Mother Earth News Blogs > Nature and Environment

Nature and Environment

News about the health and beauty of the natural world that sustains us.

Christmas Without Presents?

By Aubrey Vaughn

Tags: gifts, presents, holidays, economy, Christmas, No Impact Man,

At first, I just wanted to write about the present-free (or present-minimal) Christmas. It’s something we’ve done in my immediate family, without any formal agreement, for several years now. And let me be the first to say that it’s great. Better than great: It’s amazing — really — everything Christmas or holidays in general should be, in my humble opinion. Because without presents, the focus has to go somewhere else, and the next obvious options — food, family — are what it’s all about. And boy is it fun.

But then I got to thinking about what a present-free holiday means outside of our homes, say, in the world of business and people earning a living from that business (which is pretty much all of us). And I was realizing that Christmas this year (or any other pending holiday that can involve gift giving) just got simpler and more complicated, all at once.

First, the complicated part:

My entire life my dad has owned his own businesses making handcrafted percussion instruments — objects that visually are beautiful and musically are something even more. Not being a percussionist, I’m not the ideal judge, and am obviously biased; but I know from those who do understand — his friends, customers and competitors — that they’re highly unusual in their quality and sound. This makes them almost invaluable to those who use them, yet they’re still far from the staples that people buy regardless of the economy, such as food and warm socks. (Unless, of course, you’re one of those goofy drummer types.)

Being the daughter of a businessman, I get that if people don’t go shopping, business doesn’t happen. And it’s a thorough cycle: When the economy tumbles, people shop less, and the less they shop, the farther the economy tumbles. That's one devil of a problem we’ve got to figure out if we’re going to live sustainably as a species, but that’s a bigger conversation than this post, and frankly, one I’m not yet knowledgeable enough to tackle without making a fool of myself. (You can look for informed coverage of this topic at Rancho Cappuccino.)

So, while I want to tell you about the brilliance of a present-minimal holiday, I also get that if we all stop shopping, right now of all times, that, baby, things aren’t going to get any better. And after a few years of hearing “go shopping!” as the directive following any bad news, the last thing I feel like doing is telling anybody to go shopping. Not to mention that I imagine no number of stocking stuffer purchases is going to be enough to turn around the economy right now. I suppose maybe the point of all of this is just that I feel a little guilty about suggesting that everyone minimize their shopping, and realize that some of these simple decisions can have some rather complicated consequences.

 But, now that the musing and guilt is out of the way, on to the simple parts:

  1. People are rightly worried about their jobs and money, so saving money makes good sense (ooh, and I love good old simple common sense!).
  2. Present-free and present-minimal celebrations are, trust me on this, really where it’s at. Be there, or be square.

Yes, this list of simple stuff is a lot shorter than the musings on the more complicated aspects — as is appropriate. But those simple bits are really big, and as long as you have food on your table and a roof over your head, the elements that are wrapped up in those two little points are everything. Think friends, family, food, peace of mind, games, laughing, bear hugs* — and don’t forget financial solvency!

Not only do you get more time and energy to focus on what really matters, but research shows that people who give and receive fewer gifts are happier than their more gift-ed counterparts. Just think, you could spend your evenings in front of the fire, rather than in line at the mall. Maybe you would have room in the budget for a great cheese that everyone can enjoy, if you’re not spending hundreds on presents. And when the holidays are gone and the decorations are back in the box, you won’t be facing crazy bills or credit card statements, or the stress that goes with them. You won’t be finding room for items you didn’t really need or want. And this list doesn’t even cover all of the environmental benefits of a less material holiday: less shipping, producing, packaging and disposing.

This isn’t an argument for no presents, though if that works for your family – go for it! I still participate in the gift exchange at my grandmother’s, where we all draw names and purchase one gift. Last year, I saw a stunning ornament that I knew my mom would love, so I gave it to her. But only because I knew she would love it, because I knew she would have room for it and enjoy it, and because it wasn’t going to just add to a pile of stuff or make my bank account suffer. It was exactly as it should be, again, in my opinion.

For more on the benefits of a present-free or present-minimal holiday, check out the Christmas with No Presents blog post from No Impact Man (Colin Beavan), plus read Beavan’s full article on the subject from Yes! magazine.

 *If “bear hug” doesn’t mean anything to you, consider this Christmas the perfect time to check it out. Find the best hugger in your group, give ‘em a two-armed, full-on, full-strength (unless this person is a lot smaller than you, of course) squeeze – and really squeeze! My dad and I have spent years perfecting the bear hug, and while I may be nearly 27 years old, I still get lifted off the ground with a good bear hug. Trust me on this one, too, the holidays are perfect bear-hug season.


vicki booth
12/5/2008 1:45:17 PM

I think that in these economic times we especially need to just use plain old "Common Sense". Of course, children should receive gifts for Christmas but I think the family should be able to afford these gifts. My parents never had a lot of money but they always made Christmas special with family, friends, food and love. They saved their money through the year and paid cash for gifts. My husband and I are not participating in gift giving or receiving this year. It has really gotten silly. Last year I actually received coffee cups Made in China. I need more coffee cups like I need a hole in my head. It was a very nice thought but we need to be realistic and not just buy just for sake of buying. We are buying only handmade items and we shop at Consignment and Thrift stores. Also, bartering is a great way to get gifts. I enjoy baking brownies and cakes at Christmas and I haven't had any complaints from these gifts. As information, is a great web site for handmade items. Christmas has just become one great big commercial occasion. We can change that and make it a happy time without "Made in China" and credit cards bills in January.

12/5/2008 9:00:40 AM

As a child from a single parent home with little money in the 60's christmas was always a trying time. I knew my mother couldnt afford any 'good' presents for me and to support her I would never ask for the things I really wanted. The worst part of it was returning to school after the holidays. I new I was going to be asked by the other kids what I had had for christmas and just hoped there was something that would sound like it was expensive. I still remember the look of abject pity in the eyes of other kids when I accidently let slip what I did get. So before you start talking about present free christmas, have a thought for the kids who will have tough it out back at school. Poor families often try really hard to give their kids big presents at christmas, so that I least once a year they will be on level terms with richer kids.

shannon lasser
12/4/2008 11:17:40 AM

Our family also does the "white elephant". Its great! We have had a bottle of castor oil that has been re-gifted for about 10 years now. The laughs and fun that come from watching our family members open these gifts are a greater joy than any store bought present. Of course we all hold our breath when we pick our present from the pile hoping that its not the dreaded castor oil.

sandra cash_3
11/28/2008 10:57:47 AM

My family has done the white elephant thing for years. You know, where we all go around our houses and round up things that we don't use anymore, anything from curtains, to foot massagers, to baskets of fake bread, jigsaw puzzles, knick knacks, baby clothes, someone is always expecting it seems like, among the nieces and nephews, we all pitch in 10 or so dollars for goodie bags for the kids, with little inexpensive gifts in them, we also let the children have their own drawings for their old toys that they don't play with anymore, just to get them into the spirit of giving. They love it. Some things become a joke like the fake bread in a basket, we try to leave it at the house where we have the event, my sisters and I have hidden it before leaving on several occassions so that we wouldn't have to hold onto it for another year, to be brought back again, but you can bet if it isn't in that pile of presents every year, we would miss it. The way this works is that we all bring wrapped stuff, we all sit in a big circle around our living room and pick a starting person, they pick a gift from the pile, they keep it, the second person can either take that gift, or choose a wrapped one,(if they take the gift from a previous recipient, then that person gets to choose another wrapped gift. In this manner the best gifts, like the foot massager, may change hands several times, we just keep going until all of the gifts are gone. We don't care if some end up with more than others, it is all fun and we don't have to stress out over buying gifts for everyone, in our ever expanding family, we all bring food, and the men always have a bonfire going outside, where we can all hang out after eating. I am living in Florida now and did not get to go last year due to work demands. I surely missed it. I am hoping to be able to get there for this family event this year.