Marcia Baker was strolling the just-opened Christmas aisle at the Talent Walmart. It was early November, and she wasn't pushing a cart — she was just browsing for any tiny bargains that might round out her list.
Since moving to the Rogue Valley more than 40 years ago, this spry, smiling and smart lady has honed her skills in homegrown, sustainable living — and that includes the holidays.
"There's no reason to think you can't afford to celebrate and give gifts," she says. "You just have to be frugal and go for the best buy."
Frugality is nothing novel for Baker, who watched every penny while raising four children, as well as the two oldest of her six grandkids. During harvest season, she gleaned local fields for leftover fruit, canning it and serving it up all winter long.
"I remember the first case of pears I actually bought," she recalls. "It was a case of seconds, and I paid $1.75 for it."
This year, despite losing her seasonal income as a school photographer due to illness, Baker is crafting a "12 Days of Christmas" celebration for her two granddaughters, 7 and 10, who live in the Portland area.
"They each get identical things, and I set a price limit of $30, although I did go over by about $2.50," says Baker.
Daily gifts include a cheery mug filled with envelopes of cocoa, apple cider and mini marshmallows; a $5 charm necklace; a box of goldfish-shaped crackers; miniature candy bars and boxes of raisins; and the exciting climax — games for the hand-held gaming systems Baker and the girls' parents purchased a few years ago.
"It was a big expense to buy the systems, but they turned out to be the best thing because the girls can take them in the car, and it's something that lasts and can grow with them," says Baker.
For her grandsons in Canada, Baker sends a lightweight package of Scooby Doo DVDs (she doesn't like to spend more than $5 per DVD), tiny books of "Aesop's Fables" and a check their parents will use to buy something in their area, wrap and have under the tree from Grandma.
"They're thrilled when they get something in the mail, and I always send them separate cards," explains Baker. "They're twins, so I want to treat them like individuals."
Baker's cost-cutting measures certainly bring joy to her family, but she doesn't stop there.
"Every year for the past 15 years, my granddaughter and I have put together a shoe box for charity," says Baker, who heard about the idea through a group that was collecting shoe boxes full of gifts to send to children overseas. "Instead of paying for shipping, we took the box to Salvation Army to see if they could use it. My granddaughter saw an older woman in a threadbare coat sitting in a chair, and she asked if we could give it to her."
Since that moment, the annual shoe box (festively decorated, of course) is crafted expressly for an older woman who lives alone. Throughout the year, Baker picks up inexpensive but useful household goods, such as aluminum foil and dish soap, a few foodstuffs, toiletries like razors and toothpaste, and one personal indulgence — maybe a bottle of lotion.
"There are a lot of seniors out there who don't even have family to come and say 'Merry Christmas' to them," says Baker, who points out that most charitable holiday boxes are geared toward children and families. "Receiving something gives them a change of pace and makes them feel like useful human beings."
Baker also packs an annual food box for the needy, which she drops off at the Gospel Mission in Medford. "You can put a good food box together for $15 or $20 with things you get on sale: small cans of tomato sauce, canned vegetables and tuna when they're three for a dollar, 5-pound bags of sugar for $1.99," she says. "It won't be a gourmet meal, but when they put it all together, it's quite a little bit."
Baker's altruistic efforts benefit her family as much as the recipients.
"I just hope that whoever gets it enjoys it, and it always makes us feel good," she says. "I've always taught the kids to learn to do for others, and I hope my grandkids will carry on the tradition: Be generous and help those who are less fortunate."
Like St. Nick flying away on his gift-laden sleigh under the cover of Christmas night, this remarkable woman heads out the door (empty-handed — there wasn't a bargain that fit her budget) to get to a store selling five T-shirts for $10 before closing time. "Those will be perfect for my grandsons," she concludes.
Chances are she'll pick up a few extras to tuck away for next year — and to tuck into a gift box for someone in need. That's just the kind of person Marcia Baker is.