When I first floated the idea of doing a blog about presents many of my friends agreed that it is imperative that we reduce gift giving. They’d all seen birthday parties where kids have been drowning in presents and felt a great sense of discomfort surrounding the unsustainable level of consumerism our birthday traditions have created. Christmas gift giving is no exception. Kids get presents not only from their mum and dad but often grandparents, aunts and uncles, neighbours and friends – they even get little presents from teachers at end of year preschool concerts etc. Adults also get a string of presents we don’t need. We often have a network of acquaintances (work colleagues etc) that we end up swapping gifts with because it is what we have always done. It is socially challenging to re-jig Christmas giving (it may be an agreement – “I won’t give you one if you won’t give me one” or showing you appreciate their presence in your life without presents) but they are conversations that need to be had.
Often the easiest place to start is in your own backyard. So, let’s start there. My extended family’s (my parents and my brothers and their children) Christmas gift giving tradition (since the current generation of kids arrived) has been that each child was bought a present by one of their Aunt and Uncles. We would rotate which nieces or nephews we bought for each year. It was a good tradition in that we did not buy presents for all our nieces and nephews, but the kids still had more than enough presents in what was given to them by their immediate families alone. Now they’re getting older (most of them are almost teenagers) it is also getting harder to buy for them. So, I felt that this year was the perfect time to suggest moving on to giving the gift of an experience rather than a “present”. I’ve suggested we pay for all the kids to go together (and some grown-ups) to an escape room. It is something I think they will all enjoy and also an opportunity to do something together as cousins. The cooperative nature of an escape room will hopefully also help strengthen their bonds as cousins.
On the other side of our family we don’t buy presents for nieces and nephews (though their grandparents buy them some presents until they’re high school age) Instead of a Kris Kringle arrangement that we used to have, a few years ago we started a tradition of giving each family unit in the extended family (my partners parents and brother and sisters and their children and grandchildren) something that we had really enjoyed or benefited from during the year. The idea was to share something that has really made a difference to us with family. So, we would buy 5 of the same present and give one to each family. Over the years we have shared some great things – yoghurt makers (which I still use today), the essential components to a good milkshake (caramel syrup and malt), a hand-made outdoor game called Kubb (which the kids love to get out on a picnic), and an introductory box to ‘Who Gives a Crap’ (that we have since subscribed to) are some highlights. It has been wonderful to pass on some great discoveries to others and to learn about new things ourselves. But as the family has grown and the next generation are joining in it has expanded to buying 7 of the one gift which is becoming unsustainable. There is also the issue that sometimes the gift you buy won’t be needed or as appreciated by other families as you have found it. So, in future years we’re looking at an arrangement of perhaps just buying one of something we have really benefitted from during the year and putting them all in the middle and each family getting a turn to pick something from the middle. People still get to share the knowledge of the things they’ve benefitted a lot from but the other families can choose their best match for a present and our consumption is lowered to one gift per family, not seven.
Moving even closer to home is our approach to giving in our immediate family – in particular giving to our own children. I’ve never felt like we were terribly excessive, but in the past few years I’ve wanted to reign it in a bit. Yet even though I feel the pull of social and environmental justice to give less, I also feel a pull that maybe my child will be disappointed with just three presents, or I feel a pull at the shops when I see a plastic toy that I know would bring a big smile to their face. At these times, I try and remember some other important things too. When I see the plastic Mack truck from Disney’s Cars in the shops and I feel the pang that my 3-year-old son would love it I also need to remember how wonderful it is that he is actively engaging his imagination pretending the wooden truck he already has is Mack. By giving more, I would also be taking something away. As George Monbiot writes we really must challenge entrenched habits and “stop trashing the planet to tell someone we care”. We must look beyond short-term pleasure to long term sustainability. And to do this we may have to re-jig our individual relationships with, and social norms around, gift giving.
For many people gift giving is an essential part of Christmas being a time of joy. A mountain of presents and spoiling their little ones is a big part of that. Gift-giving at Christmas doesn’t have to cease all together but we must find a more sustainable path. Many may worry that giving fewer gifts will mean less joy at Christmas time. This need not be the case. I think a good way to tackle this issue is to manage expectations. If you’ve always had a big Christmas in terms of presents, but you now want to scale that back, if your kids are old enough talk to them about sustainability and the real meaning of Christmas. Do what you can to build up Christmas as a time to fully engage with family and for it to be more about presence (and joyful experiences) than presents. Put your excess into building up experiences and doing things for others. For example, Dr Laura Markham of AhaParenting.com writes about giving kids “together” presents (experiences you will have with them) or “giving presents” (e.g. making things for others like biscuits or doing things for others like gardening). You can really roll out the red carpet on these things to get in the spirit of Christmas. You can make special invitations for your child with pictures detailing the experience you will have with them (e.g. a trip to the zoo or a day out to the city with a ride on a ferry and ice-cream). You can make special handmade cards to accompany biscuits for family members, or vouchers for the things that you will do for them (babysitting or yard work). Build up the joy involved in giving and sharing, not the more fleeting joy of consumption.
In terms of managing expectations of the amount of presents kids will get it may be helpful to have a framework to hang it off. My friend and fellow blogger Bushwalking Mama grew up with a simple expectation of what they would receive at Christmas time “Want, Need, Wear, Read”. The simple rhyme makes it easy to remember and it sets very clear expectations for kids around what they’ll receive at Christmas time. Each child will receive something they particularly wanted (which I think is a great way to keep the anticipation and surprise around Christmas that kids feed off), something they need (making Christmas more sustainable and not just about special presents), something to wear (perhaps a new outfit for the new year) and a good book to read over the summer (encouraging reading and opening kids up to new worlds is always wonderful). Just awesome in its philosophy and in its simplicity (thanks for sharing @bushwalking mama!).
What are your thoughts on making Christmas more sustainable in your family?
How can we emphasise presence over presents?