Let’s admit it—all of us love to get and give gifts. Just the idea of unwrapping a brightly adorned present stimulates the possibility of finding our dreams fulfilled. Giving can be equally rewarding—with a sweet anticipation of connection and recognized love and appreciation from the receiver. Unfortunately, much of the time the gifts we are given fall far short of our expected dreams. At the same time, those we lavish gifts upon, often seem less than appreciative and oblivious to our hoped-for connections. But when you think about it, maybe the fault isn’t in the desire to give and receive. Instead, chances are it’s our routine and unconscious expectations of the season—and/or the less-than-altruistic manipulations of retailers. That’s why it might be time to start rethinking all gift-giving in a brand new SMART way—and start enjoying Christmas even more.
Thom and I first started rethinking gift giving about 15 years ago. I can still remember what triggered the desire. I had rushed around like most of us do in the last few weeks of the holiday, attempting to buy what I thought my nephews, sisters and parents would appreciate and enjoy—and still stay within our budget. We didn’t have lots of excess money and we were making an effort to not spend more than we had. When we arrived at my sister’s with toys for her children, the living room was stacked with presents from floor to ceiling. Instantly our modest additions were quickly absorbed into the piles. Then once the gift opening occurred, the mad scrabble resembled what I can only imagine to be like Wal-Mart at opening time on Black Friday. Paper was everywhere, presents were trampled in the rush, and we might as well have been invisible. While we did receive perfunctory “thank you’s” from the children and the adults—I don’t think anyone really knew who had given who what. But that wasn’t all, not only did those receiving gifts from us act less than enthusiastic—the gifts we received in return were merely “interesting.” (Interesting is a word you use when you don’t want to put something down but it isn’t that great.) That Christmas was the turning point.
The next year Thom and I tried to inspire the family with the plan to put everyone’s name in a basket and then buy a gift for the name that we each drew out. The idea was then that you could buy something more special for that one person without breaking the bank. Unfortunately, the other adults in our family were less than excited to even participate. So rather than continue with a gift-giving system that was broken, Thom and I made the announcement “NO MORE PRESENTS!” That’s right, we asked everyone in our family to not buy us anything—and in turn told them we would not be giving gifts ourselves.
It was actually harder than I thought it would be in the beginning—but aren’t all unconscious habits the same? It felt weird to not run around in the weeks before Christmas wracking my brain to figure out what people wanted that I could afford. During the holiday get-togethers it felt stranger still to see others unwrapping gifts and not be a part of it—even when I remembered that most of the time the gifts weren’t something I wanted or even used—or the gifts I gave even special. Still, when you think about how most of us were raised believing that’s “just what you do,” and retailers spend billions making you a Scrooge if you don’t, it’s not surprising to realize that it takes a while to change what you’ve done in the past—and recreate something new.
Along the way and during the last 15 years we’ve actually learned a bit about how to rethink the Christmas gift-giving habit and thought it would be good to share these five ideas with anyone else who is contemplating such a change:
#1 If you’ve ever secretly wished for an alternative to giving Christmas gifts—just do it! Make the change. Get on the phone right now and explain to your friends and family that you’ve wanted to do this for some time and with the economy and all—now is the time. (Even if money isn’t an issue, most people won’t argue with you about it.) When it comes down to it—it isn’t what you do or how you change, it is all about the courage to speak up and talk about why you want to change in the first place. If others don’t get your reasoning—don’t use that as an excuse. Stay conscious about your choices and stay responsible for your decision.
#2 One of the best choices Thom and I made was to discover a charity or two (or three) that we liked and then make a donation in the name of either the entire family or a specific family member. Something about the idea of you giving money to a cause in their name seems to feel right to most people. Unexpectedly, of all the gifts we ever gave, I think we’ve gotten better feedback from our charity gifts than we ever did just buying them some item we “thought” they might like. Also unexpected is the great feeling you get donating money to causes you might not normally share money with. Instead of running around from store to store fighting crowds and traffic, there is something very serene about getting on the computer and hunting down the right charity for the right person. If you’re not sure about the charity—I’ve used “Charitynavigator.org” to make sure that my charity is doing plenty of good work.
#3 Another thing that Thom and I tried was “adopting another family” as a holiday gift. Finding a family in need can be a little challenging but once you’ve found the right one, it is tremendously rewarding to help others in this way. Not only can you provide essential items like food, bedding and other household necessities, you can often ask the parents for a gift item that would help make their child’s Christmas special. Unlike competing with parents who can afford whatever their children ask for, this type of gifting can make a Christmas special and offers the rewards we all hope our gifts will bring.
#4 Another rewarding way to give gifts is to make something. Last Christmas I took one afternoon off and made a huge batch of my special “turtle-brownies.” I then wrapped them up and hand-delivered them to all my neighbors. At the time, we knew only a few of those living around us but by the time I was done, we were all fast friends. It works on the receiving end as well. For the last couple of years Cheryl, a girlfriend of mine, takes a day off and spends the day making batches of Christmas Cookies. She then delivers them in the days before Christmas, just like a little elf. I can’t imagine getting anything better from her than her love in the form of cookies. After all, isn’t it the feeling of the gift the really “gift” we all want? What can you bake? What can you make? You might find that whatever you can give to others will be more special to them if they know you made it with your own two hands.
#5 The final gift idea that we have found to be successful is the “experience” gift. All those years ago when we decided there had to be a better way, we realized that what we longed for ourselves were opportunities to connect with those we loved. Instead of buying them “stuff”, we tried to imagine different scenarios where we could spend time together and/or give them an experience to remember. For my parents, who certainly didn’t need more “knick-knacks,” we took them out to a nice restaurant that they’d never been to before. For my young nieces, I took them to their first Christmas play at a local theater. Even just taking our nephews to a movie was more meaningful and memorable than buying them more toys that would soon be forgotten.
These ideas are certainly not the only way to rethink the Christmas gift tradition. The only real limit to our gift giving is a lack of imagination. After all, most of us celebrate the holidays as a way to share our love with each other and remember the good in our lives. Surely, something that special should never be “routine?” This year let’s focus on the joy behind the holiday and choose practices (like gifting) that enhance the feeling rather than detract. Oh, and because it’s always SMART to share—please share any of the most memorable gift practices you’ve ever tried—and let’s all have a Merry Christmas 2013!
You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.” ~Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
“And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.” ~Dr Seuss