Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa or none of the above, this time of the year is likely to bring with it some ritual of gift giving and receiving.
As much as I love the idea of a gift-giving ritual and can imagine just how rich in symbolism, generosity and creativity it could be, I also know that for many people the act of giving gifts has become at best a habit, and at worst a source of anxiety and guilt.
I come from a family that had little extra, in material terms, when we were children. These days my parents and my older sister and her husband have a bit of money to spare and they love spending it on their family. It’s a beautiful, generous impulse. But when it happens all at once at Christmas time, quite frankly, it can overwhelm me.
For one thing, I’ve spent so many years living and working in countries where people don’t even have the absolute essentials of life, anything that feels like excess is uncomfortable for me.
Secondly, I am not a great fan of getting more stuff (if you haven’t already, you could watch this little story of stuff to get a sense of why I might feel that way). I believe we can (and need to) learn to have a very different relationship with our belongings – one in which we need less because we love what we have, and take care of it so it lasts much longer.
Thirdly, I don’t always have as much spare cash as others in my family. I’m sure most of you know what that feels like, we’ve all been there at some point. Wealth, of course, is relative.
So a few years ago I asked my sisters and my parents how they would feel about us doing a gift-free Christmas. I was thinking of something along the lines of what my friend Leo Babauta does with his family – where he only give gifts that you’ve made yourself or that have been recycled or up-cycled.
Except in my version I’d also include charitable gifts made on behalf of loved ones, and gifts that contribute directly to Fair Trade projects like the Trade Aid stores.
My family, not surprisingly, didn’t go for it. But they did say ‘Marianne, you do whatever feels right to you. Don’t feel any pressure to buy gifts that don’t feel good to you. We like buying new things and we’ll keep doing it, but we love that you do what you believe is right.’
It took a while for me to actually believe they meant it, that it wasn’t some passive aggressive way of saying ‘Fine, you miserly scrooge, feel free to go ahead and ruin Christmas for the rest of us, just so long as you feel good.’
But I decided to take them at their word, and the first year I found Fair Trade gifts for all the children and bought Oxfam Unwrapped gifts for the adults.
I was a bit worried that people wouldn’t really enjoy them and that I would end up feeling like the ‘carrot guy’ in Jen’s fantastic post on this same subject (read that post, it’s wonderful)
But I didn’t. The adults loved their gifts. The kids, well, they barely seemed to notice, there were so many gifts around.
So the next year I went a step further. I bought fair trade gifts for the adults and – all the aunties out there will know what a big deal this is – I bought nothing for the children. I wrote each of them a card telling them what I loved most about them and inviting them to come and stay with me all by themselves for a few days so that we could hang out together.
They loved it.
So now I’ve found my own gift giving groove. I enjoy finding fairly traded, sustainable gifts that my siblings and parents will love and I look forward to writing those loving cards for each of the children (I have lots of nephews and nieces). I look even more forward to their visits through the year.
This formula won’t work for everyone. But the real lessons for me were:
- If you are brave enough to tell your family – with gentleness, love and no sense of judgement – what you prefer to do when it comes to gifts, they may just surprise you.
- Even if they don’t, you get to decide what constitutes enough for you.
- By getting clear on what feels good to you in terms of gift-giving, you get to take back the joy of giving.
- And if it sometimes feels a bit wobbly, a bit awkward, even a bit hard, that’s okay too. That’s why we put daily practices like meditation and yoga in place, to give us a touchstone of inner stability when the holiday wobbles come along.
If talking to your family about this seems too hard to imagine, don’t make things harder for yourself by forcing the issue right now. And know that there is no right answer. It took me a few years to find the right balance with my family, and I’m sure I’ll adjust it again in the future.
What matters to me is that you find a path that eases your sense of stress, even a little bit. So perhaps the most important thing I can say in this message is this:
‘You are doing the best you can and that, my friend, is always enough’
Remember to be kind to yourself, and to practice gratitude, it’s like a hangover cure for guilt.
PS: This post is one of the 30 lessons in my Zen Peacekeeper’s Guide to the Holidays course which is currently in session.