The Totally Free (or Nearly) Christmas

As the years have gone on, I’ve grown tired of the Christmas retail madness. We are a family of all grown ups so gift buying is almost impossible. Everyone tends to buy what they need and want throughout the year, leaving little left for Christmas except an exchange of gift cards. (Which is kind of pointless, if you ask me. Why spend money to give someone cash and then receive cash. Why not just call it even, wish them a Merry Christmas, have a great meal together and be done with it?) Then there is always holiday pressure to give to extended family, bosses, very good clients, office gift swaps, neighbors and other friends. These people are next to impossible to buy for because I never know what they have or need. Though I wish it were otherwise, I always end up out at the store looking for something for someone. All those little gifts add up, especially when you pile on the costs of entertaining, travel, and decorating. Even so, I don’t spend nearly what many people do. I can’t imagine what Christmas would be like in a huge family with lots of kids and even more presents to get for teachers, day care providers, etc.

Last year I finally reached my limit. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a Scrooge. And I’m not cheap. I love Christmas but as I’ve gotten older I’ve stopped caring for the retail aspect and started caring more about the true meaning of the holidays. I enjoy giving to others, but only if I feel like the gift is something the other person will really appreciate. Just slapping down an impersonal gift card or buying some doo-dad just to have something to give really grates on my nerves. It seems like it’s more for form than the joy of giving. I also don’t like the waste associated with a “retail” Christmas. I don’t like the wasted packaging, wrapping, and cards or the feeling that I’m contributing to the landfill problem by giving “junk” that will only end up there in a couple of years.

After last Christmas, where I spent a lot of money that I didn’t want to spend and satisfied a lot of obligations that I wished I didn’t have and filled a couple of trash cans with waste, I decided to stop it this year. I decided that Christmas 2008 would be different. I would try to have a totally free Christmas. And I didn’t only mean free in the sense of money. I also meant free in the sense of being free from obligations that I don’t enjoy, being free from pressure to buy and give, and being free to simply enjoy the holiday as I wanted to enjoy it. Call me selfish or Scrooge-like, but Christmas as it’s celebrated in the retail world is becoming further and further from the Christmas that my value system believes in. And seeing people get killed in the Black Friday shopping frenzy this year finished off any love I had for the modern retail Christmas.

Of course, I forgot about this little resolution until the day after Halloween. When Christmas exploded into the stores, I remembered and set about taking steps to make this Christmas different. The first thing I did was to look over the receipts and gift lists from last year. I wasn’t surprised to see that most of the gifts were iffy at best (in terms of being something that the person could really use or enjoy) and most of them were “reactionary,” as in, someone gave me something or invited me to something and I felt the need to give something in return. The rest was mostly gift cards for which I received gift cards in return. Okay, I thought, almost all of that can go. This year I refuse to buy things for people “just because” or because I feel pressured. If someone gives me something, I will accept with good grace and move on. I will not be pressured into spending more than I’m comfortable with.

I am also opting out of the Dirty Santa game at the office this year. It’s never much fun and the gifts are things that I never use. It might ostracize me for ten minutes, but by the end of the day I’m sure everyone will have forgotten about it. Or maybe I’ll just take that day off and go for a hike in the woods if the weather is good. Either way, I won’t be buying junk to give and I won’t be receiving more junk that I have to store or dispose of.

Next I looked at the decoration budget. I was relived to find that this was very low. I already have more than I can display so I certainly don’t need any more of that stuff. I do tend to buy one or two things that I think are really cute, but not this year. This year I will use what I have and buy nothing new. We have an artificial tree that has worked for years and is still good, so I don’t even have to spend on that.

As far as immediate family, I broached the subject with a few family members and was relieved when they said that they would like to opt out of the gift giving, as well. We all agreed that it is silly to just exchange gift cards or cash and, since none of us can really come up with a “Christmas list,” we will all just keep our money and spend time together instead. They were happy and I was happy. (I suspect more people would be happy to opt out, you just have to be brave enough to be the one to bring it up.)

There are a few other gifts that I might give, to good friends and neighbors, but those will be either things I make or that I can get for free or very low cost. I’m fortunate to live in an area that has lots of swaps, flea markets, consignment sales, and book sales where I can acquire tons of new or barely used items for free or very nearly so. I have no qualms about giving a “used” gift to someone as long as it is in good condition and it’s something they can use or enjoy. Most of these swaps and markets carry things that are even still in their original packaging; items that someone bought and didn’t want so they dumped it at the sale. It doesn’t cost me very much and I get to keep something out of a landfill.

As far as wrapping paper, bows and tags, I have a few of these items left from last year so I will use them all up. I think I can get through the year on what I have already. If not, I’ll get creative and make gift bags out of paper bags and craft supplies I have on hand or use other colored papers, magazine pages, etc. for wrapping. It sounds cheesy, but if you’ve ever read an issue of “Real Simple” or another crafting magazine, you know that you can do beautiful things with unconventional materials.

I gave up on commercially printed cards several years ago because they seemed like a waste of money and paper. I either email a greeting to people I don’t know well or I’ll send a homemade card to extended family or people I really care for. I enjoy making cards out of recycled papers, pieces saved from old cards, and other craft notions and I think the personalized, unique card is much nicer than the generic store bought card. They cost me only pennies and the time I spend puts me in the holiday spirit.

As far as the obligations, this turned out to be easy. I’m not a social butterfly under the best of circumstances but hot, crowded, holiday parties with people I hardly know talking about work and drinking too much bubbly make me uncomfortable. I’ve gone in the past (and popped for a hostess gift) out of a sense of obligation to mingle with people and make the holiday rounds. This year I’ve gotten lucky. Three of the people who usually host these parties have decided not to host this year because of their own financial problems. Some of the others are scaling way back and I might not even get invited. If I do, I will decline. It’s not that I want to be anti-social, but I don’t want to burden myself with things I don’t enjoy, either. I would rather spend the time with people I genuinely care about and doing things that bring the holidays closer to me.

So what sort of Christmas does all this cutting this leave me with, you ask? A peaceful one, I will reply. Instead of making the rounds of meaningless parties, I will spend the time baking for my own enjoyment and for the enjoyment of my immediate family on Christmas Day. I will spend more time looking at decorations and walking in the winter woods enjoying the peace. I will have more money and time to donate to causes that I wish to help instead of spreading myself thinly over lots of things that don’t matter. I will be less stressed and better able to enjoy the time I do spend with family and friends. Instead of hanging out in an overheated mall catching the disease du jour, I will spend time at home watching some holiday classics on rented DVD’s. I will have more time to decorate and enjoy my home. The entertaining that I do will be very small scale and for intimate friends and family only. As such, it will be less stressful and inexpensive and more fun than a big gathering of people I don’t know. I will have more time to spend in prayer and reflection, remembering exactly what this holiday means to me.

If it sounds easy, it’s not all that easy. I know that there will be some people who look at me funny, call me selfish, or accuse me of being a Scrooge. There will be many who won’t understand when I say, “No,” to their invitations or don’t immediately hand over a gift when they place some trinket on my desk. There will be some who wonder why my entertainment is scaled way down this year. There will be many who won’t understand how you can even have “Christmas” without all of the retail trappings and stress. Of course there are people who will never be satisfied. If you don’t meet their definition of “Christmas” they will accuse you of not doing it right.

But I’ve reached an age where I no longer care. A retail Christmas that breaks me financially and stresses me out is no longer something I value or am even willing to tolerate. I don’t know how many Christmases I and my loved ones have left on this Earth and I no longer want to waste them on meaningless things and gatherings. I’m turning a corner and creating a Christmas that is meaningful to me and that leaves me time/money to spend with people who matter and helping others in need. So don’t look for me in the malls or on the party circuit this year. I’ll be at home curled up on my couch in my fuzzy slippers watching movies with my spouse and family and basking in the glow of my decorations. Or you might find me at the animal shelter making sure that the homeless animals have a good Christmas, too. Wherever I am, you can be certain that I’ll be free.

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18 Responses to The Totally Free (or Nearly) Christmas

  1. Julie says:

    I certainly do agree with you.

  2. princessperky says:

    I think it is a lovely idea, and one I have been working on for years. This year I decided to make a commitment (husband willing) to stop buying wrapping paper, and use at least some cloth bags. Cloth bags are reusable, and sometimes you can find them cheap.

    I still have some from previous holidays to use up, but hopefully no more will be bought.

  3. Laura says:

    I started this last year but I went a lot further. I explained everything to my children and they completely understood. We don’t exchange formal gifts anymore. I will take them to the bookstore for a treat (I’m a single mom so we don’t get extras very often) and let them pick out a book and then read it with them. They get so much more out of it and it teaches them that time is more valuable than the most expensive present someone could buy for them.

    My parents and others give me a very hard time about it and tell me that I am depriving my children, but I stand firm. I would be depriving them of a financially secure future by teaching them that consumerism is important.

    How many ‘things’ do we really need anyway?

  4. Jules says:

    Right on! It sounds like a lovely Christmas to me. Enjoy.

  5. Bobbi says:

    Awesome post! Just yesterday the ‘gift’ exchange was brought up at work and I just cringed. It wasn’t received very well, so I think we are all opting out this year and just getting the boss something. Your Christmas will be much more fulfilling this year. Congrats.

  6. Andrea says:

    I agree that simplicity is best. It takes us back to the real meaning of this season–Jesus!

  7. Heibi says:

    Very good post. I completely agree. Also I never believed in getting a holiday present for bosses. I think it could unfairly affect their decision making abilities.
    However I think buying a group gift is ok.

  8. Cindy M says:

    I always figure you can wow people of any age or sex and not have to spend much if you create something different to eat and surprise them with it, a different snack with a fancy drink, a fabulous cookie, a nice meal, whether it’s family, coworkers or friends. You tell them this is what you’d rather do. Most people are tickled with stuff like this, in my experience. I figure this way I don’t look like too much of a scrooge, not that I truly care about that anymore. I feel good about it, especially if I keep the surprise aspect of it. And I don’t wait for xmass to do it, it’s when the mood hits me. We should treat people like it’s xmass a whole lot more often during the year.

    I still buy my 3 grandnephews a little something but frankly find that frustrating. I settled this year on a few games and T-shirts. I’m glad their mothers have explained to them they’ll be seeing less under their own xmass trees, and they probably aren’t expecting anything from me.

  9. Linda says:

    This article says it ALL for me and how I’ve been feeling this year. Thank you for expressing it so well!

    Linda- Seattle

  10. Pingback: Holiday Saving Strategies - Debt Reduction 101

  11. Gail says:

    I’ve been enjoying making some presents for a few people in my life. I haven’t decorated or gotten caught in the crush of Christmas madness (sometimes it pays to be chronically ill). That doesn’t mean we can’t have some special times. I know my DH can hardly wait to see what I’ve made him. He usually makes me a present every year.

  12. Tina Adams says:

    Thank you Jennifer, I feel just like you about Christmas. Besides, I rather make a phone call to friends overseas and to family here in the USA.
    When you are on a limited budget and refuse to borrow money for gifts that might be exchanged later, it is way too stressful to be enjoyable.
    I wish you a very blessed Christmas and all the best for 2009.

  13. Senator Government says:

    Here here. While you seem to have had a very hard time with the exfil from commercialism gone completely insane. For my part, I played that game for a minute, but quickly snapped back to reality when bills pile up. I used to watch a show on PBS called ‘Keeping up Appearances’ it was ridiculously funny and really overplayed the aspect of what folks do to keep up with the joneses, to the point of absurdity. But the real truth is, most people don’t even know what Christmas and Easter and Thanksgiving are SUPPOSED to be about….that’s why we got into all this financial debauchery in the first place. Posiive from bad economic times: It gives people a chance to come back to reality and realize what Is important and what is Not.

  14. Joni says:

    I’m a Wiccan but love Christmas as much as Yule. But this year the retail shopping on my part stopped! I was beginning to hate Christmas/Yule and found that sad. So we bought a few gifts for our kids and left it at that. Best Yule ever!

  15. Dotty Lowe says:

    Hurrah! You have expressed the sentiments of many people. Many people are having a hard time or anticipating a hard time coming. To go further into debt is insane. For what? A loving Christmas with family and friends, a holiday meal, that’s where it’s at.
    Every year consumerism seems to grow. It’s time for a slow down.

  16. ash says:

    Beautifully said. I’m at the animal shelter too!
    I like the gift exchange games with family. One gift per person, less than $20. My girlfriends and I did a game with a $5-$10 limit.
    The gifts I bought came from There are many charities that benefit from buying there, and the amount you spend translates into bowls of food to animal shelters. Double good!

  17. Mike says:

    Where was this story back when the stupid people at the NE church were making commercials, forcing kids to say that Barack Obama would make Americans get rid of Christmas?

    I agree with the author, and have been feeling the same way about Christmas gifts since I have started having to actually buy those gifts fro people. (All the years before, Mom bought them and put us kids’ names on the tag.) It’s just too hard to buy gifts for everyone, especially since our family has exploded. We’ve only lost two people over the past 15 years, but there are 8+ new members now that my generation is old enough to marry and have kids.

    I don’t expect anything from my immediate family, either. I just want to have a nice breakfast like Mom used to make us before we opened presents (I just want the breakfast, though!). A nice cup of coffee and a conversation, along with a morning paper.

    We never had much spent on us as kids, maybe $50 bucks each at the most. When I read stories about people scaling back their Christmas spending from $6,000 to $2,000 during these poor economic times, it makes me want to puke. What kid deserves those kinds of presents? Hasn’t s/he received anything during the course of the year? No family should be obligated to waste money on presents that could otherwise be used to fund a college education.

  18. MizPat says:

    Now that the holidays are over, I’d like to give my feedback on Christmas. My biggest expense was gift cards for 5 nieces/nephews and my sister. $20 apiece for the two little girls at Walmart, $20 apiece for the boys at Amazon, $20 for the oldest girl at a vegan website and $25 for mom at a beading site. And I got my dear next door neighbor a gift card for barnes and noble which we will spend hours and hours invading the store and looking at specials over. I know that the kids were excited and pleased with the gift cards and felt they were very mature and worldly wise.

    I had a specific budget for people at work and found tons of wonderful $5 gifts at Ross and Kmart.

    I received a MP3 player from one boss, diabetic candy from another and a desk fountain from the other, and 3 gift cards, which I’m hording against emergencies.

    The rest of my budget was spent on ME, to get shoes, new work clothes and the cheapest, uncoolest television in the world that will work with a dvd player so i can play dvds for exercises, and my few dvds that I enjoy watching.

    And you know what, it was absolutely a wonderful Christmas. I went to free Christmas concerts, a christmas parade, and church. I got sick and didn’t go to the nutcracker so lost $23 bucks, there, but i drove around, looked at lights, put up my own lights and felt the wonder of Christmas. My total budget was $600, and most of it was things I really need, and the wild tv expenditure ($250).

    I didn’t buy anything that I felt like I owed, I just enjoyed giving useful little tokens of my appreciation. And I kept in my budget.

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