My girlfriend and I share our birthdays less than two weeks apart and this year when she asked me what I wanted for a gift the choice was easy; nothing. While there are random things that I want, I am beginning to move away from the belief that we should purchase gifts for people as a sign of our affection for that person, especially at a time when gifts are “expected”. When my birthday came around I wasn’t disappointed by not receiving a gift from my girlfriend, was more than satisfied with the birthday card from my mother and thrilled that my sister made a donation to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. What mattered was that people were thinking of me, not what they bought for me.
As my girlfriend’s birthday neared I asked her what she wanted and was not surprised when she told me that she didn’t want anything but in the back of my mind I asked myself, “Is this a trick?” When the role was reversed and it was me who was in the position of “expected gift giving” I began to feel uneasy about not buying her something. I asked her at least a dozen times what she wanted and each time she told me the same thing. Nothing. When the day finally arrived I wished her a Happy Birthday and we went about our lives as usual. As the hours passed I was feeling haunted by not doing something or getting her anything. I was filled with guilt. I grabbed my phone and asked if she wanted to go out to dinner for her birthday. She agreed and we went to a restaurant of her choice and I picked up the bill. Spending the time together and sharing in conversation over the course of the dinner was far better than giving her an object as a sign of my affection for her.
As the holidays approach, all of us will be thrust into the season of expected gift giving. How can you opt out of consumerism without looking like a Scrooge on Christmas morning? Having recently been in both roles of giving and receiving after making the choice to opt out of the consumer lifestyle, I may have some insight.
As a young boy I really enjoyed all of the presents I would get. Like any child, I had a hard time falling asleep on Christmas Eve. I was so excited about all of the wonderful gifts that would be carefully wrapped and pouring out from underneath the sparkling Christmas tree. As I get a little older I have a different feeling about those same gifts. I feel that we are representing our affection towards each other through pieces of plastic. We are misplacing our love for each other.
Often we feel that we must quantify our emotions, that there is a correlation between the price of our gifts and our love for the person we are giving them to. Not to mention the anxiety we feel over whether the person will actually appreciate the gifts we are giving them. The other side of this, of course, is when we receive a gift that isn’t what we expected or up to our expectations. We may feel that the giver is unthoughtful or cheap. There are far too many emotions wrapped up in the holiday gift giving experience.
Raising awareness of your decision to opt out of consumerism is an integral part of the process. You don’t want to show up at the door without gifts in hand when last year you bought for everyone in the family. Inform your family about your choice to not purchase gifts and be sure that they know that you do not expect any gifts from them. Be concise in your explanation so they understand your feelings, don’t just inform them that you won’t be buying gifts this year.
Opting out of consumerism is not an excuse to opt out of the holidays. Spending time with family and gathering around the dinner table to eat a home cooked meal is irreplaceable and the real spirit of the holidays. Sharing the holidays in the company of your loved ones is more meaningful than any gift you can give. Taking time to have a conversation, to really connect with people, is far more lasting than a chunk of cheddar cheese.
You may find that you are feeling pangs of guilt as the holidays approach. If that is the case, find a meaningful way of communicating your appreciation for the people in your life. A Hallmark Christmas card is a poor substitute for a handwritten letter. You might try showing your love with a pile of your famous chocolate chip cookies. The options really are limitless and none of them will be found at the Mall of America.