Gift giving and receiving is supposed to be a joyous and celebrated affair. Wikipedia tells me that modern gift giving was made popular in the 1800s when Queen Victoria’s tradition of giving gifts for the new year merged with the Christmas holiday. Prince Albert popularized the Christmas tree and our modern take on Christmas was born. In the Victorian era gifts started out as small items that were tied to the tree. The poorer Victorian era families filled stockings with nuts and dried fruits as their gifts.
Today, the average spend on Christmas is close to $1000 per person. Joshua Becker compiled a sobering list of what our households average in consumer goods and the statistics support that maybe we really don’t need $1000 worth of new stuff once a year. Two examples: British researchers found the the average 10 year has 238 toys but plays with just 12 daily and America has 3.1% of the world’s children but owns 40% of the world’s toys.
So it’s no surprise that one of the most frequent questions I receive is: how do I get people to stop buying my kids so many gifts? And next up: how do I get out of a gift giving tradition? Let’s start with the emotions and motivations behind gift giving. Your situation is unique but there are often some universal truths to gift giving. Here are some:
- people give gifts with love
- people often over spend because they want to show you this love
- people rarely think about the lifecycle of the gift they give: how it was made, who made it, how long it will last and where it will ultimately end up
Gift giving is often a love language. I care about you and want to show it by giving you things I think you will enjoy. There are many ways to say I love you. For some people gift giving is their way of saying they care.
With that in mind, when you want to change how gifts are given and received think about keeping the meaning and getting rid of the stuff. And use that same language when you bring up changing how you give gifts. Here are some examples:
- I want to celebrate our friendship in a different way this year. Could we trade up our annual gift exchange for time together at an activity or event or simply at my home catching up?
- The kids really have enough toys. But they would really love more time with you. Could you think about giving them the gift of your time? Either as an experience together – tickets to an event, an excursion – or simply as a day together doing things we all like – board games, cooking, sledding, reading a book series.
Let it be known that physical gifts may be returned or donated. I suggest not having this conversation in the moment of gift presentation. It’s a good one to have before gifts are bought and holiday plans are made. If not then than days or even weeks after the gift has been received is a good time for this talk. Here are some examples:
- I want to talk about gift giving this year. We’d like to do something different than our usual gift exchange. We’ve found it onerous in time/expense/space. The kids/I really already have everything we need and are trying to keep a less cluttered home. We will likely donate or return any physical gifts we receive. I wanted to let you know before hand so you aren’t disappointed or upset if we don’t keep your gift.
- Thank you for the ____. I know it was given with a lot of love. As you may know, we are trying to keep our home less cluttered. We’re really fortunate to have all that we need so won’t be able to use your gift. I wanted to let you know that I will be returning/donating the gift.
These aren’t easy conversations. People may ask for their gift back. I would give it to them no questions asked. If they seem open minded this is a great starting point for talking about alternate ways to give to/with each other. Donate to a charity you both feel strongly about with time or money. Be together. Show that you care for them or love them or appreciate them in a way that doesn’t involve wrapping something up. This may be a new way for you to express yourself. It may be a new way for the other person to express themselves. Be gentle and kind with one another as you explore a new language and method of gift giving.
Some people give gifts purely out of a sense of obligation. They’re the easiest ones to change a gift giving tradition with. You’ll see immediate relief when you ask if they’d like to stop swapping back and forth the same bottle of wine or box of chocolates and would, instead, finally go for that walk and chat you’ve been meaning to make happen all year. Another one to alleviate some of your anxiety about this change: many people can’t remember what they bought you or simply do not care what you do with that gift. So if it is unavoidable to receive a gift simply accept it graciously and then return or donate it.
Avoid having discussions about minimalism during gift opening. In the heat of present unwrapping no one wants to hear your thoughts on the waste and excess of giving gifts to people that already have everything they need. This conversation is for months or weeks before Christmas/birthdays/other gift giving holidays and for months or weeks after those holidays.
Remember: speak to the intention and emotion of the gift. Your friends and family don’t give you gifts of things you don’t need/want because they are ‘out to get you’ or ‘don’t care about you’. They simply think that this is what they do this time of year. Give people stuff. And that to not give you something would signify that they don’t care about you. Your goal is to slowly change the conversation and ideas of your gift giving from stuff = caring to acts of caring = caring. That act could be a heartfelt letter, a dinner together or helping someone clean out their garage. Caring is so much more than something that came with a receipt.
If you’ve changed your gift giving with family and friends please share how you did it! My family (my siblings and mother) changed our gift giving over 15 years ago, switching from traditional gifts to each other to buying gifts and food for families in need or making a monetary donation to a charity (we usually still get something for our mom though!).