The exchanging of gifts is one of the core aspects of the winter holidays celebration, making the holiday season the most profitable time of year for retailers. In the U.S., the holiday shopping season begins on the day after Thanksgiving, known as Black Friday, and the frenzy often lasts until the very last minute.
But the shopping frenzy has its downside. Just Google the phrase “holiday shopping stress,” and you’ll get over 5,000 results. On the front page, you’ll find titles such as “How To Reduce Holiday Shopping Stress,” “Holiday Shopping Stress Relief,” and “Tips for taking the stress out of holiday shopping.”
If we all know holiday shopping is stressful, not to mention expensive and in many cases wasteful, why do we continue doing it, year after year? Is gift-giving truly such an integral part of the winter holidays? And has this always been the case?
Origins of Holiday Gift Giving
A quick research shows that gift giving has indeed been an integral part of Christmas for several hundred years now. It has started as early as the 13th century, with the Dutch celebration of Saint Nicholas, who was known for his care of children, his generosity, and the giving of gifts. By the 13th century, Saint Nicholas was well known in the Netherlands, and the practice of gift giving in his name has spread to other parts of Europe.
The Hanukkah tradition of gift giving is ancient too, although originally it started out as gelt giving – the giving of coins to children.
So it seems that despite frequent complaints that the modern holiday season is extremely commercial, gift giving has been part of the winter holidays for many years. Still, many claim that gift giving places unnecessary stress on shoppers, and that it’s wasteful both in terms of money and in terms of the environment. Are there any alternatives?
Alternatives to Holiday Gift Giving
An informal poll among my real-life friends shows that the prolonged recession has actually prompted many families to make changes to their holiday gift giving rituals. Several friends have told me that over the past two years (2008 and 2009), gift exchanging between adult family members had been put on hold, with extended families agreeing to only buy gifts for the kids.
Another friend said that her extended family has agreed to place a dollar limit on gift giving. The idea is to allow everyone to avoid feeling pressured to buy lavish gifts. Instead, they focus on homemade gifts or on gifts where it’s clearly the thought that counts. They’re not going for the “Wow!” effect anymore.
A third friend said that last year, in lieu of buying gifts for the adults, family members gave to several chosen charities.
While no one has told me that their family has decided to completely forgo gift giving, and everyone certainly still buys for the kids, it looks like many families are choosing to downsize this aspect of the holidays. Instead of going for the most lavish gifts, people are focusing on spending time with family and friends, on sharing meals, on exchanging creative, thoughtful homemade gifts, and on charitable donations.
How does your family handle holiday gift giving? Has the recession caused you to change your gift giving traditions in any way?