How 6 Families Went Gift-Free for Christmas

Some families celebrate the holidays, but do so without exchanging gifts. Could you have gift-free holidays? Families tell how and why they do it.

This post comes from Gerri Detweiler at partner site

What are the holidays without the search for the perfect gift, the hunt for the rock-bottom best deal on the newest electronic gadget, piles of presents under the tree, or the Secret Santa gift exchange at work?

Apparently it’s more Whoville — and less Grinch — than you might think. Here are six families who have given up the holiday shopping routine for what they say is a more relaxed and — dare I say richer? — experience.

Dan Nainan, New York City

Going green and saving money are just two reasons that Dan Nainan proposed to his family that they stop gift giving altogether. There was also the challenge of finding the right gift. “Let’s face it, a male of my age is going to have a difficult time figuring out what my sister would like, or what my parents would like. How would I have any clue?” he asks.

He explains why he took the initiative to bring up the idea of a gift-free holiday season with his family: “It occurred to me that we were all spending and wasting an inordinate amount of time (and money) fighting the crowds, then spending even more time and money getting the gifts wrapped, and then even further time and money returning the gifts.”

His family embraced the change. For the past several years, instead of giving gifts to each other, they donate the money they would have spent on each other to a needy family. “For us, it’s much more important to spend time with our loved ones. That is truly the best gift of all,” he says. That and not “seeing people trampled to death on Black Friday, or fighting over parking spaces.”

Carol Meerschaert, Paoli, Pa.

You definitely won’t find Carol Meerschaert frantically trying to thaw a turkey or wrap last-minute presents this holiday season. For one thing, she is a vegan. For another, she’s likely to celebrate the holiday with a hike, followed by a potluck where everyone “eats what they like,” she says. The meal will be followed by games, a movie or both. Gifts will not be exchanged.

“The point of the holidays should be to cherish your family and friends,” she explains. “Spend time together, create memories. For many it has become a gimme, gimme. Or worse, a stress-filled time of year with lists, crowds and bills. We opted out.”

When asked whether there was any backlash when her family decided to go gift-free, she says there was none at all. “The opposite,” she said. Everyone was relieved not to have to figure out what to buy, and then to shop for it.

Julia Robinson Shimizu, Los Angeles

It wasn’t smooth sailing for Julia Robinson Shimizu’s family after her mother, now 90, proposed they stop exchanging gifts, which she felt were a waste of money. “There were some bad feelings when some family members refused to cooperate and gave gifts anyway, making others uncomfortable, even angry,” she says. But exchanging presents is no longer a part of their tradition, and everyone seems to be at peace with it. “The idea of spending time together, even shopping together, at other times of the year, has much more meaning to us,” she says.

Unlike Nainan’s and Meerschaert’s families, there are children in Shimizu’s extended family, and they still get gifts, she says. “I don’t have small children and am only a great-aunt to those who do, (so) I can’t speak to this. I do have fond memories of the excitement of the holidays and I suppose limited gift giving to kids is acceptable, but (you) want to be careful to avoid going over the top. I think I am a lonely voice on this one, though,” she adds.

Jackie Kaufman, Redington Shores, Fla.

About 10 years ago Jackie Kaufman’s family opted out of all gift giving — not just for the holidays but for birthdays, anniversaries and “anything that requires a gift.” Even more surprising: Her kids are now age 22 and 25, which means they were still kids when this change took place.

“Our family was in the retail gift business for many years, including owning stores and kiosks in major malls in Florida,” she explains. “Year after year we saw firsthand how the business of buying gifts and the stress level took its toll on people. How any gift was better than not buying one at all. It was crazy, and in my mind I said, ‘This is not what any of the holidays should be about. It should not be the gift, but the recognition of that other person in your life.'”

Now, she says, a family dinner or a phone call to wish a happy birthday is enough. “Our life around any of the holidays is now stress-free knowing gifts are not on the agenda.”

Kristy Jahn-Smith, Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada

Christmas dinner last year was pizza and beer for Kristy Jahn-Smith’s family. There were no gifts. But they didn’t feel cheated at all; they were celebrating on a vacation to Mexico. It was such a success that her family — husband and kids plus Grandpa, an aunt and an uncle — are all headed back again this year.

“Christmas Day was spent swimming and drinking beers on the beach. It’s just so low-key and very relaxing. Lately when I am in Costco and see the rows of plastic crap stacked halfway to the ceiling, I breathe a sigh of relief and smile, because I don’t have to think about any Christmas shopping. I know Grandpa is a big fan of spending Christmas this way, too. Ultimately we all spend more time together away from the distractions at home.”

Perhaps the best part? There’s no pressure on Mom to create a perfect holiday. “Instead of sweating over a turkey or cleaning house for a houseful of guests, I get to enjoy daily housekeeping service and a stack of good books, read poolside,” she says.

Max Wong, Los Angeles

It’s been more than a decade since Max Wong’s “really, really large extended Asian family,” as she describes them, decided to shop giving Christmas presents to everyone in the family, including the kids.

“Hoarding and OCD behavior runs in the family,” she explained in an interview about her radical approach to Christmas on my radio show, Talk Credit Radio. “It was sort of a pre-intervention step, because a lot of us looked around our houses and said, ‘We don’t want to be that little old lady that has to be dug out from under her pile of National Geographics.’”

Her cousin came up with the idea, and while everyone liked it, they immediately started “cheating in the stupidest possible ways,” says Wong. For example, she bought her niece the entire Lemony Snicket book series, which she found in pristine condition at a garage sale for only $7. Her niece’s mom immediately called her out on it. “I’m a librarian,” she told her. “I can get her any book you want her to read.”

When I asked her how the children in the family reacted, she said that’s the first question she always gets when people hear they do this: “What about the children? Like they are living some kind of Dickensian horrible life.”

The loophole is they still give birthday and graduation gifts, but for Christmas they try to give experiences instead: baking cookies, going caroling, or staying up all night and spending the day in PJs. “We thought we were going to get a lot of complaints, and we got none. They quickly figured out this (the relaxed rules) was a better deal.”

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Stacy Johnson

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  • Don1357

    Thanks for sharing these experiences. They go together to make a joyous season richer in so many ways and should expand the true reason for the season.

    It’s been decades now with grandchildren and great grandchildren being added during the interim, so I’ve seen it go through cycles. At first, I started the tradition by asking that nobody give me gifts. “Just enjoy Christmas and each other,” I requested. It didn’t mean much to anyone for at least 10 years until I made it more formal.

    Then, I read an article that gave me more direction, and I wrote or spoke to the families, “What I want is for each of you (we have 5 daughters) to do whatever you want for Christmas–give what you want to or not, take trips instead of celebrate in the old way (how I was brought up with tree and gifts, ceremonies and joy and crying meshed over several days of great expenses and trying to figure how to pay all the bills later (skip ahead to next paragraph if you wish). As a child, I had one major advantage from the beginning, though, when I asked, “Is there really a Santa Clause” my parents responded, “No, but don’t tell your friends because it might be part of their tradition and they won’t believe or forgive you” So a major part of the myth I feel perpetuates much of our current wrong headed Christmases was burst for me and I got a deeper meaning of the “spirit of Christmas” at a pretty young age.

    So what did I do? I asked each daughter (and her family as she grew up), to give me just one thing to be opened at the end of Christmas Day. Basically, I told her, “Please write a special thing you have done for somebody else who really needed it, put the letter into an envelope and tuck it into the branches of the Christmas tree or stocking or put in on breakfast table for later.” At the end of all of the festivities, I would open the envelopes for my Christmas–my giving through them in a variety of ways. Initially (and for several years), we would all sit around together and each family would read their envelope. The logistics of this and feelings that some competitiveness was slipping into the event caused us to let this “finale” slip away. I was sorry to see it go, but nobody else seemed to mind. This tradition continued for many years, and I feel that the focus instilled a “giving mentality” that took over this simple gesture and began a lifetime activity unlimited by a holiday season within each family. So, the giving grew as the years passed.

    The tradition stopped being a Christmas Day thing. They and their kids loved the spirit of truly giving to others who need it in all sorts of meaningful ways and recounting the experience. And though Christmas Day is no longer the event it used to be at my house), I still hear of what has been shared with others throughout the year, and it is truly amazing, and most gratifying to me, the girls and their families and, hopefully, all upon whom their sharing rests throughout the year are blessed and benefitted in many ways and this tradition has been “paid forward” for all time to come.

    I hasten to add that I tried not to put a wet blanket on the Christmas season. I never told loved ones they should stop celebrating Christmas in the way most meaningful to them. I just set an example, and each family and extended family has incorporated my request in its own special way. It seems to have made Christmas (and for many the entire year) richer and more meaningful for each family.

    Of course, I feel that instilling this sense of Christmas would be a wonderful thing for the world. We shall see how a single pebble thrown into the pond can send ripples out in all directions–perhaps even to mankind itself.

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