This holiday season, try to focus less on physical gifts and more on experiential ones

Christmas presents
CC BY 2.0 Aaron Jacobs

Giving gifts just for the sake of giving loses its noble purpose when it results in an overstuffed house and more trash in our landfill sites.

My family and I are preparing to leave for two months in Brazil, which means that we’ll be away for Christmas. While part of me is sad to miss the fun holiday season and all the wonderful celebrations that occur with family and friends, there’s another part of me that is immensely relieved to escape the materialism associated with Christmas. It will be difficult for well-meaning relatives to send gifts to our sons while we’re away, and we won’t have to buy the obligatory presents in return.

Now, please don’t think I’m anti-gifts. I do love a good present every now and then, but since I started learning more about the environmental impacts of consumerism and the bizarre disposable shopping culture that engulfs us in North America, the less comfortable I am with the act of buying gifts simply to buy gifts.

I’m sure you know the feeling: “Oh no, we’re going over to So-and-So’s house for dinner and I don’t have any presents for her kids yet, so we’d better stop at the mall so I can grab something.” There ensues a buying frenzy in which the actual gift matters less than the act of giving. Some would argue that that’s a good thing – that the act of giving should be the priority – and I do agree that generosity is a very important character trait that should be nurtured.

However, giving just because there’s a social sense of obligation to give perpetuates the unnecessary consumerism that is the bane of our North American landfill sites. Far too often, the gifts exchanged are of low quality imported plastic, are easily breakable (especially if toys), or are just plain unnecessary, useless, or impractical once the novelty has worn off. These items, to people such as myself who pay close attention to how much and what kind of waste is generated within the household or wish to minimize possessions, are more of a burden than a kindness because eventually they must be disposed of or donated (which often means landfilled in the long run).

I’m not saying that people should start forking out wads of cash to buy fine, high-end presents for everyone (that would be unaffordable and financially irresponsible), but rather that we need to rethink the entire system. Physical gifts need to become less important during the holidays. Ideally, we would shun the whole physical gift obsession and seek out alternatives that have less environmental impact, provide real assistance and pleasure to recipients, and provide lasting enjoyment.

Some ideas:

Think of volunteer opportunities to do as a family; paying for a child’s extracurricular activity; making a DIY rule for all presents; giving a gift certificate for something useful, such as clothes or groceries.

Focus on what can be made from scratch at home, i.e. dinner parties, holiday baking, home preserving or candy-making, favourite meals.

Consider useful presents, such as anything edible or wearable; look into ‘experiential’ gifts, such as season’s tickets to a favourite sports team or concert series, or a gym membership or a pass to a local yoga studio; or just give money so that a person (teenager, university student) can make their own choices.

Give a “living” gift, where you pay for a cow or goat or chickens to be given to a family in need, usually in developing countries.

If it’s simply impossible to imagine a non-materialistic holiday, then strive to reduce. Give a child a single gift, rather than a half-dozen, and make it something really awesome that will get lots of use. Buy nicer gifts for fewer people, and give homemade treats to the rest.

It’s good to think of the holidays as a chance to open new doors and create opportunities to learn and broaden one’s horizons, instead of burdening people with more stuff – the last thing that most of us need.

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