The Joy of No-Gift Christmas
Many families who opt out of buying stuff are coming up with creative alternatives and new traditions.
This year, Heather Hund and her family will gather in West Texas on December 25 and solidify a new Christmas tradition, in which each relative is randomly assigned to give a gift to another family member and to a house pet. “The rules are basically a regift for the human and then $10 for the pet,” Hund told me. “And my 18-month-old son got put in [the latter] category too, so it’s small humans and small animals.”
Hund and her family downscaled their gift-giving six years ago after considering how much work Christmas shopping was. “I just remember coming home and being super stressed and last-minute trying to run out to the mall or looking online and seeing what I could get shipped in like three days,” said Hund, who’s 35 and works in tech in San Francisco.
Now, with the extra time she and her family have, they paint pottery together, cook, go on runs, and play cards. Plus, they get meaningful presents through the regifting agreement, such as the Led Zeppelin record Hund received from her dad, purchased when he was in high school. The new gifting protocol has been a joy. “The first year I thought I would be sad about it,” she said, “and I really wasn’t.”
Hund is one of the many holiday celebrants who have been questioning and revising their long-held gift-giving traditions—or, in some cases, scrapping them altogether. No single cause unites these opt-outers, but a few motivations regularly pop up: They want to resist consumerism, restore the religious focus of the holidays, and/or avoid harming the environment. Above all, they want to spend less money on things and more time with one another.
According to a recent survey from the personal-finance website Bankrate, almost half of Americans feel pressured to spend more than they’d like to on holiday gifts, with parents especially likely to feel put upon. When presented with a slew of options that might lessen their financial stress, respondents were most willing to entertain the idea of giving gifts only to their immediate family or of seeking out coupons and sales—64 percent and 57 percent, respectively, said those courses of action would be acceptable. Those surveyed rated other alternatives—giving homemade gifts, regifting, or buying things secondhand—as much less enticing. At the very bottom of the list was skipping gifts entirely, which received a tepid 13 percent approval rating.
Still, some people are trying it out. Raagini Appadurai, a 26-year-old educator and social-justice advocate living in Toronto, told me that her family—her two sisters, her parents, and herself—made a no-gifts pact this year. “When we remove material purchasing and consumption from the table, we are forced to question what we are bringing to [the holiday] instead—individually and collectively,” she said. “After our family reflection on this, the answer has been clear: Ourselves, we bring more of ourselves.” She told me that her family’s Christmas-morning plan is to gather around the tree as in years past, whether there are presents underneath it or not.
Some people also consider gift-giving a distraction from the religious significance of the holidays. Tricia and Alex Koroknay-Palicz live in Hyattsville, Maryland, with their 20-month-old daughter. They are Catholic, don’t exchange gifts with one another for Christmas, and give only small presents to their parents. “Advent is supposed to be this quiet, somber, reflective period during which you’re preparing to celebrate the incredible thing that was God sending his son to Earth,” Tricia says. “That goes very poorly with a focus on buying things and merrymaking.”
As families have reconsidered their gift-giving practices, some of them have gotten creative about what to do instead. In 2015, the Orzechowskis, a family living in Washington, D.C., started taking an annual trip together, with their relatives funding different aspects of the vacation (such as admission to a museum in the city they’re visiting) instead of buying physical gifts. And Jennifer Knepper, a 39-year-old nurse, started an “alternative-gift fair” in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where she lives. The fair, which has been running for more than 10 years, offers fair-trade foodstuffs and the chance to make gift donations to charities, among other things.
Of course, giving fewer or less-expensive gifts is often not a choice, but a necessity—in the Bankrate survey, people earning less than $30,000 a year were more likely than those in any other income bracket to say that they don’t give holiday gifts. Many of the people I talked with for this article mentioned that they were fortunate to have such a choice, and explained that they amended their celebrations in response to personal reservations or discomfort they had about their gift-giving tradition, not on the recommendation of some celebrity or lifestyle guru.
In particular, many said they were rethinking their gifting in response to the pressures of consumerism around the holidays. David Tucker, a 33-year-old engineer at a software company who lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, told me that he and his wife stopped giving gifts three years ago. “It was a mixture of a lot of things,” he said, “but we both started to share a disdain for the holidays” and the marketing involved, especially after a couple financially tight years. They found themselves surrounded by stuff, and not needing any more of it.
So they started donating their annual gift budget to charity, which means that their holiday shopping now takes just a few minutes. Tucker said that this mentality has shaped his habits during the rest of the year—he and his wife now volunteer more at their local food bank. “Why should it stop there?,” he remembered thinking about his holiday donations.
A few advocacy groups encourage people to reevaluate their gift-giving in the way that Tucker and his wife have. One is Buy Nothing Christmas, a movement started by Canadian Mennonites that proudly has “no membership, no fees, no plaques, no club cards.” Its goal, as stated on its website, is to “to de-commercialize Christmas and re-design a Christian lifestyle that is richer in meaning, smaller in impact upon the earth, and greater in giving to people less-privileged.”
Another organization is New Dream, a nonprofit devoted to rethinking consumption. New Dream has been running a “Simplify the Holidays” campaign for 13 years, and five years ago launched SoKind, an online gift registry that allows people to share with their loved ones their desire for not just things, but nonmaterial gifts such as music lessons, home-cooked meals, and donations to charity. The platform is meant for any occasion (including weddings and graduations) and features almost 13,000 wish lists.
Other people have the environment in mind when thinking about what to give. Keya Chatterjee, a D.C. resident who runs a climate-focused nonprofit, and her husband only give gifts if they have been used, are made from recycled materials, or will reduce the recipient’s environmental footprint. “On the emissions-reduction side, many people have appreciated (and some have appreciated less) that I generally give people soft lighting LED light bulbs and with a note to ‘have a bright year,’” she wrote in an email. Other gifts she likes to give are solar phone chargers, library books (with a holiday note and the due date), and hot-water bottles (for warming just one’s bed instead of heating the whole house). “Needless to say, not everyone wants our gifts,” she said.
Chatterjee added that her family “heavily discourage[s] gifts to us,” though notes that it took about a decade for everyone to follow this request. Others I talked with encountered similar resistance from their relatives when expressing their gifting preferences, but for the most part, people came around and were even grateful.
Another contingent that’s thinking deeply about holiday spending is adherents of the FIRE (financial independence, retire early) movement, which consists of cutting spending to spartan levels to stop working well before one’s 60s. Comment threads on Reddit and the personal-finance blog Mr. Money Mustache document some savers’ attempts to reconcile their commitment to their financial plan with their desire not to be grinchy.
All of the people I talked with for this article seemed committed to their new traditions, though some parents and parents-to-be of young children were aware that their kids might not be so keen on the concept. Heather Hund said she does “really want to stick to it” as her toddler grows up, and David Tucker acknowledged that if he and his wife have children, it’d be a “huge challenge” to keep up their no-gift policy.
This year, Tricia and Alex Koroknay-Palicz will be giving their daughter some used coloring books passed down from a neighbor and perhaps a small stocking stuffer. At the age of 20 months, she hasn’t been briefed on her parents’ gifting philosophy. Later, “if she complains about other people getting lots of stuff,” Tricia says, “I think we’ll tell her, ‘Tough noodles.’”