A Holiday Without Gifts?

While driving around the local mall’s parking lot in search of a space during the final weekends before Christmas, you may find yourself wondering if the gift-purchasing and giving hasn’t gotten out of hand.

It all depends on what you consider excessive. Surveys don’t always agree on how much we spend, but the number is in the several hundred dollar range. Overspending can have a considerable cost to individuals, and consumers may find themselves carrying increased debt in January as a result.

If some Canadians have their way, that average — and related debt and shopping madness — may start to move downwards. Since 2001, the Canadian movement titled Buy Nothing Christmas has been gaining momentum. That’s the year that a small group of Mennonites decided to go public with their invitation to Canadians, as they say on their website, “to join a movement to de-commercialize Christmas and re-design a Christian [or non-Christian] lifestyle that is richer in meaning, smaller in impact upon the earth, and greater in giving to people less-privileged.”

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The concept behind BuyNothing Christmas seems simple enough: reduce or eliminate spending on new, store-bought gifts, and instead emphasize family and enjoy the more ethereal aspects of the season. And indeed, reading through some of the personal stories on the website it seems many people have taken the advice to spend money differently. Andi writes:

My husband and I have decided we are going to start taking all the money we would have spent on Christmas[sic] and use it to take a trip to a warm place in December. No gift giving, no decorations, just us and any extended family member that wishes to come along.

Family approaches

Many family members can relate to the question of excessive gifts. Lindsay Abramson, 29, of Toronto is one of them. She asked her mother, Joy, in her mid-fifties and also of Toronto, to limit gifts to her two children, aged 5 and 7, this Christmas.

“It’s real simple,” she said in an interview held at a mall, “their room is full of toys. Their closet is full of toys. The living room is full of their toys. I’d rather they got experiences like a trip to the ROM [Royal Ontario Museum] instead.”

Joy disagrees. “They’re kids and it’s Christmas! Besides, I’m their grandmother. It’s my job to spoil them with presents under the tree!”

Joy’s position isn’t so hard to understand: giving gifts at this time of year is how many of us show our love and affection for each other. Grandparents in particular see gift-giving as a way to create ties between generations. “I always try to give a gift they’ll [her 3 grandchildren] treasure all year,” says Alice Taylor, 68, of Scarborough, Ontario. “I can’t always afford something fancy but I put a lot of thought into it. And I enjoy the shopping as long as I get started early.”

Would Buy Nothing Christmas work for either of these families? No, they each said. Gift-giving — and shopping — runs deep in our culture.

Nothing wrong with a touch of Santa

But as the organizers of Buy Nothing Christmas say on their website, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s about more about a culture where excess has become the norm. “Giving gifts at Christmas is a good thing to do…. Gift-giving, as we know from other occasions (like birthdays, weddings, housewarmings) serves as a kind of social glue that keeps us together. It shows affection, thoughtfulness and love. While gift-giving is a good thing to do at Christmas, that doesn’t mean we have to go overboard at Christmas.”

So what’s a family to do instead? Suggestions to cut down on or eliminate buying gifts include:

– Give away something you don’t use, or shop at thrift stores

– Create inexpensive gifts: a family calendar, holiday baking, create a collage of family photographs, plant cuttings

– Give services instead of gifts: baby and pet sitting, cleaning, cooking, fix-it hours

– Have each person draw the name of one family member instead of buying for everyone

– Agree not to exchange gifts but share a holiday experience instead such as a trip or day together outdoors

And if you decide to shop, avoid debt by following these tips from Credit Counselling Canada:

“Just like Santa, make your list and check it twice, set your budget and then only buy for those on your list. Take the time to think about what the season really means to your family, set limits and be creative. When determining your budget and activities for the holiday season, ensure that all of your monthly re-occurring bills are up to date. Then use your surplus for your holiday spending.”

Whether you end up purchasing a carload of gifts or not, sitting down and making sure you’re celebrating the season in a way that’s meaningful to you is time well spent.

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