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.