Rethinking Gift Culture


After a busy year, the end of year slow down should provide an opportunity to rest, reflect and recharge. However, the Christmas period can frequently deliver anything but. Countless hours are spent finding the perfect presents for friends and family, stocking up on decorations, and buying enough food and supplies to last a month (despite most stores only closing for a day or two).

Buy why? I’ve never understood gift giving. If I want something, I buy it. If you give me a gift I don’t want (highly likely given I would have already bought it if I wanted it), then we both lose, and so does the planet. Let me elaborate.

No matter how well you know someone, it can be very difficult to find the right present (and know that no one else will buy them something similar). Buying practical gifts that you know they will use (such as a year’s supply of their favourite detergent) isn’t seen as thoughtful, but how thoughtful is it really to buy something you’re just guessing they will like? If they don’t love it then it will either sit around gathering dust (because they feel too guilty to throw it out) or it will add to the never-ending piles of unloved gifts in landfill. Perhaps it may be re-gifted, or donated, but these may just be intermediate steps before it’s inevitably discarded. All the stocking fillers, novelty gifts, Christmas decorations, party hats, generic cards and bonbons only add to the waste (and don’t forget about all the energy, water and other resources that got chewed up making the product in the first place).

The burden of a house full of stuff shouldn’t be underestimated, particularly when you feel you can’t let go of half of it because it was a gift from someone you care about. The more stuff, the more space you need to fit it all and the longer it takes to make decisions about what to wear/use (analysis paralysis). Then there’s also the time and money required to maintain and clean it all.

Even if you somehow manage to find the perfect gift the other person loves, it also then comes along with a huge helping of obligation to find the perfect gift in return. That can be a crushing amount of pressure to live up to (making your gift a constant reminder of how they didn’t live up to your thoughtfulness).

But what about the kids?
I can’t really remember one present I received as a child (other than a saddle, received many months after having taught myself to ride a horse without one, but that’s a story for another day). I do however remember the things we did, camping trips, coast trips, building things, all fun ways to learn important life skills.

What a wonderful thing it would be to teach kids from a young age that life is about connecting with people and accumulating experiences, not accumulating things. Besides, for the first several years of life, most kids are more interested in the box the toy came in than the toy itself. Why dampen that imagination when you could empower them to create their own magical experiences by finding new uses for everyday items. Such a skill will serve them well for life. If you also swap out Christmas decorations for indoor plants, they’ll last much longer than a few weeks and help keep your family healthy.

But the spirit of Christmas will be ruined!
As an adult, you’re free to decide what Christmas (or any other occasion means to you), you don’t need to blindly follow what the advertisers tell you to do.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen posts on social media along the lines of “Help! I need to find a present for my uncle/second cousin/grandma/colleague, but they have everything they need and say they don’t want anything for Christmas! What can I buy them??”. In a world where society is increasingly realising that “no means no”, why do we feel it’s ok to overlook this when it comes to consumerism? Why do we feel the need to perpetuate the practice of forcing unwanted gifts (and therefore obligations) on people?

Rather than buying material things to show you care, why not invest in the relationships that matter to you. We all lead busy lives and finding the time to truly connect can be a challenge. But think of the extra time you’d have if you weren’t running around trying to find the perfect gift for everyone!

If you really can’t stomach the thought of having nothing to hand over, then why not go with a voucher for an experience (such as a massage, or perhaps a cooking/dancing/language learning class). Or why not take the time to write a heartfelt note about what the person means to you. The benefits of expressing genuine gratitude are well known. Not only will receiving such a “gift” make the person feel good in the moment, but it will be something they can look back in years to come any time they need uplifting.

Take the Pledge
I realise it can be hard to break tradition, but if anyone complains about your sudden aversion to gift culture, just tell them you’ve taken the #NoGiftPledge (or send them this article). After all, isn’t a more sustainable future the best gift of all?