Q: Money is extremely tight this holiday season and I just don’t have the urge to run out and buy unnecessary stuff. How do I maintain a festive season without bringing everyone else down?


A: It’s hard to get friends and relatives out of the habit of expecting stuff wrapped in bows, ribbons and all the other holiday accoutrements. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.


A friend who has been hit particularly hard by the recession shared a similar question on Facebook. Gift ideas ranged from the quirky to the sentimental, and all make a much smaller impact on the environment than electronics or other big-box eye candy. Here are a few favorites that make a big impression without making a big impact on the planet:


Say it with food: Find an easy sugar cookie recipe (here’s one from allrecipes.com), gather the kids around your kitchen table and have fun creating festive snowmen, snowflakes and other goodies decorated with inexpensive jellybeans or chocolate chips. Line aluminum tins with wax paper, add a bow and you have simply irresistible homemade gifts for teachers, friends or holiday hosts. Your kids will remember that time together long after the cookies are gone. If you don’t have the baking gene, buy a bunch of Ball jars and layer dry ingredients, then attach the recipe with a festive bow. Yummy Neiman Marcus chocolate chip cookies are my favorite. The recipe calls for espresso coffee powder, which kicks the flavor up a notch.


Capture a few tunes: Whether you opt for holiday-themed music (I love “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”) or songs that capture the highs and lows of 2009, customized playlists make fun, frugal and unique gifts. A stack of 50 recordable CDs costs less than $15 at most office supply stores. I found a link to download free holiday-themed labels from the Avery office products Web site. You also could create your own unique label for each gift.


Create a family keepsake: Gather your child’s report cards, school awards and other memories from those desk drawers and start a scrapbook. Arts and crafts stores carry plenty of options that work for guys and girls of all ages. Add postcards from summer vacations, that first tooth and other special moments. Over time, these gems can become cherished memories — at the very least, you have recycled all that clutter into something fabulous.


A picture is worth a thousand gifts: Thanks to my newborn nephew, I’ve become quite the shutterbug. One photo that I converted to black and white has become an instant family favorite. I plan to have a few copies enlarged for relatives and place them in simple pre-matted frames from IKEA. I like the solid birch FJÄLLSTA line, but there are plenty of other options. If there’s no new baby in your life, try enlarging and framing interesting photos from a family vacation. Remember, it’s about the memory, not the stuff.


Write a personal message: Nothing says, “I love you,” like a handwritten letter to your sweetie. Unlike a text, tweet, e-mail or voice message, handwritten letters stand the test of time. Invest in high-grade recycled stationery, find a quiet spot and write heartfelt messages to those you love. Remind them of a cherished memory or share hopes for the future. Just start writing and you will end up with a gift your family will appreciate. A chic and simple line from AmericanStationery.com uses chlorine-free, 100 percent post-consumer fibers.


Write a book: If your family has plenty of great chefs, consider committing those favorite dishes to paper. Collect recipes from each family — it could be a kicked-up grilled cheese sandwich or Grandma’s 7-Up pound cake. Newlyweds and college grads will appreciate this slice of home. The final product could be as simple as handwritten recipes on craft paper to an actual cookbook, complete with photos, using an online publishing company like Lulu.com. You also could set up a free blog on Wordpress and invite family members to upload photos, videos and even recipe updates. (Not that anyone can improve Grandma’s pound cake.)


Chart your family tree: I grew up around aunts who loved to ask guests about their distant relatives. If they chatted long enough, my aunts usually unearthed a long-lost relative, even if it was a fourth cousin, once removed. Cherish that time with your elders and use it wisely. Chart your family tree, and share the information with your family. You may be amazed at whom you find!


Got a question? Submit a question to Mother Nature and one of our many experts will track down the answer. Plus: Visit our advice archives to see if your question has already been tackled.


Photo: tiburonstudios/iStockphoto

How do I stay festive while saving money?
There are ways to save money while still giving meaningful gifts that will please family and friends.