Monday, December 15, 2008

Christmas with no presents?

Christmas with No Presents? by Colin Beavan

If Christmas is about presents, then in 2007, my little family and I had no Christmas. I mean, we had the caroling and the uncle playing the piano and the cousins running around with my three-year-old, Isabella, and the grandfather coaxing her to sit on his lap and the good food.

We had, in other words, an amazingly good time.

What we didn't have, though, was the average American's $800 hole in our bank accounts, gouged out by Christmas-present spending. Nor did we have the credit card debt still unpaid by June. Nor the forcing of smiles for gifts we didn't really want. Nor the buying of extra luggage to bring home those unwanted gifts. Nor the stressful rush of last-minute crowds at the mall.

Without presents, you see, we didn't have the sensation that I, at least, normally associated with Christmas-the stress. And without stress or presents, it's not Christmas, right? But of course it was. It was the best of Christmas, the part that, research shows, makes people happiest. It was all the upside without the downside ...

... as Christmas 2007 approached, the more pressing question for us was, did the season's huge consumption of resources add to the Christmas experience or detract from it? Since one-sixth of all American retail sales (and as a consequence, a hefty proportion of our national planetary resource use) occurs during the holiday season, it's a question worth asking.

Despite the fact that people spend relatively large portions of their income on gifts, as well as time shopping for and wrapping them, such behavior apparently contributes little to holiday joy.

I've already told you enough to let you guess how my little family's experience played out, but you may be surprised to learn that our findings are backed up by bona fide psychological research: Even though oodles of presents at Christmas is the dominant American paradigm, it turns out that people who spend less and have less spent on them at Christmas actually enjoy the season more.

This, anyway, is the conclusion of a paper published in the Journal of Happiness Studies by researchers Tim Kasser of Knox College and Kennon M. Sheldon of the University of Missouri-Columbia. After studying the Christmas experiences of 117 individuals, they found that people who emphasized time spent with families and meaningful religious or spiritual activities had merrier Christmases.

"Despite the fact that people spend relatively large portions of their income on gifts, as well as time shopping for and wrapping them," the researchers said, "such behavior apparently contributes little to holiday joy." In fact, subjects who gave or received presents that represented a substantial percentage of their income, Kasser and Sheldon found, actually experienced less Christmas joy.

Of course, this makes perfect sense. We all know in our hearts that treasuring meaningful experiences and spending time in valued relationships-at Christmas or any other part of the year-make us happier than getting more stuff.

But try telling that to the grandparents at Christmas time!

Try living out these lofty principles when the rest of your family and friends are swapping presents at the same rate as ever. You may find "bah humbugs" shouted in your direction more than once. That's problematic, particularly if you're hoping to inspire more sustainable lifestyle choices in other people. Nobody will be convinced by dogmatism or Grinch-like behavior.

The trick to a happy, sustainable, non-consumptive Christmas was not, we discovered, to ignore the expectations of the people we celebrated with. We didn't want our loved ones to feel bad. Those who expected presents should get them, we decided. Gifts, after all, are associated with the exchange of love.

For us, the answer was to buy presents that did not require the exploitation of large amounts of planetary resources. My mother was very happy with the two massages she got. My father and his wife enjoyed the gift certificate to the fine dining, local-food restaurant in their neighborhood. Friends appreciated the theater tickets we bought them. And unlike those unwanted trinkets one sometimes buys for the "person who has everything," our sustainable gifts, we felt, actually improved the recipients' lives.

Still, my wife, Michelle, worried very much that it would be hard for Isabella if all the cousins had presents to open, but she didn't. Try saying, "The research says you'll be happier with less," to a three-year-old. So Isabella's Aunt Maureen contributed toys that her children had outgrown, and we wrapped them for Isabella.

When present-opening time came, Isabella didn't care whether the present she was opening was for her or not. She didn't even want the presents. She just wanted to open them. She didn't want something to have later. She wanted to participate now. And when her Uncle Joe started playing the piano and singing, she got bored with the present opening anyway and went to sit with him on the piano bench.

Much to our surprise, she didn't even want to take her cousins' old toys home when the Christmas vacation was over. She'd already had her presents. What was important to her was what turned out to be important to us: the singing, the charades, the laughter, the time spent with family, and of course, the celebration.

We're nowhere near where the people in this article are, in terms of controlling consumption, but this year, more than any other, we've really tried to think a lot about what we're doing with our Christmas spending.

We've certainly gotten presents for Alex but most are educational or don't cost much. He's a good kid that doesn't really long for all the gadgets you see on TV. He'd rather read a book. Between the wife and I, we've settled on some items from the local thrift store, and maybe one other item in the $50 range.

Michelle organized an adopt-a-family for Christmas through her church with items donated by her co-workers. They did this in lieu of a Christmas party. And the workers enjoyed it more.

Every year, I remember the dinners out with friends and family or the parties we attended. But I don't have the slightest clue where a particular gift may have came from. The gifts I do remember are generally books because the giver usually gives it some thought ahead of time.

I liked this sentence from the above article, "The trick to a happy, sustainable, non-consumptive Christmas was not, we discovered, to ignore the expectations of the people we celebrated with." Nobody likes insufferable do-gooders who are constantly judging you or making you feel guilty. You can change your own habits and lead by example instead of preaching. After all, we're as hypocritical as the next person. I'm consistently impressed by the things that others are doing. For example, we have friends who have had used book exchange birthday parties where every kid gets something instead of a normal birthday party where only one kid gets something (bring a book ... take a book). Pretty smart. We might have to try it on Alex's next birthday.

Anyway, don't be a humbug, but also don't blow hundreds of dollars on each other just because you think it's what you are supposed to do. People will forget what gift you got them but they will remember having fun with you or the thought that you put into something.

Just this last weekend we went to the Green Holiday Arts Festival. We bought several handmade reusable cloth Christmas gift bags that are pretty nice.

Have fun. Make something. Buy local and green as much as you can. Go out to dinner with friends. If God is your thing, celebrate that. If Christmas is just a good excuse for spending more time with friends and family, celebrate that. If anybody tries to tell you the real "reason for the season", politely ignore them. The "reason" is whatever you think it is. Just don't assume that it is the same reason for everyone else. And there is no "war on Christmas". There should be a war on stupidity, but that's a subject for another day.


Laura said...

A friend of mine and I realized last year that Christmas gifts kept getting bigger and more expensive and we finally decided to just exchange charitable donations to one another's favorite charities. This year, having to seriously scale back, I'm making a lot of knit stuff and don't need any more "stuff". I think it is important to ignore the expectations of others, because otherwise I find that I get this sneaking feeling of inadequacy if I don't spend a lot on gifts. Of course, I know that's just my socialized sense that $$=worthiness.

This reminds me of the Primus song "Laws of Tradition"

What if christmas didn’t come this year. And no one paid for christmas cheer? Who would cry the biggest tear, The child or the store?

wunelle said...

I have nothing useful about how to remedy the situation, but the wild purchasing--even if the desire comes from a good place--does seem out of control. Like you, I find I remember the together time. My family for years has had little contests--pool tournament, cribbage tournament, guess-the-amount-of-change-in-the-wine-bottle--each with its scripted matchups and some silly little prize. And THESE, plus a big meal & football game on TV or movies in the evening, have become what we remember from the holidays.

We buy for the kids and give a few gift cards for those who can genuinely benefit from it.

dbackdad said...

Laura - I like the idea of exchanging charitable donations. I'd make something for somebody ... if I actually had any talent! BTW, Primus rules!

Wunelle - My family are big game players too. I'll probably be playing poker with the parents on Christmas Eve, eating fudge and chili and downing a few brewski's.

dbackdad said...

More holiday gift ideas from NRDC

-Give things people need and can use, rather than products plucked from the shelves simply because they look good.

-Choose gifts made of sustainable materials -- bamboo rather than wood, hemp, organic cotton and wool, fleece made from recycled soda bottles, post-consumer recycled paper, natural cosmetics and organic, fair-trade chocolates and coffees.

-Buy locally made products, as the energy used to transport goods to the stores is one of the huge, hidden environmental costs of the holidays.

-Look for used things with a provenance. Old books and maps, retro clothing, antique jewelry and the like are one-of-a-kind gifts that collectors and aficionados will appreciate.

-Give things that reduce energy usage, such as commuter bicycles, solar-powered products, battery rechargers and carbon offsets.

-Avoid excessively packaged products. The packaging wastes resources without adding value and, if made from plastic, can release toxins after being discarded.

-Give tickets for concerts, shows, museums, sporting events, outdoor activities or parks.

-Give a party rather than presents -- and tell your guests that the party's gift-free.

-Give of yourself. Promise a shift of babysitting or dog-walking or a service that uses your special talents or skills, such as a webpage, a bridge lesson or home improvement help.

-Swap contributions. Set up a registry listing your favorite non-profits at and suggest to your friends that they register, too, so you can give to their causes while they give to yours.

Most important, remember that the greatest gift of the season is the holidays themselves. It's the one time of year when society permits you -- indeed, encourages you -- to escape from the daily hurly-burly and experience the meaning and poetry of life. Don't miss the chance.