Changing the Christmas giving game

Last summer, Susan, a close friend approached me about discontinuing our annual Christmas gifts to one another. She spoke of her wish for more philanthropy. I readily agreed. We're keeping our annual Christmas lunch, a 30+ year tradition.

I then thought of the dozen or so friends with whom I exchange gifts, and wondered if they, like Susan, might agree to changing the focus of our giving. I sent an e-mail requesting this.

So far, I've had three responses, two of enthusiastic "Yes, please!" variety and a terse "I will comply with your request." As I said in my e-mail, I look forward to continuing the celebration of their birthdays or milestones with gifts, but for Christmas giving, I will give to those in need and request they do the same.

WendyB wrote a hilarious screed against people who give her "gifts" of you-have-made-a donation cards. Wendy, you're not getting the card. The do-gooder glow, the tax receipt– they're mine. You can give to whomever you want, or get your nails done. No need to report to me.

We adopted this practice years ago within the extended family, but announcing the new plan to friends made me aware of how entrenched gift-giving is at Christmas, and the social pressure at play. I would rather have a friend contribute toward a hamper of food for a struggling family's table than receive another candle or pot of paperwhites, pleasant though they are.

When I choose birthday or spontaneous gifts for friends, I really get into it. So my friends will continue to receive personally-selected gifts intended to delight, just not on Christmas. That's the time (among others) to help needy families, isolated elders, animals or our magnificent planet. I'll continue to entertain or bring homemade treats or a good bottle when I'm a guest. And with the focus on the individual, rather than one name among a long list, I can lavish even more attention on those gifts.

Whether or not one celebrates Christmas, this seems to me a practical way to do something more. Anyone who seriously objects will receive a copy of "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity World-Wide" by Nicholas Krisof and Sharon WuDunn.

Their article, "Saving the World's Women" in the New York Times Magazine was a significant factor in my decision.


If you give holiday gifts, are you changing or maintaining your traditions?





22 comments

Frugal Scholar said...

I did not grow up with these traditions, so I don't have entrenched ideas. But I know it's hard.

You do have a gift for gift-giving. And I love the idea of wrenching gift-giving free from conventional occasions.

Thoughtful as always.

Nancy (nanflan) said...

Thoughtful post! I agree that gift giving loses something when it becomes rote.

Completely Alienne said...

I only give within the family - and while our children are young my siblings and I agreed not to give to each other. Once the children reach 21 we stop buying for them and go back to buying for each other.

I have been trying to discourage my daughters from giving to everyone in the class. One of them now does a Secret Santa at school. The other I have managed to beat down to small inexpensive gifts as she insists on spreading her presents so far and wide.

Duchesse said...

Alienne: Learning to give gifts consciously and thoughtfully is a good thing.

It has taken many decades for me to reach the point of wanting to forgo the exchange of Xmas gifts with friends. The family will exchange gifts. We have never gone wild at Christmas, that's more for birthdays.

Well Done said...

I've been doing this for years and have also cut back on Christmas gifts for my school-age children. My husband and I give the "extra" money
to charity and usually plan a lovely evening out with close friends. My holidays are relaxed and truly filled with good will.

materfamilias said...

We haven't done extended family for decades now. Like you, I love finding and giving the right gift and will splurge to do that, but I hate/refuse to give just because it's required/expected. Some elements of that ritual, though, I worry that people give up too easily for the sake of simplifying their lives -- I think pushing oneself to give is worth striving for, both for the giver and for whatever community they create or strengthen through the gift. It's been interesting the last few years watching my adult children begin to arrive at some kind of consensus about gift-giving -- seems to be an on-going negotiation for now, which I think is probably a good thing.

LaurieAnn said...

I have never enjoyed the feeling of "having" to buy a gift. Usually as I travel I'll find something that just seems so much like something my friend would love so I just buy it and give it then. I haven't done holiday shopping for years for anyone except my son who enjoys the tradition so much. My husband and I select one gift for the home each year that we purchase together. Last year it was a few pieces of All-Clad cookware that we use quite a bit. This year we are discussing a Kitchen Aide mixer or an espresso machine. I am going to read through the article you posted and seriously consider sending a donation from myself. It's amazing how great a difference a relatively small amount of cash can make in another's life.

metscan said...

Christmas is loaded with expectations. I have always suffered from anxiety during this time of the year. Last Xmas went rather smoothly though. We, as a family, broke all typical Christmas traditions. We ate food we wanted, presents between family members were given throughout the year. I could do it all over again.

Duchesse said...

Well Done: That sounds truly relaxing!

materfamilias: Having grandchildren will reintroduce me to the world of toys, though with my sons I requested the grandparents give one gift to each child. We never wanted Christmas to be centered on receiving tons of gifts. And of course learning to give is important for many reasons.

LaurieAnn: All Clad! One of the great aspects of life. Yes, a tiny amount makes a difference in the hands of a responsible, effective aid organization.

metscan: Hope you have the opportunity to do so, this would be a fantastic post if you would like to do a guest post! Stress lifted once Le Duc and I agreed, when the children were young, that we would not travel at Christmas- and told the families.

s. said...

Thank you for spreading this idea, Duchesse.

As someone raised in the Chrisitan church, I'm amazed by how a holiday celebrating Jesus's birth is marked by running around the malls like a headless chicken.

For birthdays, weddings and other personal life events, I love to find unique and personal gifts. But at Christmas, I try to think about the meaning of the holiday and take care of those who need it most. I do give presents to the young children in my life, but I keep those much more modest than what I give at their birthday: for instance, several second-hand books that I buy at the public library sale for 50 cents each.

WendyB said...

Sometimes I let my nails get so bad that getting a manicure could be considered being charitable towards those who have to see me. Really, people have said, "Please get your nails done." From now on, I will tell them that that's their holiday gift.

tiffany said...

Great post, as usual! I tried a few years back to shift things in the family (mostly husband's family as I have only one brother in Sydney) by giving Oxfam donations, etc. The exceptions were the children. Unfortunately it didn't go down well and I haven't tried it again. I have to say I really hate receiving cheap bubble bath and the like and I would MUCH rather receive news of a contribution (however small) that is going to help someone. Geez, even a packet of Fair Trade coffee would be cool! Now the family does a Kris Kringle system, so each member gets one gift for one other - it's much better. As for my nearest and dearest - well, I LOVE buying gifts for them ... Every year before Christmas I make my kids go through their 'stuff' and find some (good) things that they would like to hand on to less fortunate children. This is a condition of them receiving any more 'stuff'!

Mardel said...

I hate the way Christmas seems to have become a burden of obligation, and have been slowly slacking off on the gifts, unless I happen to find the perfecct thing. I am far more interested in finding the perfect thing for those near and dear than just handing out something, and distant family are different.

And for the most part, I don't want most of the gifts that come from obligation anyway, better a call or getting together sometime, the personal relationship has far more lasting value.

Still, it can be hard to break the cycle of expectation.

karen said...

I have to agree with you Duchesse. Christmas is about helping others. We've got waaaaaaayyyyyy too much, and yes, there are other opportunities for us to surprise our friends and loved ones with "stuff." I'm going right up to the Market of Hope today at Rolling Hills Covenant Church. Dozens of "do-good" gifts will be on offer. Surely I will buy a few cows and goats for my loved ones today!

Duchesse said...

Maggie: Last Christmastime my sons' young-20s friends had a cocktail party for which they dressed up- this was their idea. They wanted to have a 'grown up party' and had a wonderful time. So all is not lost!

crunchycon said...

While I applaud the idea of making a contribution rather than getting yet another rote present, I would much rather get the contribution made to a charity I support; I've gotten such notifications from family members who have very different values than I, and, while I try to focus on the intent of the gift, it would have been a much more meaningful gift for the giver to have taken the time to find out what my favorite charities are and give accordingly. A win-win all the way around.

Just my 2 centimes...

Duchesse said...

crunchycon:

As I wrote, I request they give to a good cause (instead of to me); I'm not asking to know the charity or amount they spent. I trust them to make their own choice- these are friends I've had for decades.

The "gift in your name" donation is a different strategy. If one goes that route, I agree a donation to the cause the recipient supports is thoughtful.

Maggie said...

Well said! Thanks for a thoughtful post.

Mimi said...

About three years ago I instituted the practice of birthday and thinking-of-you gifts only. Family and friends complied with no problems especially when I reminded them that Christmas wasn't their birthday but someone else's.

Duchesse said...

Mimi: I appreciate the succinctness with which you explained that to them!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post. I knew our family gift giving was ridiculous when my brother and I exchanged the same Barnes and Noble gift cards! There was no thought or feeling put into the gifts. For the past few years I've given homemade treats and a charitable donation. If you give to a cause your gift getter is involved with, it shows you've put some thought into the gift. I love the Heifer Project. Who wouldn't want to give sweet lambs to a family in need?

Duchesse said...

Anonymous: In the past, like you, I have given gifts of donations, something the recipient cares about. And I would continue to do that with some people.


Lately I've decided to loosen up one more step with close friends, and just not exchange anything, trusting them to give to their favourite causes, and me to mine. (But having said that I can't resist telling them what I'm doing.)

If they want to give to someone on their street, that's fine. And I don't want them to have to say how much they gave.

So much better than Barnes and Noble cards, isn't it?