Strategies for Talking To Your Family About SImplifying Christmas

This is the email I sent to my family around this time in 2013:

Since Christmas shopping time will be coming up before we know it, should we decide how we are going to handle gifts? As you know, I've been trending more and more toward the point of view of the bohemian older sister in Beverly Cleary's Sister of the Bride

"Oh, presents. They are mostly just things. Greg and I want a life free of things."  

This year, I'd be happy to take the plunge & do no gifts between us, or a Secret Santa, or consider limiting it to one or more categories of nontraditional gifts:

homemade gifts, which could include any arts, crafts, baked goods, homecooked meals, DIY projects, custom music mixes, stories/essays, certificates for time or favors, etc. etc. etc. (These would not need to be elaborate, but the reality is that homemade gifts are usually more time-consuming than shopping, so this would be good paired with Secret Santa or similar.)

used/regifted/free gifts i.e. giving away stuff we already own.

experience gifts such as movie tickets or cookies (I count consumables since they are about the experience of consuming, not keeping something forever and ever)

charity gifts "a donation has been made in your name..."

Here are some inspiring articles about rethinking gifting at Christmas

Carolyn Hax's anticonsumerist response to a letter writing grumbling that kids are not properly grateful these days -

Does this thing I’m about to buy have any chance of being important to its recipient? Does it get cash to someone strapped, free up time for someone busy, show support or appreciation for someone down, strengthen connections for someone lonely, provide a pleasant experience to someone who wants for nothing material?

First-hand account of woman whose family stopped gifting 10 years ago (with kids involved) -

However, there are several gigantic loopholes in the no-gift rule... everyone still gets a stocking full of candy on Christmas morning. Most importantly, during their winter break from school, the kids are allowed to ignore bedtime, sleep in as late as they want, eat dessert for breakfast lunch and dinner, and watch television with impunity. 

^ That's talking about how they made it up to the kids, but I think it works for adults too - I feel like one of the things we like best about Christmas isn't even the presents but the jolly holiday atmosphere and the feeling that we don't have any obligations except to have a good time. 

Also candy.  
I should tell you upfront that this didn't work. It wasn't the first time I'd brought up the no gifts idea--that was the previous year, when it was met with "but it won't be Christmas without presents!" type horror. Reading this email is cringeworthy to me. I think my effort to approach the subject softly made me offer too many options, and provide too much background "homework" reading.

If you're going to talk to your family about a simpler Christmas, I suggest the following things I didn't do:

  • Talk to them on the phone, or in person. Not in writing. That way you can get a sense of their immediate reaction to "no gifts" (or whatever change you are proposing), and you can respond appropriately, neither giving too much nor too little explanation. Maybe your family will say, "Oh, thank you, thank you, I've been waiting for someone to say that." Maybe they will gasp and say, "You SCROOGE!" You don't want to assume and craft a response for the wrong choice.
  • Suggest a simple, clear proposal. Don't say something vague like "We need to simplify Christmas." Even if everyone agrees, nobody will behave any differently unless there is a clear plan. Simplifying is a goal, not a plan. I know that I typically prepare for Christmas in a series of small decisions that build on each other; I don't get my wife 5 presents because I set out to get her a big old pile of stuff, but because I kept thinking of "just one little thing." Suggest something concrete like "No gifts," a Secret Santa, a numeric limit on the number or cost of gifts, etc. Suggest ONE (1) of those things.
  • Listen. If your proposal meets with objections, don't interrupt or respond with a bunch of logical arguments. Instead, your first priority should be understanding. For many families, gifts are stand-ins for love, and asking for a no-gift Christmas is tantamount to asking for a no-love Christmas. It's possible there are simple ways you adapt your proposal so that each family member still gets what they really want: a symbolic show of love, an element of surprise, a link to tradition, a childlike sense of wonder, etc.
  • You don't need consensus. Different family members may respond differently to your proposal. You need whole-family consensus for something like a Secret Santa or an outright gift ban, but you do not need consensus to make private agreements with individual family members, or to change your own gifting behavior.
  • If you meet any resistance at all, immediately drop the subject. I'm not saying it's not worth testing the waters with your family to see if they'd like to make Simple Christmas a group effort, but if they're not on board immediately, forget it and move on. The more you pressure everyone for a no-gift Christmas, the more Grinchy you look, and the more it takes the fun out of either giving to you or getting from you.

For my family, Christmas gifting has scaled down in recent years; not with a ban, but a whimper. Last year, I stopped campaigning, but I still gave and got mainly homemade and charity gifts. I'm not sure if my previous asks to scale down Christmas had a slow-burn affect, or if it's a natural progression of age and the addition of a baby to the family, a new and more interesting object for the gifty impulse (which I totally get--I'm one of the aunties contributing to her having way too many books and toys). 

So I guess my general advice is to chill out and give the way you want to give. Next year may be different, for better or worse. Time goes on and families change whether you want them to or not. Take care to uphold the traditions that are meaningful to you, do your best to help your family members uphold the traditions that are meaningful to them, and enjoy the simple pleasures of the season--whether there's a pile of gifts under the tree or not. 


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  2. My immediate family has gratefully accepted a no-gift rule, though we still do homemade things for each other. My bigger problem is with coworkers. I have no solution to that one.

    1. Ouch, your coworkers exchange gifts? Can it at least be simple things like tea or cookies?

    2. You know, that's not a bad idea. Making cookies would fit in my "handmade gifts" rule. But I do end up feeling cheap/ashamed when the person I work most closely with gives me a Macy's gift card.

    3. The other thing is that I have three student workers that I manage, and I just feel like there is strong cultural pressure to get them something. I went with $10 gift certificates, but I'm stressing out about next semester when we might be hiring more.

    4. I've intellectually decided I don't care if people think I'm cheap, but emotionally, it's harder to catch up! I'd also get my team members something if I managed people at a workplace where there was a norm of the boss getting something from the employees (it's certainly better than a cultural norm of the employees getting something for the boss), but it still potentially puts you in an awkward spot. Gift cards are tough because the person can see exactly how much you spend and there's no economy of scale, but I can't think of anything better; I'd much rather receive a $10 gift card than a random trinket of up to $10 in value. Just make sure it's a gift card to a place that is (a) near the workplace and (b) sells things for under $10, like a coffee shop. A friend's boss gave her a $30 gift card to some department store--Saks or Neiman Marcus or something--which was not only hard for her to get to, but would have necessitated her spending a whole lot more in order to actually buy anything! It was basically a waste of $30.


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