You Can Buy Happiness This Christmas

 

Somewhere around December 29th last year you said, I’m not doing this again. Do you remember?

It was after exchanging a lot of gift cards with relatives, a lot of last minute fluffy throw blankets with the gift receipt stapled to the tag because you knew they would be returned for store credit. Or maybe you said it in the week leading up to Christmas when you scoured the mall for a $40 gift for someone that has all that they need and very little that they want. Perhaps it was the first week of January when the spending hangover really kicked in as you looked at bank accounts and credit card statements or you stuffed your own collection of unneeded and unwanted gifts into a box destined for re-gifting or eventually donation.

“The Christmas we now celebrate grew up at a time when Americans were mostly poor … mostly working with their hands and backs.. if we now feel burdened and unsatisfied by the piles of gifts and overconsuming, it is not because Christmas has changed all that much, it’s because we have.”

– Bill McKibben Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case For A More Joyful Christmas

Fifteen years ago my family decided we were done with traditional gift giving at Christmas. As my five siblings and I entered adulthood we spent a few years buying each other gifts for Christmas. It became stressful and not very enjoyable. So we decided to do something different. We’d been fortunate to receive help years earlier as a single parent low-income family so it felt natural to now return that help. We sponsored a family in need through a local organization and put the money we would have spent on each other towards that. New winter jackets and warm clothes for kids, some toys and  several things for the mom and lots and lots of groceries to fill the fridge and pantry. The first year we did this kind of giving we all remarked how much more enjoyable the holidays were. No frantic mall shopping the week before Christmas. No stress over if someone liked their gift. And, of course, giving to people in our community that needed help felt great.

Yes you can buy happiness: use your money to help those in need.

Almost every year since we have found an organization that connects us to a family in our community and we find out what they need, what they want and shop for them. A few years because of logistics and distance (many of us live or have lived in far flung places) some of us just donated money to a good cause but we have made it a tradition that we give to those in need at this time of year instead of traditional gift giving.

If you felt overwhelmed last year, if you felt that the focus on gifts and buying and shopping took away from your enjoyment of the holiday season, if the ritual of exchanging gifts has become a burden rather than a joy, I urge you to start a new tradition. You likely already have a group in mind, a circle of family or friends that would appreciate a break from gift giving and a chance to instead pool your resources to help those in your community. And if you have some folks that love to shop well, they will love shopping even more when they know it’s for someone that really needs new shoes, or a family that will sleep better at night knowing the cupboards are full. And if you have people that don’t enjoy shopping – I’m one of those – let me tell you, shopping for a family that truly needs things is quite enjoyable.

Some ideas for how to broach this change in gift giving:

  • be open to no the first time you bring it up. Sometimes you need to plant the seed a year ahead of time.
  • be ready to assume the organizer role. Someone will need to quarterback the project with who will buy what, who will deliver gifts to the organization, etc.
  • start small. Perhaps for year one you move to a Secret Santa style gift exchange with one person you buy a gift for and one person you make a donation in their name.
  • if your gift exchange is your chance to meet up make sure the meet up part still happens.

If you have the means to buy frivolous gifts or gifts for people that already have everything they need and most of the stuff they want, maybe it’s time to do something different. Maybe it’s time to celebrate your friendship, your good fortunes of health and happiness, by giving together.

Anyone have a unique way that you have changed your gift giving traditions to be less focused on stuff? I would love to volunteer together as a family someday once we’re out of the baby/young toddler stage.

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  • What a lovely tradition. My siblings and I gave up buying for each other a few years ago and it really lifted the stress (and extra expense) out of the season. We still buy for each other’s children though (until they turn 18). This year I have challenged myself to only give my nieces and nephews ‘experience gifts’. For my 6 & 8 year old nieces I am treating them to a morning with me to see the Nutcracker and have high tea (I have boys so it’s a treat for me to have a girly day with them). My teen nephews will get a movie box (cinema gift card and some snacks). I’m still deciding what to do for my teen niece and 5yo nephew. My boys and I put together Operation Christmas Child boxes this year as well- they were a little too young to understand but I hope in future years it will be a tradition for us to make a box for a little boy just like them and they can help choose the contents.

    • Liz – those are great gift ideas. I think people fear that trying to do something different means no gifts at all. But there are so many ways to change your giving be it to buying locally produced goods instead of mass manufactured to giving experience gifts instead of stuff.
      It’s interesting, my siblings and I haven’t really adopted a formal gift giving policy for our kids/nieces and nephews. Only half of us have children and we don’t go by any rule of when or who we give gifts to. So the nieces and nephews on that side have no expectation that all the aunts and uncles will have a present for them. I hope it stays this way! My kids get enough gifts between something from Santa, something from Mom and Dad and two grandmas.

  • I have been planting lots of seeds but it is hard for people to stop giving presents when it is so ingrained.
    I have opted out of three Secret Santas this year and will be donating to charity on my families behalf.
    I really look forward to the day when everyone gives to charity instead of to each other. Like you said, we already have everything we need.

    • It is really hard for some people to give up traditional gift giving. I remind myself often that for some people giving things is their love language. And while it is not my love language I have to respect the emotion and care behind the gift.
      Secret Santa and White Elephant gifts at work were the worst!

    • About 10 years ago, some friends of mine started the “alternative gift fair” in our community—it’s a day in early December when local non-profits come together at the library, set up tables with information about their organization, and community members can come in and make donations in their loved ones’ names. The organizers then gift wrap a card for the recipient that the giver takes with them. Some generous donors give matching gifts. It’s a big, festive affair, with lots of volunteers, cookies, coffee, live music, free babysitting, and chair massages…you can make all of your donations with one swipe of the credit card…it has made hundreds of thousands of dollars for our location non-profits,…

  • My sister has given us money to donate to Canadian charities through chimp.net several Christmases and it is a great way to allow the gift recipient to have the fun of choosing where to donate if you live too far apart to shop together for a food bank or something.

  • What we have done in the last few years is use the piggy bank…for each b-day, Christmas, Easter we all just put the sum we would have spent on gifts in the piggy bank.Once a year we use that money (and some extra if needed) to buy something useful/higher in cost around the house or change old/broken appliances.
    It’e easier this way and not so stressful on the budget.And this way I don’t get ant pink pijama :)

  • I hate shopping for gifts for people who already have everything. You end up shopping for stuff that’s useless, unwanted and unappreciated.
    Just as I hate receiving gifts: there is very little that I want.

    In order to reduce the waste, the cost and the stress around shopping for Xmas, in my family we now do a Secret Santa: each adult buys one gift for one other adult. So we all receive just one gift.
    I actually enjoy taking care of that one gift… and receiving just one that the person really put some thought into it.

    We started with my family and we are now doing in my husband’s family! They’re the only 2 Secret Santas we do!
    We needed to ‘plant’ the seed a couple of month before Christmas but our families were open to the idea. I think the fact that we still have that one gift to make/receive helps… I’m not sure it would have been as welcomed if we said we wanted to stop giving presents altogether. I’m just really happy we considerable reduced the number of gifts!

    • :) I’m the same, there is very little that I want. We also do a Secret Santa style gift exchange with the other side of the family for the adults. We just started it a few years ago and it has certainly cut down on the stress.

  • About 10 years ago, some friends of mine started the “alternative gift fair” in our community—it’s a day in early December when local non-profits come together at the library, set up tables with information about their organization, and community members can come in and make donations in their loved ones’ names. The organizers then gift wrap a card for the recipient that the giver takes with them. Some generous donors give matching gifts. It’s a big, festive affair, with lots of volunteers, cookies, coffee, live music, free babysitting, and chair massages…you can make all of your donations with one swipe of the credit card…it has made hundreds of thousands of dollars for our location non-profits,…

  • I talked to my adult son and daughter and their families awhile back about eliminating gift gifting and replacing it with donations to non-profits. Everyone chooses a non-profit that he or she wants to help. Everyone else donates any amount they choose (or can afford) to that organization in that person’s name. No hectic shopping trips and everyone gets support for a cause in which they believe. This is what we are doing in years to come.

  • Has anyone done a “homemade gift” Christmas?
    We are trying that this year, and it is a lot of work! But I think the present mean a little bit more that way. I have lots of little children, so helping each one make gifts for the others is a little overwhelming, but I’m hoping it will get them in the Spirit of giving. Doing only gifts for another family sounds really cool, but I think I would miss the traditional giving in our own family. I guess I’m torn. :-)
    My husband’s family isn’t big on gifts for birthdays, they mainly spend time and do activities together and bake a cake for birthdays. It’s really nice NOT to have the stress of a gift being “expected”. Maybe this idea is the same as the idea behind this article.

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