SAN FRANCISCO — In an era of "upscale" materialism, some of the best things in life are still free.
There are free sunsets and free parks. Walking along the beach or through the woods is free, and so is humming a favorite tune. Visiting the public library is a thrifty way to spend a lazy afternoon.
And, with the coming of the holiday season, it's often what's from the heart, not from the purse, that counts the most.
"When I give, I give myself," penned Walt Whitman and others can do the same. A sonnet to a friend or loved one can lift the holiday spirits. Offering to baby-sit for new parents is usually welcomed with open arms. Youngsters can clean the house, run errands or shovel snow for parents or an older relative.
Many people would rather make gifts than buy them. Bolinas, Calif., baker and artist Holly Gallo dries flowers from her garden for "potpourri" sachets. She also uses home-grown oregano, tarragon and basil to make herb vinegars for Christmas baskets.
"People light up when they realize you've taken the time to make something especially for them," she said. "It makes everybody feel good."
In Oakland, Richard Pearlman makes about about 400 chocolate truffles each year for about a third the cost of buying the gourmet treats. He puts them in inexpensive boxes with a colorful seal.
"It doesn't cost much but it takes a ton of hours," Pearlman said. "I give them to family, friends and clients. And, you don't mind eating your mistakes."
Pets already vaccinated and housebroken can be obtained free from animal pounds and given for companionship. At the Marin Humane Society in Northern California, a special "Christmas Party" was held at which a dog dressed as Santa and dozens of animals were adopted from the shelter.
Volunteering services over Christmas in hospitals, shelters and senior citizen centers is another way to brighten the holidays for others.
The volunteer list at St. Anthony's Dining Room in San Francisco overflows during the holidays from people who want to help feed and cheer about 5,000 poor men, women and children.
"At St. Anthony's Dining Room we realize we don't have too many material things; we don't have tons of gifts," said the Rev. Floyd Lotito, director of the food center. "But, we do have each other. There's a family, festive spirit here and it's a touching thing."
Lotito said his best Christmas occurred in his early priesthood when the turkey wasn't delivered for the holiday meal and hash had to be cooked instead. Instead of depression, he said, there was an uplifting of spirits.
"There was a special feeling of everyone belonging to the same family--a brotherhood and sisterhood that can be focused on a lot more than it is," Lotito said. "Remember, Jesus was born in a stable, and they had nothing."
Jacqueline Kennedy once memorized and recited a lengthy poem as a Christmas present for President John F. Kennedy. School children learn to make greeting cards or other items with the personal rather than monetary touch for their parents and relatives.
Irving Berlin wrote the toe-tapping song, "The Best Things in Life Are Free," during the 1950s and the Beatles used the phrase to a rock beat in one of their early numbers more than a decade later.
John Martin in his poem, "These Things Are Free," penned the following verses that might have been meant for the yuletide season:
In gloomy tones we need not cry
How many things there are to buy.
Here is a thought for you and me
The best things in life are free ...
The more we look the more we see
How many precious things are free.
The heart will find more than the eye
Of things we do not need to buy.