5 Reasons to Change Traditional Holiday Gift-Giving

Some traditions are worth keeping. Others almost beg for you to stomp all over them, perhaps none so much as traditional American holiday gifting. If the recession has taught us anything (and this is a big "IF"), it's that many of us are spending way more than we should be. If it's taught us anything else, it's that maybe all of that stuff didn't really matter in the first place.

So why the heck do we continue to mindlessly head out among the chaos and spend a few hundred or thousand dollars on impersonal stuff that we don't even know the receiver will need or even want, while they do the same for us?

I'm not advocating that you ban gift-giving altogether. But I would enourage you to reconsider how you approach holiday gift-giving this year. Here are five reasons why.

1. Nobody Knows What You Need More Than You

How many times have you had to fake liking a gift? It's painful, but we do it. That piece-of-junk kitchen appliance or ugly sweater ends up never getting used. Then you have to live with the guilt knowing that your loved one spent $50 on it for you, and you never used it. When they come over, you leave it out in the open so it appears that you have been using it after all. Kind of sad. You have a chance to end that painful cycle.

2. Nobody Knows What Your Loved Ones Need More Than Them

This is #1 flipped around. Why spend all of the time running around the herd looking for something that you're not even sure someone will like? You're wasting your time and your money, and when your loved one opens up that gift, you know they are faking their joy. Again: painful.

3. Mother Earth Will Thank You

All of this junk eventually ends up in a landfill. The human race cannot continue to exist if our current consume-and-dump ways continue. In giving up the purchase of junk, you're doing the world and the human race a great service. Change has to start somewhere, and why not with the biggest consumer-purchasing event of the year?

4. Stuff is Impersonal

Do you remember what you gave your mother five years ago? Does she?

5. You Don't Have to Give up Giving and Receiving

Just because you are actively choosing to give up the mindless purchasing of stuff does not mean you have to entirely give up the joy of giving. Have a discussion with your loved ones about how you want to handle holiday gift-giving this year. You may just find that they are relieved at your suggestion to try something new.

Here are a few experience gift ideas that you can discuss with your loved ones:

  • Events: Buy tickets to a play, an athletic event, a concert, movies, or a musical.
  • Night on the town: Treat someone to a nice dinner and a movie.
  • Food and drink: There are few things that people love as much as food and drink. Bake a pie, cook a really nice dinner, or buy wine.

These are just a handful of ideas that you might like (with a good chance that your gift receivers will really appreciate them as well). And they all have one thing in common: bringing people closer together through a shared experience.

Doesn't that sound like a tradition worth starting?

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Guest's picture

Mr. Miller - I am so with you on this that I started a business that redefines gift giving! It's called triplethegift.com. Your first four reasons are so true. And the fifth reason, "you don't have to give up giving and receiving' is our business. Triplethegift is geared towards children [the ones who usually have way too much stuff] and combines three gifts: a gift card for what you want, a contribution to a college savings account, and a donation to the charity of your choice. Its easy and doesn't fill landfills! Happy Holidays!

Guest's picture

Interesting thoughts, and it's good to see people challenging the currently popular approach.

Some alternatives/comments:
1) Just don't buy crap. Ever.
2) Know the people you're buying gifts for. Spend time with them to get to know their passions and tastes. Double check with family/friends what they need vs. what they already have. If you don't care enough to do this for them, how close are you really? Maybe your gifting circle is too big.
3) Again, reconsider the size of your gift list. Smaller list + no crap means less junk in a landfill. Also make good decisions about your gifts' quality, materials, and origin.
4) What? Stuff can most definitely be personal. Original art, handmade crafts/food/furniture, any purchase with time, effort, and thought (real, caring thought; not just the kind "that counts") put into it. Maybe you're just using "stuff" and "junk" interchangeably, in which case comment withdrawn.
5) These are all good, but with minimal effort you can find out for yourself what they'd like. There's always someone that knows. Find out what plays they've seen in the past, check their music software/PMPs for play counts, learn their favourite restaurant. I recommend doing this long before December, lest any direct questioning be incredibly suspicious.

Guest's picture

Unfortunately, I think you have confused and conflated two problems: gift giving and gift givers. While related, they are not the same. You criticize gift giving, but your critique is actually of gift givers.

You start with the strong statement, "Some traditions are worth keeping. Others almost beg for you to stomp all over them, perhaps none so much as traditional American holiday gifting." So I will start with a strong, counter - you're wrong and frankly I am sorry you grew up in an insensitive gift-giver environment. Let me unpack this.

"Nobody Knows What You Need More Than You. How many times have you had to fake liking a gift? It's painful...." Really, dude???? That's really sad. But the problem here isnt gift giving. It's communications. Do YOU tell your family what you want for the holidays? Do you create a wish list?

I have one friend who never ever tells her family what she wants. And then at the end of it all, like you, she is frustrated with what she receives. Well, d'uh. Part of healthy relationships is communications. Make a wish list, tell people what you want, and you will be amazed at how what you receive matches what you need.

It cuts the other way too, and you are right. Too often the problem is gift givers who do not listen. This is still a communication problem. They see something or think of something and say to themselves, "Oh, I would just love this, I will give it to johnny." Well, does Johnny want this, or is it a reflection of the givers interests. To give REALLY GOOD gifts, we have to listen so well, we give gifts that the receiver doesnt even know they want.

And that is my big disagreement with "Nobody Knows What You Need More Than You." How well do you listen? How well do you observe? I have to say as a father, the number of gifts I have given to my kids that they did not ask for - but just made their eyes light up - is impressive. Can you hear what your family is saying, even without words? That is a sign of a strong relationship.

"Mother Earth will thank you."

Hum. Well first, a well given gift is a big solution - meaning something that will be well used. It might even be a gift like a solar charger or an LED flashlight or a bicycle. So I dont know about that. But your alternatives, such as going to an event - heh, um, having you thought about the carbon footprint of say a basketball game?? I am not sure that is a positive.

"Do you remember what you gave your mother five years ago? Does she?"

Really?? How sad. Do you take pictures during the holidays? We probably take more pictures on Christmas day than any other day. Many of them are at the moment of receiving with eyes lighting up. I hope you have those pictures. If you do, look back through them and see if this is still true. For us, they are moments of joy and frequently the starts of new beginnings: a new bike, a new toy, some really nice cloths, something for a new hobby. Yes we remember.

And think about it. 5 years ago?? You are still young, based on your picture. How OLD WERE you 5 years ago? Would that present mean anything to you today? But did it 5 years ago? When my kids where young, we gave them thomas the tank trains. They loved them and played with them solid for years. Do they think about them now? No. They are too old. Will they think about them in 20 years when they pull them off the shelf and play with them with their own children?? Yip. (I gave my kids my match box cars - that was big).

Again, I think its a communication issue. It has to be gifts the *receiver* (not the giver) would cherish.

Finally, which brings it home:

"Here are a few experience gift ideas that you can discuss with your loved ones: Events: Buy tickets to a play, an athletic event, a concert, movies, or a musical."

Gotta say, that is really not a solution. As far as not being materialistic or nihilistic, none of those really count. Most concerts today are experiences in pure nihilism. As far as carbon footprint, they all probably has significant ones. But most importantly, are you listening to the recipient? Are those things the recipient would enjoy? All of those are passive activities where you go and sit and watch someone else do something. Would the recipient enjoy that? Or would the recipient enjoy a new (or used) bike or hockey skates or a sled that are consistent with active lifestyles.

I gotta say, I am not a spectator; there is no greater wasted gift on me than to buy me tickets where I have to go somewhere and sit on my ass for several hours watching someone else have fun. That is exactly my point. That is a wasted gift because anyone who gave that to me, was not listening to me, and was wasting.

The problem you describe is not gift giving. It is how we communicate and listen. It is indicative of a society where we dont listen to each other and we give gifts for the wrong reason. We can give gifts that empower the recipient and expand their world, or we can give *stuff* (ala george carlin). The holidays is a celebration - and a direct indication - of our relationships. What does your gift giving say about you?

Guest's picture

Great post, Barlington! Communication - oh, so important when it comes to gift giving and receiving. If the author is pissed at gifts he has gotten - not my fault - dude needs to tell people what he wants. Also, the whole 'do you remember what your mother gave you five years ago....?' comment - give me a break. My husband has purchased gifts from several Christmas' ago that I still use to this day. However, whenever I use the items I don't think "Oh, look. Memories of opening this on Christmas Day." Maybe I don't necessarily remember what I got each Christmas, but I am sure I use(d) and enjoy(ed) the gifts. You know why? I communicated with my family and told them what I hoped to receive.

Guest's picture

What is sad is that people have been led to believe (from a very young age) that they require gift exchange to truly enjoy Christmas. And that acquiring more material possessions leads to happiness.

Guest's picture

I can definitely relate to this post, as I don't require gifts from others. I am always trying to get rid of stuff and don't need a trinket I won't use.

The best give I can give and the one I'd like to receive is time with a loved one. Cheesy but true.

Guest's picture

Great article - I couldn't agree more. Christmas spending has gone so far as to become pathological according to one UK study! They suggest that Christmas is a significant contributor to depression - primarily through the spending habits that we feel are appropriate.

Guest's picture

@Simon - That is so true. People put too much pressure upon themselves to prove their love to others with gifts. Then it becomes expected from the receiver of gifts. It's a hard cycle to break. Especially with the media constantly marketing all these items. Lucky for me, I am quite frugal and hate to shop. I get sticker shock big time. And I think those who know me finally get the clue.

Guest's picture
Richard Thomas

I have recently decided to give value on birthdays and christmas this year. I have purchased silver 1 once rounds back in June for arround $18.00 each for all of my children and grand children. Along with them I have enclosed a a letter promising them that I will buy it back at twice the price I paid for it if they hold on to it for 2 years. Todays spot price of one once of pure silver is close to $29.00.
This has had some remarkable results. On my grand daughters birthday I gave her 1 once of silver. Her parents have never saved in there lives anything. This gift caught their attention and they started questioning me about silver. Less than 6 months later they have accumulated 27 onces of which I have contributed annother three during Birthdays.
Not only have I given them something of value, but have sparked an interest into what is happening with our ecconomy and saving for the future.

Guest's picture

Very cool idea. Definitely gives them incentive which results in a lesson.