I love the holidays. Like, really love the holidays. I start listening to Christmas music in November. I bust out our holiday decorations before Thanksgiving. And some years, certain decorations might never get put away. (Okay, so that last one might be more out of laziness than anything else).
But there’s one thing I don’t love about the holidays – the gifts.
Okay, so before you label me a Scrooge, let me clarify. I actually love the gifts – both giving and receiving. What I don’t love is the excessive gifts. Much like Big Pharma, I don’t love Big Christmas. I’m more of an organic, hippie, minimalist Christmas kind of gal.
So this year, there won’t be a lot of presents under the tree.
Truth be told, this is trend we’ve been moving toward over the past few years, after a few post-holiday come to Jesus moments when there were so many presents under the tree that it almost looked like a viral image on social media.
OK, that’s an exaggeration, but not much.
My family did Christmas big. And it wasn’t just my immediate family either. There were presents from grandparents and aunts and uncles and second cousins. In fact, when my kids were younger, there were several years when we couldn’t even get home all the loot in one trip. Our van was nearly bursting with clothes and toys and knick-knacks that wouldn’t fit in our house. It literally took weeks to get it all put away.
All of it created a pre-holiday anxiety, followed by a post-holiday buzzkill. Because nothing puts a damper on the holiday glow like clutter-induced anxiety, stress over the mounting credit card bills, and the heavy guilt of excessive consumerism.
I’m a minimalist at heart (or minimalist-ish anyway). Clutter and excess stuff gives me serious anxiety. Just looking at that photo above makes my chest feel tight. Extra “stuff” makes me feel anxious, ragey, and the opposite of joyful.
Over the years, we’ve tried several tactics to re-size our big holiday frenzy into something that felt more manageable and comfortable to us. Some stuck, others didn’t. For instance, a “not-so-secret Santa” gift exchange among my siblings and all of our kids that consists of a small gift and a donation to a cause the recipient cares about works really well.
On the other hand, attempts to do away with gifts entirely have never really caught on, as I expected they wouldn’t. After all loved ones want to give things to each other. Grandparents get pleasure out of watching their grandkids open gifts, and people see gift-giving (of whatever size) as a way of saying “I see you, and I’m thinking of you.” Heck, even I can’t bring myself to forego gifts for aunts and uncles and cousins. Sure, part of it is a sense of obligation, but mostly, it’s because giving someone a small token of affection feels good – to both giver and receiver.
So nixing gifts entirely isn’t the answer, or it wasn’t for our family anyway.
But there is a way to do away with Big Christmas in favor of a Holiday Lite. Sure, it might mean fewer gifts in general, but even more than that it means less things and more experiences.
Not only am I a huge fan of giving experiences – like a museum membership, a weekend away at a local water park hotel, a cooking class – because they cut down on the post-holiday clutter, but science touts the benefits as well. In fact, giving experiences instead of things is actually better for our kids (and us).
Studies show that experiences, rather than “stuff,” enhance gratitude. According to researchers at Cornell University, “we feel more gratitude for what we’ve done than for what we have – and that kind of gratitude results in more generous behavior toward others.”
The Cornell researchers found that, even though folks feel happy about material goods, they feel more grateful for experiences. And isn’t gratitude – rather than fleeting happiness — what we want to instill in our kids and ourselves? (Answer: yes. And if it isn’t, it should be.)
Giving experiences rather than toys or gadgets can actually boost kids’ intelligence too. According to Motherly, an Oxford University study found that academic success of young children was more dependent on their home environment and interactions with parents, rather than toys or electronic devices. So even though we might justify putting that fancy new electronic toy under the tree, our kids will actually get more out of simply spending time with us.
Too many toys, gadgets, and other trinkets can also leave us feeling overwhelmed and less happy, which is the opposite of what we’re going for when we give gifts. Case in point: that overwhelmed and not-so-jolly feeling that I had when I needed to find space for a literal carload of stuff after the holidays. Experts also say that giving experiences can also make a recipient happier because the activities are often social and more personal.
“Experiences are great and lead to happiness because they tend to be more unique and less comparable than material goods,” Joseph Goodman, an associate professor at Washington University who studies gifting practices, told Fast Company. “But what that also means is because they’re more unique and less comparable, I need to know a lot about you to find an experience you’ll really enjoy.”
Plus there’s the added bonus that you’re doing something good for the environment — or at least you aren’t damaging it more — by foregoing another plastic toy. Win-win.
So this year we’re continuing our trend of experiences rather than things, and extended family seems to be getting on board too. Instead of bunch of fancy electronics and toys, there will be camp registrations, a planned family getaway, and tickets to a sporting event. We’ll give donations in each other’s name, thinking about what causes they care about. We’ll make plans to do things together – and actually do it.
So yes, they’ll be fewer packages than ever under the tree come Christmas morning, but there will be bigger gifts.