Fight a Consumerist Christmas- With Gifts


One rant deserves another. Ok, it’s Christmas time. It’s the holiday season. And because a lot of the blogs I enjoy reading are about frugality, personal finance, etc. a lot of my blog feed is full of Anti-Christmas shopping/presents posts, some angry ones too. Adam Baker from Man vs Debt even went so far as to link to several Anti Christmas Spending posts that share his opinion in a sort of angry Anti –Presents Blog Carnival. And, while I personally feel that Christmas has been exploded into an ugly money-sucking thing, I also feel these Anti-Christmas Spending people are missing the point too. I say it again and again, in life you need balance.

A lot of these posts talk about how no one even remembers the Christmas presents they got or no one cares about the Christmas present you gave them. Excuse me? Are you mad? You might not remember actually opening that GI Joe action figure on Christmas day but I bet you have fond memories of blowing him up with your brothers and “burying” his broken body in your backyard. You might not remember the packet of Hot Wheels cars you got on Christmas in your stocking but don’t you remember racing them down the hallway? You may not remember you got the Barbie Dream House on Christmas, but don’t you remember playing dolls with your brother and decorating the little house with little handmade items or found objects? You think you got a bike on Christmas, but what you do remember are the hours you spent flying around free as a bird with the wind in your hair. Those things you got on Christmas, generally fueled a whole lot of memory-making. Why are we so quick to go from one extreme to another? I agree the spending mania is bonkers. I agree people really go nuts around Christmas for no reason at all but there are ways of doing Christmas properly.

I think about my own Christmas celebrations growing up and I remember a lot of experiences and things: I remember decorating the Christmas tree while listening to a Disney Christmas record for instance. I remember this crazy little Santa figure that rang a silver bell and walked around. I loved that guy. And hell yes I remember eagerly anticipating Christmas morning to see what Santa had brought me.

My parents were (and still are) a social worker and a teacher (my mom was a stay at home mom for a few years too).  Money was not exactly growing on trees around my home. I remember Christmas, more than birthdays, was the time they “splurged” on us. And I knew kids who got more presents, shinier presents, etc. I didn’t feel any less loved or anything so ridiculous as that. My parents made sure we felt loved year round. Christmas was just the time of year we got toys.

And those traditions I remember so fondly? That tree needed to be bought, as did the decorations and lights that adorned it, and the Disney record we listened to, and the egg nog we drank, and the silly, walking, bell-ringing Santa too. Christmas always felt really totally special and awesome. And yes, things contributed to building that feeling. They didn’t create the feeling but they contributed. To ignore that is foolish.

Now, it’s my turn. I’m a mom of a seven year old, four year old, and two year old. And I’ve pretty much followed my parents’ example. I rarely, if ever, buy my children toys, games, etc. outside of birthdays or Christmas. This year, even the birthday got somewhat bumped in favor of a trip to Disney. Christmas is the year I stock them up on toys, games, books, etc. And I don’t go bananas, spending more than I can afford or anything like that. I have a budget. My grandmothers usually give me money to supplement my budget with. And you know what I think the real difference is? I really think about their gifts.

I sit and browse ads, aisles, websites for hours. Yes, the older ones made lists this year but I also listen to them year-long. I know their likes outside of whatever the flashiest ad on TV is. So I really plan out their gifts. I don’t just walk into a store and say, “Ok let’s see how much crap I can get for $300 and call it a day so I can get this over with.” My Christmas shopping tends to extend for weeks because I’m searching for very specific things in very specific price ranges.

And you know what else? I do this for my friends and family too, thank you very much. I deplore gift cards. I think they’re soulless– same as cash. I understand why my 85 year old grandmother would rather write me a check than go to a store to buy me something. She’s old. It’s exhausting. But me? I’m sorry, I don’t have any excuse.

This year, I am making many of the presents I will be giving. But there are some presents I will also be buying. And for both, the ones I give and buy, I really try and put thought into them. I think of what the intended recipient needs at this point in their life, what they like, what they would love to get themselves but never would, what would look good on them, etc. Even the presents I make require the Mighty Dollar’s participation. I’m not just making presents to make something and get it out of the way. I’m making things I really think the Intended Recipient will like, need, and/or want. If I don’t have the right materials for it, I buy them instead of just making things with what I have to get it out of the way.

You want to know how to fix Christmas? It’s not about not buying things, it’s about putting thought into what you buy. I think donations to charities are very nice and appropriate—for some people. But to say I’m giving charitable donations to everyone in my family because I’m anti-consumerism and anti-stuff is not taking my recipients into consideration! It’s a reflection of what I would appreciate as a gift. Even if I took the extra step to consider an appropriate charity for them, it’s still not entirely taking the recipient into account. Does the recipient actually need something? Is there something they really want? You want to donate to charity, donate to charity—on your dime, on your time. I think that’s just a pass too and it’s not right. You’re just getting yourself off the hook because you’re “doing something good for the world instead of greasing the consumerism machine”. Please.

My point is this: no matter how anti-stuff you want to be, how anti-consumerist you aim to be—that’s not the point of Christmas either. Christmas isn’t a time for you to take advantage and spread your message, forcing it on your loved ones. What is it about then?

The bonds that bind. Friends and family. Coming together and, yes, presenting them with a token– that shows your affection and understanding of them. That doesn’t ever automatically equal a dollar amount—that’s just another easy route out. It’s not about, “I love you so much, I spent x dollars on you!” The guy that walks into the Louis Vuitton store and asks for the newest, most expensive bag is just as guilty as not taking the time to understand his wife’s true needs and wants as the person who brushes a gift off by buying a Best Buy gift card for x dollars, or making a donation to a charity in someone else’s name for x dollars.

The problem is not spending, it’s spending blindly, hurriedly, with the goal to get x number of gifts under the tree by such and such date so you don’t feel bad. The problem is not gift-giving, it’s careless and thoughtless gift-giving. These things are most decidedly not meant for the intended recipient, they’re just guilt-soothers. I have gotten a lot of truly wonderful gifts at Christmas time—gifts I’ve truly wanted, cherished, and appreciated. Gifts that show the person has been paying attention to me, has taken an interest in me. Gifts that show those conversations we have are actually registering in their brains, not running in and out of their ears.

If you really pay attention to your loved ones, I can guarantee you will absolutely think of something that will be cherished by them—at any price range. That’s the right thing to do at Christmas. Be thoughtful. Be patient. Be creative. Gift-giving, too, is an art. Just because it’s been tarnished by so much treacherous marketing doesn’t make it something to simply cast aside.

I think of the Japanese when I think of gift-giving, who incorporate it into daily life. They have intense rituals surrounding the subject which you can find more info on here but the best advice I can give the Anti-Stuff crowd for Christmas comes from them: “Choose perishable/edible gifts. In general don’t buy things such as ornaments, vases, and kitchenware; it’s already assumed that everyone has these things. To do so may imply that you don’t approve of the other person’s taste. Also, most Japanese houses are very small and don’t have extra space for useless junk.”

By the way, they also put a lot of time and thought into the presentation of the gift. If you think about it, this makes sense. It can enrich the experience of receiving the gift and is something they do not have to keep as it is either disposable or something purposeful (a small purse, bag, etc.). So shake off the bah-humbugness out there and spread some holiday cheer, after all there’s more than one way to fight a Consumerist Christmas.


14 thoughts on “Fight a Consumerist Christmas- With Gifts

  1. Great post, I appreciate your perspective. 🙂

    The biggest difference in our thoughts is that you consider not buying traditional presents to be extreme. Just as a Black Friday stampede over video games is extreme.

    I don’t think these two things are equal. I think that refusing to celebrate Christmas at all – no visiting family, no holiday cheer, no reflecting on values, no fun traditions… is the extreme.

    You can have all these other things without buying a single gift – if you so choose.

    So in this regard, I don’t view giving customized charitable donations as “taking advantage” of my family – or “forcing” my “message” on them unwillingly. In fact, I can’t imagine how this would be viewed that way.

    Besides this one core fundamental difference in how we approach the issue, I actually agree with most of what you said! Especially liked the link to Japanese customs. 🙂

    • Thanks. To clarify, it’s not in the buying of gifts that I see the issue, it’s the exchange. And yes, in that sense I do see skipping that as an extreme because I think that’s part of Christmas too. It’s one thing to get together and have fun together but exchanging gifts is a very powerful and binding activity– when done properly. I think it just gets brushed off as “consumerist” too easily. If you go back to origins of Christmas, pagan or Christian, you’ll always see the exchange of gifts in some form or fashion. And I think it’s because that’s the extra step. Does that make sense? I guess I see things like cash, gift cards, and yes charity donations, as effortless. In my opinion, effort is part of gift-giving and that is why I think many people are eager to shrug it off.

  2. Now I really wish we could hang out in my kitchen!! As you know, I’m big on all things handmade. I think it’s much more special to gift someone something you made for nothing, and because most of my gifts to friends and family are knitted or baked, I will gift a few people with something I know they really, really want or need. And you also know I’m a pretty churchy gal, so the concept of the commercialization of Christmas is almost painful to watch. I read a *really* churchy blog where the kids in the family (all 14 and under, the small ones are our kids ages) pick out gifts for children in developing countries from places like World Vision or Samaritan’s Purse and never gift anything to each other. The kids have never known anything else so they’re cool with it. We usually do one gift like that and we all pick what it is, in addition to gifting stuff to the kids. I’m totally with you on this. 😀

    • You know, I really like the idea of getting the kids to choose a gift of charity. Maybe I’ll have them get on the comptuer with me and we’ll pick a gift at Heifer Int’l or something like that. That’s a really nice idea. When they’re older it’d be a nice concept to get them to do with each other and maybe it will be something they’ll stick to as adults.

  3. I will NEVER not give my kids Christmas presents. Well… except that year that I took them to the Caribbean for Christmas and logistically it was just too much of a PITA to haul stuff around.

    My limit is around $100/kid (they get nothing from anyone else but me) and like you, I don’t buy them a whole lot outside of birthdays and Xmas – and they really don’t have a lot of crap. I like to get them something that’s a wonderful surprise and one gift that they really want.

    I think that what happens is that many people who have had major financial issues in the past – go too far the other way and don’t seem to get that balance concept. Or maybe it doesn’t even happen until some people are over 40. So instead of just clearing out the spare room or the garage, they sell everything they own and try to live with 100 items (thereby making their lives more complicated).

    Balance doesn’t sell though, freaky extremism sells.

    • You’re definitely right on the money (ha) about extremism being a seller. Balance is “boring” just like those millionaires next door. Nobody wants to see that kind of stuff, they want freakish types. I can’t imagine not giving my kids anything– even if every single thing is handmade one year or whatever. I just adore them and I know them so well. Everyone has a physical, tangible need or want at every point in their lives (unless they’re so wealthy they can supply that themselves). It’s nice to help one another by fulfilling those needs or wants. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially if you keep it sane and yes, balanced!

  4. Thanks for the insight. I found your reply by way of Baker and Man vs. Debt and posted a reply there. But maybe it is the same as the whole “super-size” meal thing and Americans being fat. (not that I should talk). But we take everything to the extreme.

    Maybe as a culture generally Americans still have an inferiority complex. As Bill Murray in the movie “Stripes” said: “Our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world”. To compensate we over eat and over shop and do way too much of all kinds of other stuff.

    Thanks again for your post.

    • Thanks for coming this way, and I saw your reply too. 🙂 That is a great Bill Murray quote and an interesting concept. We didn’t used to be this way though. There was a culture of frugl and thrift in this country not that long ago. There is an artist I adore who put together a collection of wartime ads that reflected this:

      Something’s changed and while I understand we need to change the nastiness that’s come from whatever triggered it, I don’t think a complete backlash is necessary. Good for you getting to work on your wife’s gift. That’s awesome!

  5. Like Wandering Mike, I also came here via Man vs Debt. I agree that balance is the key to Christmas presents. Make a budget, stick with it, and take the time to give meaningful gifts.

    That being said, I think sometimes the most meaningful thing to give is a gift card. Yes, I know that you think they are “souless”, but I think it’s worse to give the USPS 30% of your Christmas budget or give your teenage niece a sweater that either doesn’t fit, she already has, or is not her taste. My long-distance relatives and I agreed to sending gift cards for the aforementioned reasons, particularly if we are not going to be together for Christmas to exchange in person. The adults get restaurant gift cards for “date night” and the kids get a gift card to their favorite store. Teachers get Target gift cards and really enjoy them because they can use them personally or professionally. I am shocked at how much teachers have to spend out of pocket for classroom supplies. I just started a new job and don’t know my coworkers very well, so they will probably get a small Starbucks gift card since I know that they go there for their morning coffee.

    It is rare that I give cash unless I am part of an office collection because it does seem pretty cold. At least with a gift card or certificate, you do have to pay attention to the recipient enough to know where they like to shop. I did give my hairdresser a large tip this month, which I felt was appropriate in lieu of a gift.

    In parting, I would like to say I really like your blog. This post was very down-to-earth and brought back memories of simple yet magical Christmases I had as a child.

    • Thanks for stopping by! See, for me long distance relatives aren’t a factor. ALl of my family lives here and the ones that do live far away, we don’t exchange gifts with. My general aversion to gift cards is that I think they’re largely impersonal. And my big problem is when they’re OBVIOUSLY impersonal. As in, they went to a supermarket, and picked the best of what was there despite the fact nothing was really right for the intendend recipient. And in general, I think if you’re going through the trouble of exchanging gifts, you should know the person well enough to know their size or taste you know? But, you’re right I imagine long distance relationships would be harder to do this with! Good point!

      • Gift cards can be OK. I think of them as a “mini wealth transfer” mechanism. When I do that I try and focus on having a gift card that substitutes my money for money they would otherwise spend. A gift card to the grocery store they normally use would be an example. There are probably no additional items purchased and the recipient feels recognized. How or if they spend the additional money they now have is their decision. While I communicate my minimalist approach, I do not thereby force the position upon them. It is tougher with younger children. My DW (Dear Wife in RV circles) makes up for me regarding grandchildren.

  6. I found your post via The Simple Dollar and couldn’t agree more. It’s easier (at least for me) to take an extremist view: ALL the gifts vs. NONE of the gifts. This is such a bizarre idea to so much of the world! What is more challenging is learning the art of gift giving and being moderate and thoughtful, and then passing that along to our children. This is something that requires my mindfulness every single year. And I’m the daughter of one of the authors of “Unplug the Christmas Machine”, one of the original books on this topic (and still a classic in my humble opinion :-))


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