A Holiday Season With No Gifts?

by Vered DeLeeuw · 12 comments

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.

Shopping Stress

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?

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  • Kate says:

    I am The Aunt/Great-Aunt Who Gives Books. There are numerous beautiful picture books for small children, some of them containing the funny jump rope rhymes I remember from my own childhood (Five Little Monkeys was one I found this year; the one from last year was an ABC book about the alphabet letters climbing, and falling out of, a cocoanut tree). Because my nieces and nephews are prolific, one family gives me a gift at Christmas, usually special hair products or good things to eat; another niece’s family gives a “Year in Pictures” book they make for their family each year, which is greatly looked forward to. And everyone gives Mama a little gift of some kind. Otherwise, no adults expect gifts from other adults. Anyone who ever suggests (or has suggested) that I not give her child anything but cash or a gift card gets nothing from then on.

  • Nancy says:

    Update: Still no gift giving at our home. Also, buffet is popular. I enjoy having a calm holiday without the stress of gift amassing. Enjoy the music, the decorations, and most of all the people you love.

    For those who need the massive amount of gift giving of the past, I wish you a Great Greedfest.

  • The Roamer says:

    I think nixing gifts is great especially when they are mandated. Gifts are suppose to be given because you have that feeling to give not because its expected. I hope to start this year. I’m over it as for kids people should control quantity.

  • Arminius Aurelius says:

    I have a neighbor and a very close friend that is quite wealthy . Her Condo is filled with fine [ $ $ $ ] Crystal and beautiful oil paintings . I also am financially well off and have a Condo full of antiques , music boxes and old Edison Phonographs . Every space on the walls and shelves is taken up , I have no more room as it is with my friend . She gave me 3 or 4 small items [ less than $ 100.00 ] , but since I have no room to display them , these items will end up in a drawer or closet . I gave her nothing but do invite her to dinner or cocktails now and then as she does me.
    But she was very upset that I did not give her anything . I never heard the end of it for days afterwards . Next year I will suggest that she give me $ 1000.00 cash and I will give her $ 1000.01 cash in order to please her.

  • Karik says:

    Ya…funny story. One year, my late husband and I got a bright idea to Not buy each other gifts. We went out, ate a nice meal and went looking at lights on Christmas Eve. Christmas morning, we got up, made our coffee and sat down in the living room , staring at each other!!! We both started to cry and felt terrible that we didn’t buy each other at least something to put in our stockings! bad idea.

  • Christy says:

    Funny, I was just talking about this same concept. The holidays are hard because we all have experiences getting a lot of gifts or not getting a lot of gifts. These past experiences and our thoughts about them tend to drive our current behavior.

    It’s one thing to say spend less, but generally people already know that. The tricky part is understanding why we’re spending the way we do, as individuals and as a culture.

    The more we question why we’re spending the way we are, the easier it gets to spend less. Thanks for spreading the spend less message.

  • Nancy says:

    Two years back my extended family stopped the extended family Greedfest. Too many adults (all but one) were unemployed. My immediate family stopped all gift giving too. Both were my big ideas.

    Instead, I cooked a big (inexpensive, but good) holiday buffet lunch. At first there was some complaining, but after the first Xmas there were many requests for another one last year. Same for this year. It is less stressful and easier on the budget. We use the old holiday decorations, keep the menu festive and inexpensive, board games set up, etc. This concept was easier for my extended family than for most, since our youngest are in their teens.

    If a family wants to give gifts, they do it at their own home. We are having Christmas centered around family, love, fun, socializing, resting, etc.

    For those who need the massive amount of gift giving of the past, I wish you a Great Greedfest.

  • Wil Possible says:

    this would be my dream Christmas… unfortunately my wife will not go for this.

  • Jenna says:

    We do “stocking stuff” type gifts, small and thoughtful and then donated money to charity in the name of other family members. It’s a pretty rewarding gift.

  • MB says:

    I am very fortunate that I don’t have to buy gifts at any time of the year. My husband is a wood carver and instead of selling what he carves, we give his carvings as Christmas, birthday, and anniversary gifts.

    He’s had people ask him to carve a specific item that they would be willing to pay for. He always refuses because he carves what he wants, not what someone else wants. That may sound selfish, but he enjoys his hobby, and I’m happy I don’t have to fight the crowded stores.

  • KM says:

    Does anyone else think these articles are getting repetitive? There have been at least two others about cutting back on gifts for the holidays in the recent months.

    • MoneyNing says:

      KM, thanks for the observation. It’s true that during the holiday season, these holiday type posts will be abundant as everyone has these issues at the top of their minds.

      I was just talking with my friend last night about this very issue, that for some reason, people in America love to give everyone gifts during the holidays. In some ways, this is great, because the act of giving can be fulfilling. But most of the time, all it does is create a lot of stress as people are trying to buy gifts for everybody when they don’t even want to.

      Anyway, back to your point. I will look into this in the future and try not to overload the same topics within a short period of time 🙂

      Happy holidays.

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