One gift that takes up no physical space is knowledge. Gifts of experience are not only enjoyable but can be social and educational. As Peninsula cooking teacher Rashmi Rustagi said: "Knowledge empowers people and inspires them to do something different. It brings people together."
Cheese plates, scarves, iPods and video games will always be in stores. Experiences that expand one's skills and strengthen connections don't come around every day. A gift can teach participants how to cook, do yoga, paint, ride a horse and even fly a plane.
Locally, for those interested in expanding their creativity and improving brushstrokes, the Palo Alto Art Center, Create It, Griffon School, the Pacific Art League and other organizations provide art classes for all ages.
"It is a great gift to enable somebody to express themselves," said Robin Scholl of the Pacific Art League.
Students can dabble in ceramics, watercolor, acrylic painting, glass fusing, drawing, jewelry making and photography. Many of these classes also provide studio space and art supplies, so students don't need to use additional space in their homes. Instead of receiving a home-decor item as a gift, friends can furnish their home with their own artwork and awaken a new passion.
Cooking classes are another creative outlet and can be a clever way to tell a friend "I care about what you feed me." In a single class, students of all abilities can learn how to saute, grill, chop and bake, and thereby improve their own cooking repertoire.
Kara Rosenburg, principal of the Palo Alto Adult School, recommends cooking classes as gifts. "Since they are one evening, they don't commit the receivers to too much time, and they get dinner to boot," she said.
Cooking-class participants can learn to make Indian delicacies at iheartcurry.com and on Rashmi Rustagi's blog; a Moroccan feast at CasablancaMarket.com; or a menagerie of cuisines at Draeger's markets, Sur La Table, Whole Foods, Williams-Sonoma, and the Palo Alto Adult School.
Instead of learning how to stuff their stomachs, friends may appreciate the opportunity to work their abs. Yoga and pilates studios can be found all around Palo Alto, Mountain View, and Menlo Park. These presents can help people improve flexibility, relaxation and health.
Lisa Haley of Be Yoga in Palo Alto said that a gift of yoga can help people "explore personal growth, relieve stress and empower themselves."
Talei Morgan, a yoga instructor at Palo Alto's Loloma Living, added, "It is the gift of presence rather than presents."
Along with yoga, gifts of group-exercise and martial-arts classes, or of personal trainers, can help fulfill someone's New Year's resolution. These exercise classes give participants a taste of the various ways to get in shape. Personal trainers fulfill specific exercise and body goals, while classes come in many flavors, including kickboxing, zumba, step, karate, taekwondo and judo.
Those seeking more adventure outdoors need not go far. The California Riding Academy in Menlo Park teaches English, hunter/jumper and dressage horseback-riding lessons to people who have never touched a horse, those who have not ridden in a while, and experienced riders. In addition, many local flying clubs offer flying lessons and simulation sessions out of the Palo Alto Airport.
"It gives them their first opportunity to go flying and see if they want to continue or not," said Carl Honaker, the director of county airports.
Finally, for the friend too tired of working his or her brain, massages, manicures/pedicures, facials, spa days and a night at a hotel or bed and breakfast can help them forget the stresses of the world.
Just as The Little Mermaid gets to be "part of that world," with a little creativity, a gift can send loved ones into the world of a master chef, a professional horseback rider, a pampered socialite or even a pilot.
As Rustagi put it: "Physical gifts are short-lived. A class is a gift that keeps on giving; it never gets used up."