklace was symbolic of a serious difference in our values.

I’m not a fan of spending to the point of excess during the holidays, especially when you don’t have money to spend. Remember O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi? It’s the story about the husband who sells his pocket watch to get his wife beautiful hair combs while the wife cuts off her hair and sells it to get a new chain for the pocket watch. The gifts are useless, but the couple is happy because their sacrifices show their love for each other. Even reading that as a kid, I thought, this is crap. Why didn’t they just spend some time together and pool what resources they had for a nice dinner or something?

That reflects how I was raised. My mother encouraged gifts of shared time rather than material things. “Take me to a movie I want to see or go to dinner with me,” she’d say. I would, we’d have a great time, and I’d think this is better than giving her a sweater.

Then I met the ex. We dated in my late teens/early 20s, that age when you’re trying to sort out what your values are. He always bought his mother expensive jewelry for Christmas and he made me feel bad I wasn’t doing the same, even though I was a struggling student. I also felt obligated to buy him expensive gifts because he bought them for me. Here’s what happened the year of the necklace:

He’d lost his job and was paying his share of the bills out of his dwindling savings. So I said, “Just get me something small for Christmas, something that shows how well you know me, even if it’s a book or a CD.” I specifically told him no jewelry. He didn’t listen. He drained his savings buying Christmas presents and couldn’t pay his share of the bills. We fought a lot due to the financial burden and broke up.

Sorry, O. Henry, I think that’s how your little tale would end in reality.

But what my relationship taught me is that the values I was raised with regarding spending and gift-giving are definitely the values that work for me.

The hysteria surrounding holiday shopping sickens me. I mean, why are people getting trampled to death on Black Friday? You couldn’t pay me to go to the mall that day. Not that I’m a fan of malls in general. They make me feel disoriented, dizzy, and slightly sweaty … like I have a bad hangover!

Instead, I walked to Madison Street on Black Friday. No fighting crazed shoppers for a parking spot or that last sale item, and I got to support some of the local businesses that make our community unique.

But for the most part, the “gifts” I exchange with my friends this year will involve us doing things together, getting dinner, or, in one case, a tattoo. Back in high school, I took for granted the time I had with friends. Over the past few years as we’ve moved around, started careers, and families, I’ve watched it dwindle. Given the way the economy is, maybe we’d all be happier if we gave the gift of time instead.

Stephanie is the author of “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” and “Ballads of Suburbia.” She’s a proud Forest Parker who holds a master’s in fine arts degree from Columbia College Chicago. She also works locally at the Beacon Pub and loves to hear from people through her Web site www.stephaniekuehnert.com.