Truth and honesty. Now there’s a concept that disappears during the holidays. Don’t believe me? Here’s a quick reality check. Dig deep and search for any memories of opening up a ghastly Christmas present, plastering a plastic smile on your face and saying, “I love it! Thank you so much!”
But it’s not polite to say the truth when confronted with yet another tacky sweater on Christmas morning … in fact it’s considered downright rude. It’s one of our societies rules: Rule #521 of social etiquette, always show your gratitude for a gift.
Other social etiquette rules that come into play:You must keep the gift and display it (or wear it) when the gift giver comes to your home.You must offer a return gift as a way of saying thank you.Your return gift must be of equivalent value as the original gift.
You must never, ever, ever tempt the fates by donating the gift to a charity. (The giver may see it at the thrift store, or on someone else who bought it from the thrift store, or may ask you of it’s whereabouts, or may demand to see it as proof you still own it.)
How many of us are saddled with gifts in this way, wearing them as the eternal albatross around our neck (clutter in our home) desperate to fling it to the curb but held back by the 5 cardinal rules of gift receiving?
But, what happens when you need an extra storage unit just to house all of those gifts? Or when your gift giving list has grown to mammoth proportions as a result of rule # 2? If you are serious about decluttering (or becoming a minimalist) it’s time to reinvent your Christmas gift exchange strategies.
1. Make a List: Make a list of all the people you (or your family) currently exchange gifts with. Include people you give gifts to and people who give gifts to you. Once you have all the names written down, group them into categories. Typical categories could include close family (people you live with), extended family, people you work with, people from social groups you belong to, clients (if you’re in business), and friends.
2. Refine the List: Go through your list of gift exchanges and think about the ones that you want to change. Put a checkmark next to each name that needs to be changed. Don’t feel guilty. You’re allowed to redefine your holidays. Here are some ideas for why you might need a change:
- You spend an uncomfortably high amount of money exchanging gifts with members of your bridge club group.
- You exchange “meaningless” token gifts with your work friends that end up in the Goodwill bag every year (mugs filled with candy, blinking santa claus pins, etc.)
- You’ve gotten in the habit of giving your nieces and nephews 20 gifts each even though their house is filled to the brim and you want to cut back to less gifts.
- You’re still exchanging gifts with some old college friends you aren’t close with anymore and you haven’t seen in 15 years.
- Your grandmother (best friend, mom, etc.) always gives you strange but very expensive gifts you never use.
These are all just ideas to get you started. You know where the problems are.
3. Create a Strategy for Change: Now that you’ve defined the problem areas it’s time create a strategy for change. Below I’ve listed many successful ideas that you can implement. Most of them involve having a conversation with the person or group involved.
It all comes down to truth and honesty. I swear having these conversations is better than over-extending yourself financially and emotionally, or spending the next twenty years getting a reindeer sweater from Uncle Frank!
Name in the Hat: Most people have a social club, group of friends or work setting where you feel obligated to buy a gift for each person. It may be a drain on the finances or it may be that all of these gifts are “filler” gifts, things no one ever uses and end up tossing as soon as it’s polite to do so.
Consider suggesting a “name from a hat” drawing where each person draws one name and buys for only that person. Set a price limit for the gifts ahead of time and you’ve simplified tremendously! You can also do this with family and relatives as well, although it will take cooperation from everyone involved to do it.
Low Cost Fun: If your problem is related to finances and you’re looking for a way to cut back on gift expenses try offering these suggestions to your groups.
Create a “game” out of the gift-giving. Suggest that there be a cap on spending per person. Fun twists are only spending $5 per person or being limited to “gifts from the dollar store”. It takes the focus off money so you never have to say, “I can’t afford…” and turns it into a game instead.
It’s funny to see what kind of creative gifts a person can get on a $5 budget. The only tricky thing with this is that a lot of the gifts will be junky, filler gifts, but if your main purpose is to lower the cost of Christmas it works well.
As a minimalist I don’t like this approach because stupid gifts still end up clogging the thrift stores in January but it can be a good start to reducing the flow of gifts.
Get Crafty: This is helpful if you’re trying to cut back on money spent, but it’s also a way to bring back meaning to the holidays. Let everyone know that from now on you plan on making your gifts by hand. It removes the consumer aspect of the holiday and is much more meaningful for everyone involved.
I’ve given lots of gifts over the years to many different people. I can’t remember what most of them are, but I do remember one. It stands out like a shining beam of happiness every time I visit home. One year I made my mom a potholder (yes I was an adult at the time.)
I was heavy into anti-consumerism and didn’t want to do the traditional route. I used recycled fabric scraps and embroidered a big daisy on it. It hangs proudly on display in my mother’s kitchen where she uses it every time she pulls a casserole out of the oven. Practical, sentimental and meaningful all at once. She absolutely loves it and tells me how much it reminds her of me every time she sees it.
Ask for Less: If you have a certain person in your life who loves to shower gifts on you, way too many, be open and up-front and simply ask for less. Broach the subject gently by saying that you already have so much stuff you don’t know where to fit anything more into your life. Let them know you’re trying to declutter or go minimalist.
This typically acts as a gentle hint for less. If that doesn’t work try again next year. Well before Christmas mention that you often have to donate many of the gifts you’re given for the holidays. Make this a general statement that applies to “all gifts” rather than to the ones they give you to soften the blow.
Let them know that what you really want for Christmas is an emphasis on togetherness and less on gift giving. Ask them if they could reduce the amount of gifts given to your family to less than 5 per person (or whatever number you are comfortable with).
We’re All Adults Now: This is a great line that I used with my family. The transition took several years but it finally took hold. Here’s the speech. “We’re all adults now and I know when we were children we wanted and expected a huge pile of presents under the tree.
Now that we’re all grown up and don’t believe in santa claus maybe we could cut back (or eliminate) our gift giving. There isn’t anything I really need anymore and my house is full. I figure it’s the same for you. I noticed you don’t like the Christmas swan vase I bought for you three years ago. It’s hard.
I spend so much time fretting about finding the perfect gifts, but when everyone already has everything they need I end up resorting to impractical gifts like that swan vase. By the way, (giggles) I really won’t mind if you donate that vase to a charity or any other gift I’ve given you that doesn’t fit your life.” (Yes there really was a Christmas swan vase and I spent a ton of money on it in desperation a few days before Christmas one year.
Bringing it back to their problem of getting bad gifts can help people see the light of why reducing or eliminating gift exchanges can be positive.) A variation on this is to ask that gifts be limited to one very practical item per person.
Your family and extended family could even make up a “gift wish list” so everyone can choose one gift per person that the person actually wants.
The Time Factor: If your biggest issue is the time you spend choosing individual gifts for people (this can be major stress if you shop in busy stores) consider group gifts.
I have quite a few group gifts outlined in my post 35 clutter free gifts for Christmas. Here are the highlights: Buy the same gift certificate for everyone. It can be movie tickets, restaurant meals, store certificates, even gas cards if you want to go the practical route. It will cut back on the time you spend shopping, simplifying your season tremendously.
Go Local: I love buying local. There’s a whole movement associated with supporting local businesses, artists, and craftsmen. Buy everyone on your list one thing from a local artisan or business. You’ll be supporting your local economy and small business owners.
Best of all, these types of stores are often not as crowded as the big box retail giants, they have meaningful items, and your gift will be unique.
A Re-Gifting Party: This is another fun way to take the emphasis of consumerism and spending lots of money. It’s especially useful for groups of friends and social clubs and can be a blast. A re-gifting party is where everyone gifts one other person with a silly gift they received and never liked.
You can give it a clever name like, “Christmas Gift Disaster Party” or “Christmas Sweater Party”. Nothing puts a smile on the face like a re-gifting party.
Everyone will laugh over the absurd gifts they get and laugh even harder when they remember this was an actual gift someone was given previously.
Who’s Gift is It Party: Another take is to have everyone bring one gift to a party with no name on it. This is once again very useful for work parties, social clubs and groups of friends but it can also be done with extended family members as well.
Have all the gifts put into a pile and each person takes one at random as “their” gift. Watch your male boss’s face closely when he opens up a lavender bath set as his gift. Everyone will laugh, even your boss! This idea can be twisted with additional rules too.
Make each gift cost only a certain dollar amount, each gift be silly, each gift be something the person would want for themselves, or each gift be a practical gift. Seeing what each person thinks is practical can be priceless.
Kids Only: A variation on #5 is to have the “Kids Only” talk. This is useful for family and extended family. Make a new tradition where adults don’t exchange gifts and instead it’s only the kids that are given presents.
This can be especially helpful if you have lots of aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, and cousins and buy something for everyone.
Kids after all are the ones who get the most joy from receiving gifts. Adults? Well, who wants another Christmas sweater anyways?
Group Gifts: Instead of giving individual gifts to your brother, his wife, and his three kids, consider the concept of group gifts. A group gift is where you get one gift for a household. This can work for your parents, couples, and families with kids.
Group gift ideas include something the whole group can enjoy. The only thing with group gifts is you want to make it something everyone will be happy to get. A few ideas of group gifts are tickets to a local event or something the household has been wanting.
Get Practical: I’m going out on a limb here, but I love practical gifts. Not everyone wants a vacuum cleaner for Christmas, but hey, if you can’t afford one at the time and you really need a new one, a vacuum cleaner can be the best gift in the world! Much better than a limited edition collector’s plate or another penguin figurine.
Ask the close people on your list (family and extended family) to make a short list of what practical items they might need. There is still an element of surprise if you ask for a list, they won’t know which one you’re choosing for them. Also offer them a list of practical items you might want as well.
It could be luxury practical items as well, things they wouldn’t buy the upgrade version of but would love to have. I’ve used the practical strategy for years. There’s nothing like waking up on Christmas morning and getting a sheet set when you need one, but not just any old sheet set, a luxurious egyptian cotton set in your favorite colors.
The Truly Minimalist Approach to Christmas: My last and favorite choice of all: the complete elimination option. Yes it is possible to completely eliminate the gift exchange cycle. Test it out on a few people first, then if you’re comfortable with it, expand the concept.
Maybe what you and your spouse really want is to save up for an extra fun vacation every year. Talk to them about having that vacation be the gift you exchange instead of traditional gifts. Take the money you would normally spend on each other and put it towards the vacation fund instead.
This doesn’t have to be dry. On Christmas morning you can open up presents of brochures and articles about your vacation destination, maybe even a travel book about it. Then you’ll spend the morning talking about Tahiti and what it’s going to be like!
I’ve done the complete elimination plan with several people in my life. Others are resistant to it and so I’ve simply cut back to one gift for each of those people. For the people it’s worked with, it’s been great. On both sides it’s eliminated the stress of shopping for the “perfect gift”, the cost of buying that gift, and the fear that they won’t like it anyways.
People Not Stuff: The real point of holidays is enjoying time together with people. As a nation the “gifting” side of Christmas has gotten out of hand and become the predominant factor about the holiday. It’s not because of people that this has happened though.
It’s because of huge mega-corporations that make their profits on making people feel pressured to buy, buy, buy. They reinforce this message with constant ad campaigns.
It’s time to retake that energy back from the corporations. If you’re not comfortable with the way you celebrate Christmas, if you feel more stressed and harried during the holidays than serene and joyful, if you don’t want to participate in crack of dawn mob sale frenzies that cause people to die every year from being trampled (it happened at a local Walmart near me just a few years back) then take back your holidays. Redefine what they mean for you.
For me it’s being close to the people I love, sharing an incredibly decadent meal with them, having good conversations, and feeling the bond of brother/sisterhood with my fellow humans that walk on this earth beside me.
Redefine your holidays. Examine why you give gifts. Make sure you are giving gifts only when it feels right and not because of “outside pressure” and “societal rules” which are really just a giant ad campaign from a mega-corp.
You can take back your holidays, drop the stress, and rediscover the meaning of Christmas. All it takes is starting a conversation and being open and honest with those you love. I leave you with this Christmas message:
May your holidays be free of reindeer sweaters, full of good people, and overflowing with hugs and kisses.
Lisa is a special needs teacher and a hugger. She always makes time for everyone and lightens up everybody’s lives with her presence. When she is not chasing her students around the yard, she finds time to write about what she truly loves, and you guessed it, its gardening.