A New Years Reflection on Gift-Giving

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January 6 is the “twelfth day of Christmas,” which for many people around the world marks the end of the Christmas season. It seems, therefore, a reasonable time to reflect upon the whole gift-giving aspect of the holidays, especially because of its connection in Christian tradition with the story of the three kings who presented the Baby Jesus with their gifts of “gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

When children are small, in families that enjoy those few precious years of their believing in Santa Claus, there’s no way to avoid at least a bit of frenzy before Christmas. But the joy on their faces on Christmas morning makes it all worthwhile, and after all a certain amount of “frenzy” is a major and unavoidable part of parenting young children, period. It’s just a little more intense in the weeks before Christmas.

In recent years, with my boys both now adults, I have been very happy that our family has been able to minimize and sideline the importance of gift-giving, which to me takes the pressure off, and makes more room to enjoy all the other wonderful things the season has to offer: the music, the food, the gathering together; and for many people (including me) the religious aspect at the heart of it all.

Downplaying the importance and centrality of gift-giving takes a great deal of stress and also financial anxiety off of everyone, and really does allow time to enjoy everything else about Christmas, whether it’s the decorated store windows,  seasonal concerts, or just time spent with each other, baking, ice skating, reading Christmas stories, or visiting a hospital or nursing home to share Christmas cheer with those who could really use some.

We usually have a few presents under the tree that we open on Christmas morning, and there are stockings filled with either big or small treats, plus the requisite orange and walnuts in each stocking, a nod to the gifts my Mom received in her childhood years during the Depression, a tradition that she passed on to me, and I have passed on to my sons. It’s not a bad way to recognize and appreciate some of the everyday blessings of our lives that we tend to take for granted, and know that not everyone, everywhere has always been so lucky.

Then we go shopping together after the holidays, and are able to benefit both from a less frantic atmosphere in the stores, the lack of time pressure, and great sales. (Also, for the most part my sons pick out what they want, rather than having to exchange the things I thought they might want, and was wrong about.)

But it wasn’t always so.

Quite a few years ago, before I had children, I found myself in the Macy’s store at Herald Square a few days before Christmas, unhappily looking for a gift for someone. I had no idea what to get for them; the frantic crowds and the overworked, impatient clerks seemed to be all pretty unhappy too, or at least under great stress; and much as I love all kinds of Christmas music, the music playing over the loudspeakers was NOT cheering me up, it was enervating; all I wanted to do was get OUT OF THERE as soon as I possibly could.

But I couldn’t, because I had to find a present first. I was so miserable!

In that moment, I quite clearly remember thinking, “If I don’t find a different way of going about this, I’m going to end up hating Christmas.”

That is when I started doing most of my shopping by catalogue, and for the most part staying out of stores as much as possible, especially in the weeks prior to Christmas. And for the most part, this has solved the problem, and I have been able to retain my deep love of Christmas and the Christmas season.

I have mixed feelings about minimizing the aspect of gift-giving, though. I know how thoughtful and caring it is to spend time looking for meaningful gifts for friends and family, and I certainly appreciate the thoughtfulness of those who have done so for me and my children. On the other hand, generally speaking the whole mad rush has gone into some kind of insane overdrive, hasn’t it?

So what can any of us do? How can we retain the custom of thoughtful gift-giving, without driving ourselves crazy? Here are a few tips to consider for next year.

  1. Buy throughout the year. A friend of mine recently wrote about how this is what she does. Throughout the year, whenever she is out shopping and she sees something that she knows so-and-so-would like, she makes the purchase and puts it aside. (This is probably not going to work very well for me, since shopping is one of the things I really do not like doing. However, I could at least take some time to browse online from time to time without making myself miserable, and I intend to try to do that this year, so that I will be sure to be prepared with a few special things for the special people in my life when December rolls around.)
  2. Buy after Christmas. As described above, this is what we (mostly) do now in our family. It’s less expensive, less stressful, and a better way for people to get the things they really need/want/can use. (I’ve always found the spectacle of people making all those returns and exchanges the day after Christmas to be just a little depressing, don’t you?)
  3. Give gifts that make a difference, as outlined here, in our last post.

In the last few weeks, we also came across some thoughtful essays written by people who have found ways to celebrate the holidays with either no gifts at all, or minimizing them, and we shared them on Facebook and Twitter. In the weeks ahead we’ll be focusing on other topics, like organizing (it’s National Organizing Month now, you know!), spring cleaning, and other topics related to downsizing and decluttering.

We hope you’ll consider liking us on Facebook, or following us on Twitter this year if you haven’t already. It’s a great place for us to share articles that we know our audience will enjoy, and we love hearing from you in the comments on our Facebook page too.

With all best wishes for a happy, healthy, peaceful New Year!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

 

 

 

 

 

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Gift-Giving for Minimalists & Downsizers

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Our Charlie Brown Christmas Tree (“All it needed was a little love…”)

Last month I wrote a post with gift-giving and other tips for the holiday season, which can present a challenge for those who want to celebrate the season and share joy with others, but who are also seeking to simplify their lives, minimize clutter, and “live with less.”

It is sad that for some, maybe even many people, the frenzy that surrounds gift-giving at the holiday season can actually destroy the joy that it is meant to inspire. In talking about this with a friend whose means are limited, another aspect of the problem was revealed. “I like to give gifts,” she said. “But I just can’t afford to give everyone the nice things I would like to. It makes me sad.” She added, “Also, sometimes you feel bad receiving gifts when you know that the person couldn’t really afford to give what they’re giving. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t feel good.”

I wondered what Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, aka “The Minimalists,” would have to say on this subject. “To stay focused, we must first focus on the right things: we must change our focus from consumption and obligation to love and support,” they wrote in one of the posts on their blog. Much of their advice is similar to advice we, and others, have given, and is fairly obvious: give gifts of time, consumables (wine, food, soaps, candles, etc.), give “experience” gifts (theatre tickets, trips, outings). But they also address the matter of how to deal with the expectations of others at holiday time, and they dig into the psychology of gift-giving in an interesting way.  “Gift-giving is, by definition, transactional,” they write. “But love is not a transaction. Love is transcendent: it transcends language and material possessions and can be demonstrated only through our thoughts, actions, and intentions.” It’s a thoughtful essay, well worth a read.

One of the challenges inherent in the alternative to  giving “stuff” for the holidays is following through on the alternative of “experience” gifts, the kind where you offer the gift of time spent in some special way with a loved one, or a favor you will do for them, or a promise you intend to keep. The easy part is making the promise: the harder part is making it really happen.

And since the holiday season conveniently includes the tradition of making New Year resolutions, maybe that’s a good resolution to make. Make sure that those promises you write down and present to a loved one during the holiday season really happen in–or even before–the New Year. Now, there’s a resolution well worth keeping!

Wishing you and yours warm, wonderful, meaningful holidays–with lots of joy, and not too much stuff!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor, writing coach, travel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

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