Most of my family had ‘the conversation’ about Christmas shopping years ago. They opted out of ‘obligatory gift giving’, and decided to focus on other elements of Christmas instead—getting together, creating happy experiences, enjoying a special day.
I envied their escape from the retail carnage of Christmas shopping, vowing I’d do the same someday. Maybe the time has come—for the past few years, exchanging presents has lost its glow, becoming part of a Christmas to-do list that is harder and harder to manage.
The progress of habitual gifting
When I taught school, I was immersed in it—there were gifts to be bought for the school secretary, the librarian, the janitor, my special ed assistants, the staff member whose name I drew for ‘Secret Santa. It didn’t end there. When I retired, I was done with that part, but not the rest—buying for the neighbors, the person who delivered the paper, the boy who raked the leaves, the guy who shoveled the walk. And there was more—the parcels to be mailed, the gifts for relatives who lived in town, and of course, my immediate family.
Lately, I’ve been re-thinking the entire process. In retrospect, except for the years when my children were small, the satisfaction quotient of Christmas shopping has been steadily decreasing. But reevaluating Christmas spending can be an emotional exercise. It can go deep—it may take a reevaluation of your entire Christmas experience.
As North Americans, we spend millions in gifts this time of year. Some of us love doing this and would never consider giving it up. Others have dared to break with tradition and end it altogether. But some of us are in that grey arena of indecision, going through the motions or approaching it halfway, cutting down a little, but remaining caught in the net. We become resentful of the effort and expense, but stay involved. It takes a conscious effort to change a tradition so entrenched—in order to change it, we have to understand our part in it.
Where it all started
In the Christian religion, the tradition of giving presents at Christmas can be traced back to the biblical story of the three Magi, who gave gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ child. By the end of the middle ages, giving gifts at Christmas became embedded in Western culture, and as the modern era began, the custom became a regular part of Christmas celebration. European settlers carried the tradition to America, and in time, Santa Clause, who the Dutch settlers introduced as St. Nicholas, became the symbol of gift-giving in North America.
As the 20th century unfolded and literacy developed, Christmas customs gained importance through the writing of authors like O. Henry, Charles Dickens, and Hans Christian Anderson. Later, during the 1940s and 1950s, Hollywood further romanticized the Christmas experience through movies like It’s a Wonderful Life, and Miracle on 34th Street
Today, Christmas gift-giving has become a vast and powerful engine of our economy. Prompted by an astute advertising sector, the buying season has expanded into months of frenetic shopping. No longer a meaningful and sincere activity motivated by expressions of love, for many, giving gifts at Christmas has become a mechanical obligation, a chore. When this happens, it’s time to consider exactly why we participate.
Why we feel conflicted
Psychological studies have explored the activity of gift giving at Christmas, and found that it is fraught with contradictions. On one hand, our Christian teachings encourage us to be reverent and spiritual during Christmas. We are moved by the ‘Christmas spirit’, the religious ideals of compassion, generosity towards the poor and restraint of our own materialistic desires.
Yet we indulge in the biggest materialistic extravaganza of the year, where this same ‘spirit of Christmas’ manifests in piles of gifts under an overloaded Christmas tree, and a Christmas dinner table groaning with an excessive display of decorations and food.
The altruistic desire to reach out to less fortunate people is lost as we realize we can’t make up for our year-long failings in one day. We are reluctant to cut down on our indulgencies, so our conflict with Christmas takes hold.
Magazines, movies and television perpetuate our confusion. The research shows that the more people watch television, the more they believe that buying things will make them happy. It’s not hard to understand why—after all, advertising images suggest that happy, successful people are wealthy, have nice things, and are beautiful and popular. For most people, that’s a tall order, so instead, they experience unpleasant emotions such as depression and anxiety, and a pervasive sadness and dissatisfaction that no material things can mollify.
So where did this re-evaluating exercise take me? Have I really changed anything? Yes, I acknowledge that there have been changes. The amount of money I spend at Christmas is a fraction of my Christmas budget years ago. I exchange gifts with only immediate family now, and even that list is getting shorter. I’m making inroads into my ambivalent feelings about Christmas gifting, having ‘the conversation’ with a select few who seem to be on the same track as I am. I’ll keep chipping away until someday, I’ll be the picture of relaxation—with a smile on my face, and no gifts under the tree!