“Twenty-five years ago, Christmas was not the burden that it is now. There was less haggling and weighing, less quid pro quo, less fatigue of body, less wearing of soul; and, most of all, there was less loading up with trash.” —Meredith Deland in Harper’s Bazaar, 1904
Giving gifts is an expression of love, and it has been for thousands of years. Well before our consumer-driven society, people offered gifts as a sign of respect and admiration. Kings, peasants, and everyone in-between.
This is not an argument for no longer giving gifts to people we love. I think giving gifts is great. But I do think it would be wise for us to rethink how we give them.
And the sooner, the better:
28% of shoppers are entering the holiday season still paying off debt from last year’s gift shopping!
Over 50% of holiday shoppers either overspend their holiday budget or do not set one at all.
Consumers who went into debt over the holiday season racked up an average of $1,054 in new debt over the timeframe.
I suppose this might be okay if our gifts were legitimately enriching the lives of other people. But the statistics say otherwise:
53.1% of people report to receiving unwanted gifts during Christmas.
$16 billion is wasted on unwanted gifts every year.
Some reports indicate up to 18% of gifts are never used by the person who receives them. 4% are immediately thrown into the trash.
Whenever I speak on minimalism and take questions afterward, the two most common questions are 1) How do I implement minimalism in a family? And 2) How do I handle and/or tell loved ones to stop giving me so many gifts?
And none of this even begins to mention the amount of stress and worry piled on to the holiday season with our attitudes toward gift-giving.
As someone recently said to me, “Thanksgiving may be my favorite holiday season. It’s got family and food and tradition. It’s just like Christmas, but without the gift-giving expectations and stress.”
I think it’s time we rethought how we approached the act of gifting gifts during the holiday season. Our current approach is not benefiting the people we love, nor is it adding to the joy of the season.
Times have changed.
For one, material goods exist in far greater excess than ever before. Consider this, human beings own more “things” today than at any point in human history. In America, the average home has tripled in size in the last 50 years. And still 10% of Americans rent offsite storage to house their stuff… and an even higher percentage can’t park their car in the garage because it’s too full. We’ve reached peak-stuff. People don’t want more, they want less (the growth of this blog and the minimalist movement over the years since it began stand as proof).
Additionally, and probably more important, very few people wait for the holidays to receive what they want anymore. Because goods have become so accessible and inexpensive, a high percentage of people just go buy whatever they want, whenever they want. This leads to countless moments of saying, “I don’t know what to get __________, he already has everything.” I can remember that phrase being said 30 years ago. But nowadays, it’s true about far more people than ever before.
I honestly think it’s time for us as a society to start rethinking our holiday gift-giving attitudes.
This has happened before. Most historians trace our current attitude toward Christmas shopping back to the 1850’s. This may seem like a long time ago. But 150 years, compared to the timeline of human history, is not all that long.
Our thinking as a society toward gift giving has changed in the past, and it can do so again.
How do we bring about this change?
1. We keep the conversation alive. Share this article. Or share others that are similar. Start the conversation among your friends and family members.
2. Control what you can. Request a change in what you personally receive. Ask for no gifts this year or ask that the money be donated to a charity rather than spent on clutter.
3. Look for buy-in among like-minded people.
Before buying a whole bunch of stuff for your loved ones this holiday season, ask if your loved ones even want a whole bunch of stuff this holiday season. (tweet that)
Or look for new traditions in your family. Maybe you only buy gifts for people under the age of 18. Or decide to limit the amount of gift-giving stress by drawing names, rather than everyone buying gifts for everyone else.
Approach the conversation with your family. Many families have changed how they give gifts, and most people are thankful for the change. It usually just takes one person to approach the others with a new idea. But now is the time to have that conversation.
4. Find new ways to give gifts. Look to consumables, experiences, or pooling money for one significant gift rather than piles under the tree.
5. Find new ways to make the season memorable. Holidays are important. They establish tradition, stability, and shared experiences among family members. Look for new ways to promote memories (time together, meals together, religious experiences together) that do not center around stuffing used wrapping paper into a trash bag.
It will take effort to change societal expectations around our current gift-giving habits—especially with the amount of money being spent to encourage it. But we can start with our families, and allow them to enjoy the freedom of new expectations first.
Trudy Elder says
I’m an only child and when growing up my parents did give me lots of presents. They were not extravagant gifts as this was in the 60-70’s. Most of them were hand made.
When I got older they would give me cash and asked me not to buy them anything. My parents are very practical and extreme minimalists before it was even a thing. Lol
They have instilled this in me, which I do appreciate. Whenever a friend gives me a gift ( birthdays included) I thank them but suggest we do an activity or dinner together in the future.
My son has never received Birthday gifts from his friends. We have always asked for a monetary contribution that would go towards one gift or tickets for an event or movies. It was hard for me to ask for this as I felt it was tacky, but all the parents told me they appreciated not having to go find a present. We always do a really fun activity which is our present to him.
We do give my son more gifts since he’s an only but try to limit it to 8 presents, and follow our version of “Two you want; need, wear, read.”
He is into some expensive sports so the want, need & wear all go hand in hand. 90% of his gifts is stuff we would have bought him anyway.
My parents give me a generous amount of money to buy him one item or put towards a very expensive gift. Last year it was a mountain bike.
My husband and I exchanged gifts but it is something we need for ourselves or the house. I wait until Xmas to restock my shampoo, make up, body wash etc.
This year I asked for a new expresso machine as our coffee maker crapped out. I’ve been drinking instant for a month.
We enjoy the whole day opening gifts slowly, taking breaks to make breakfast, walk the dogs, play a game or put together a gift and try it out. I think this has taught my son patience and he views Xmas as more than just presents. For us it’s about taking they day to be together and be grateful for having each other and the friends in our lives.
I love the white envelope on a tree idea. The gift is a contribution to a worthy cause in your name. We all know many local non profits and missions as well as greater orgs working hard to help the most vulnerable, to protect the planet.. peace on earth, goodwill to all..
Here are some of the things we do around Christmas gifts in our family:
1) My husband and I don’t exchange big Christmas gifts, just do stockings for each other, mostly snacks and booze we know the other will like.
2) We give our under 18 son a few gifts he’s requested. Over 18 daughter gets cash.
3) We give our parents each one small sentimental gift, and make them an annual photo calendar they treasure.
4) With my sister and BIL, we give donations in each other’s names. I give one gift each to their small children.
5) I give a very small token gift to my 3 best friends which I shop for locally to support little local gift shops. Something like a cute dish towel or some lip balm I know they’ll like and use. And honestly if they don’t like it, I’m fine with them donating or regifting it!
6) My parents give us cash which I’m very grateful for! They do give gifts to the grandkids. I know it takes restraint for my mom not to give the grandkids a huge pile of gifts. But my sister and family fly here to visit us at Christmas and it’s a huge pain for them to get a bunch of gifts. I consider their annual Christmas visit and time with to be our best shared gift!
We are almost there. We have two young grandsons who still believe in Santa. Their other grandmother, who has four other grandchildren goes all out buying them all a lot of toys, Many of them will never even be played with. There is really not enough room in their home for everything. We will probably get them one or two things. My husband and I haven’t exchanged gifts for decades. We give our two children and their spouses generous monetary gifts. I wish that they would give us the gift of their talents and labor. There are things that they could do for us that would be greatly appreciated. At this point in our lives we need very little in the way of material goods.
Have you considered (not at holiday time) having that conversation with them. Maybe in the middle of winter or summer far removed from when it could sound reproachful but could be done in a casual off-hand manner…you know, I wouldn’t mind…
My MIL kept a list of small things that needed to be done
replace a lightbulb, clean the top of the refrigerator… usually didn’t take more than a few minutes but at their age they didn’t need to be climbing step stools or ladders. We all (children and grandkids) knew we should try to take care of at least one thing when we came to visit. We knew where the list was kept or would ask if it had been misplaced. It allowed her to write it down when she thought of it and didn’t have to try to remember during the joy of having a visitor
Diane S. says
I found something interesting. “There’s A New Christmas Tradition”. What this is:
There are 24 chapters in the book of Luke in the New Testament. The new tradition is to read a chapter in the book of Luke daily starting December 1st, and by the 24th day you have read the accounts of Christ’s life and therefore know Who and Why we celebrate Christmas. I think this should be the center of our Christmas celebration. And on Christmas Day, maybe we should sing Happy Birthday, Jesus!
The daily reading is our time spent with Jesus, what better gift can we give our Lord than that?
Whe I was younger we used to pray and sing for little Jesus. We didn’t get no gifts ? It was only for him. We used to love it.
Katrinka Tyrseck says
Fern Webber says
So so true. Jesus is the season for the season, but this is just the beginning- it’s all about the cross where our indescribable gift of His Son dying for our sins is the best gift of all.
How Beautiful! I will try this with my family
Donna Wilson says
We have for many years (late 1980’s) had what we call Jesus Birthday party on Christmas Eve. I decorate the house each year with streamers and banners of birthday (white, red or green) and balloons (2 doz). We have hamburgers and french fries for dinner and someone makes baby cakes (cupcakes). An adult reads the Christmas story of Christ’s birth and then we light the candle on our baby cake and sing “happy birthday” to baby Jesus. Our family wouldn’t have it any other way. When they can’t join us, then they have their own Jesus Birthday. The times that we couldn’t get together because of sickness or COVID, the kids were very disappointed (ages range from 5 to 21 for grandchildren). The rest of holiday is very minimal with stocking stuffers and name drawing for the adults with a spending limit.
What does the non-believer do?
I stopped giving physical gifts for the most part and instead give plane tickets.
Kristina Johnson says
These are all great ideas. But what do you do if you are an only child and only grandchild and have no family left. The holidays are very hard for me and lonely. Well every day of the year is lonely too. I wish I had the problem of too many gifts. You ppl that posted definitely need to step back and realize you should be grateful to even have this problem.
Kristina, it’s not other people’s responsibility to think about how every conversation they have about their own lives may affect every other person who may hear or read it. If people discussing their families makes you feel unhappy, it means you should look at that in your own life.
Many people have no biological family around them. That does not have to automatically equate to loneliness. Family is what you decide it is, and sharing the same DNA isn’t required.
Many of us have built our family from scratch by the friendships we have found, developed and nurtured. If you want close ties in your life, you build them. These relationships can be every bit as profound, fulfilling, meaningful and simply beautiful as any that were handed to us through biology. Oftentimes more so, because we chose them and had to work for them.
And when you have them, that still doesn’t mean you or they need to lavish each other with material gifts, however. ?
All the best to you.
Barbara T says
In a nutshell, “Happiness is Self Made”. It comes from withing and not others.
Francina G says
I understand completely. Don’t have this problem…ever..
Hope this year will be better for YOU.
This is what I say to those that complsin about to many people that come visit and want to spend time with them. What a great problem to have, and also to many giftgivers. That also mean you have a big group of people around you. Can you spend xmas with a friends family maybe? Or voluntare somewhere for xmas. Then you would not feel lonely. Put up an add on fb and ask if someone has an empty chair for you at xmas. Good luck!
Michele Moore says
Reach out to other people to adopt as family. You will all appreciate the season and each other even more. Search out people who are lonely and bless them. Their gratitude will bless you right back
This will be me when my parents are gone. I’m ok with less but buy yourself something or I love to give to Angel trees and have delivered gifts to those kids on the tree-heartwarming. Go volunteer somewhere on Christmas then you don’t think about it so much-the joy is in the giving…it truly is
Martha Wallen says
I completely understand the feeling. No matter how many friends you have and how wonderful they are, they don’t live in our homes, and they are spending Christmas with their own families. You don’t need a lot of gifts, but you do need to know that people care about you. I hope you have enough friends who understand that you like a bit of Christmas. It’s a drag to get gifts you don’t really want or need. When people live alone, maybe there are things they can’t find in stores, or maybe some people just need some money. What you give counts too, especially when people have genuine needs and can’t give you much in return, maybe just a card.
Bette Hayes says
There are so many service organizations and churches willing to help with gifts for those who can’t afford gifts. All you need to do is let them know or volunteer your time to help set up for free gifts and. be rewarded with gifts for your child. Having done both, there are no strings attached and no cost to you. Merry Christmas this year Kristina.
What part of the country do you live in?
I told people I don’t need anything. Knowing that it will get ignored, I said to take the favorite book that you read this year/ever/you think I’d like, put your name on a sticky note in the front cover, wrap it up, and let me borrow it. They can put some thought into it, I’ll have stuff to open so people won’t feel guilty about not getting me anything, I’ll get out of my reading rut, and I get to give all the books back when I’m done. I’m actually excited about Christmas and not dreading an influx of things I have to find a place for or dispose of. (PS – I cleared off a bookshelf for the books so they won’t get mixed up with mine.)
What a fantastic idea!!!
I love the book idea!
Victor and Patsy Joe says
I haven’t heard anyone write about the real meaning of Christmas. This is what I feel is missing. Giving gifts and or not giving gifts is not the point. Christmas begins and ends with Christ. The celebration of Christmas was given meaning through the story of the birth of Jesus Christ. The three wisemen from the East followed the star which led them to a manger where the Christchild was born. Without going into detail the story of Christmas began here with the wisemen offering gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These were presents that represented things of value. The message of Christmas was simply a way of telling the good news that God gave the world the greatest gift which is love. God’s love for all people. Jesus is the gift of God’s love. It is the gift that the world longs for and seeks at all costs. It is the gift that offers the answer to the question every individual asks about life: “If a person dies will he live again?” This is a question that haunts us even today! If our creator is real and offers us life after death isn’t this good news? This is the meaning of Christmas that has been missing as the years pass by. So my suggestion would be to get together around the Christmas tree and someone read the Christmas story (Matthew 1:18-2:12. Luke 2:1-20). Familiar Christmas carols and songs could be sung. Then the opening of gifts can take place symbolizing the joy that comes in the giving and sharing of gifts Some semblance of order needs to take place where the family can be together to see and enjoy each person as they open their gifts. That is the pattern our family experienced every Christmas rather than the melee that takes place where everyone dives in and rips open their present with avarice and greed in their eyes to see what they were “getting for Christmas!” The tradition of Christmas has lasted in different cultures for over 2000 years. `
Margo Evenson says
Amen…we have moved so far from the true meaning of Christmas. How many still go to Christmas Eve church service?
And yet Christ was born in April and Christmas was founded on pagan traditions.
Thank you for saying this! I am Unitarian and celebrate (and respect) all religions and practices, not just one.
pamella Loy says
I go to Christmas Eve Eve because so many in our church travel. We always have 2 services with candles, singing,preaching and communion. It’s wonderful!
Emer Kelly says
Actually, much of the traditions surrounding Christmas have never had anything to do with Christ. Winter celebrations were, and still are, common for many cultures around the world (in fact, the other word for Christmas, Yuletide, is an ancient Nordic term for the celebration). The birth of Christ was not celebrated at this time until the fourth century when church officials decided to institute the birth of Jesus as a holiday. It is commonly believed that the church chose December 25th in an effort to adopt and absorb the traditions of popular winter festivals. It increased the chances that Christmas would be popularly embraced.
Gifts, celebration, feasting, Christmas trees, community, Santa Clause – all these things and more were around long before we called it Christmas. I personally have no problem with non-Christians celebrating the holiday. Some celebrate its roots, while others celebrate the religious aspect. All who celebrate embrace its message of joy, love and kindness – and for me, that’s what matters most.
Nancy Vehrs says
I knew some used the history as an “argument “, but I love your approach. And your final analysis is perfect. Thank you!
Nancy N. says
Actually, “Christmas” starts as a pagan festival until it is appropriated by the Christian church as “the birth of Jesus” as part of their efforts to eradicate paganism. In fact, most of the major “Christian” holidays have pagan origins this same way – Easter, Epiphany, Christmas, St. Valentine’s Day, etc.
These days Christmas has once again become a “pagan” holiday in the sense that large numbers of people celebrate it as a non-religious holiday. It’s even widely celebrated as a secular holiday in countries like Japan where there are only tiny numbers of Christians.
Sounds wonderful and I agree with you, but what if we cannot change the habits of family even after suggestions? My extended family prefers the chaos of piles of gifts and flying gift wrap. I prefer less stress over the gift giving and would rather spend my weekends leading up to Christmas doing things I love with my family and not fighting for parking spaces at the mall or endless shopping hours on the internet – don’t know how to find balance.
Lisa Maraszek says
I’m with you. I love all the activities/concerts/hikes, etc that lead up to the holiday, and absolutely dislike the shopping experience (real or online). Wish the gift-giving part could be tempered, and all these suggestions shall be floated to the family, but it always seems to echo back with “but it’s all about the kids”, and we may be doing a disservice to them.
Not really. Xmas excisted long before christ!
I agee wholeheartedly…
I am so broken that many including my own have strayed from the truth and passing it on to my grandchildren and their generation,which will eventually become a thing of the past
Jean O says
It used to REALLY bother me that we celebrated Christmas – the Bible doesn’t tell us to celebrate the birth of Jesus, it’s at the wrong time of year for it anyway, and it was instituted for “Christians” to celebrate at the same time as all the Roman pagans during the winter celebrations.
But over the years I have changed my stance on that for a number of reasons.
The Bible tells us to “redeem the time” not to “reject the time.” “The earth is the Lord’s” and”every good thing comes from Him” so the good things about Christmas are godly, and Believers celebrating their Savior is ALWAYS acceptable and good.
Some people never have a positive situation to be exposed to the Good News except at Christmas. The Holidays have more generosity and good will toward mankind than any other time of year – making Christianity more about “God so loved the world” than any other time of the year.
If celebrating Christmas gives me an opportunity to introduce the love of God and His Good News to even one person, it was worth celebrating.
On gift-giving, it takes time and relationship to pick heart felt gifts for my loved ones. Spending time in conversations, hearing their ups and downs and day-to-day trivia. I try to pick something within my budget that they want but won’t buy for themselves. I do this throughout the year, not in December. For those I can’t spend that time with, I get a gift card from a favorite store.
For children, I really despise plastic “throw away” toys. I prefer to get quality creative toys – wood building blocks, Legos, art and craft sets, quality board or card games – things that will last, maybe till their own kids can use them. (My granddaughter will soon be playing with toys I gave my daughter when she was young.)
I like gifting family recipes, written out on personalized (5×8) cards.
Family stories written out. I’m the oldest of our line of family. I remember my parents and life in the 60s, 70s, and 80s that my siblings and their children may not remember – times they may not think to ask about till it is too late. These kinds of gifts are priceless.
Teaching your children to be generous and giving, to “adopt” someone who is alone to celebrate with the family, to volunteer to cheer up shut ins are great family Christmas traditions and a great way to “redeem the time.”
Emma Butler says
Truly enjoyed your comments❤️ My sentiments too.
Susan Atzemis says
What an awesome article!!!!!
Leann Collier says
Last year I got my brother’s family a gift card to The Escape Room, which is a fun interactive puzzle environment that the whole family can participate in. They loved it. Another year I bought movie passes for everyone to see the latest Star Wars. My brother has 4 kids and he’s been saying for years they have too much stuff. I used to find joy in seeking out the “perfect” present for each of them on their list, but it was also a lot of time, stress and money to get it done. I did enjoy seeing their faces when they opened their presents. But how long did they actually enjoy it? My personal fortunes changed and I can no longer afford to do presents for all. But I think they have enjoyed the group experiences I’ve provided. Another time we all went on a hike in the woods, and one year we went to an interactive park that was free and had a lot of fun jungle-gym things for the kids (and me) to play on.
Todd Hyslop says
That’s excellent! For years, I’ve given my parents a card with a donation receipt to an animal shelter — something near and dear to their hearts.
For myself, I’m much more about experiences: buy me a night-school cooking class; or a day of skydiving. My wife and daughter are going to spend a weekend at an ice castle retreat to be spoiled.
Much better than a new tie, ice scraper or video game.