A Low-Impact Guide to Christmas Presents

It’s December already, which means Christmas is just around the corner! My childhood love for Christmas has remained intact into adulthood — I love spending time with family, delicious seasonal food, summer holidays by the beach, and even Christmas carols. I also love the excitement of unwrapping gifts, but I don’t love the needless waste that comes with Christmas gift-giving. (Note that gift vouchers are part of this waste. They may provide a bit more choice to the giftee, but ultimately they’re still enforcing the idea that we have to buy more stuff, and typically come from big chain stores rather than local independent retailers).

It started five years ago when I moved out of home for the first time. I had to pack and move boxes upon boxes of accumulated belongings, much of which had been given to me by other people. I’ve moved to a different flat every year since then, and each time I move I think “oh hell, I have so much stuff!

After the first big move, I sent out an email to my aunts, uncles and grandparents requesting that they don’t give me any Christmas presents. I explained that I just don’t need the extra stuff, and if they felt the need to spend money I’d rather it went to a good cause like Oxfam Unwrapped. I’m glad to say that every Christmas since then I’ve received a variety of charity gift cards from my extended family, and no presents more physical than chocolate (and who can say no to chocolate!)

I like to think my request benefited my family too. By letting them spend less time and energy on shopping, they have more time to spend doing other things.

So here are some ideas for reducing the amount of stuff you give this Christmas:

  1. Charity gifts let your money go to those in need. There are plenty of options available, such as Oxfam Unwrapped, Unicef Survival Gifts, CWS Gifted, Greenpeace Giving, Heifer International, WWF Adopt an Animal, and SPCA Give some TLC. If none of these appeal, you can make a donation to any charity of your choice and create your own card telling the recipient which great cause their gift is supporting.
  2. Give the gift of time. For example, you could offer to help with housework, gardening or babysitting, cook them a meal, take them out for a dinner or coffee date, or buy tickets to see a movie, play, comedy show, concert or other event.
  3. Food can be enjoyed once, then it’s gone and doesn’t sit around cluttering up your home. Bonus points if it’s homemade — my partner’s ginger-bread houses went down a treat last year!
  4. Bath products are consumables like food, but use this option with caution: I’ve always struggled to use up all the body washes and moisturisers that I receive so they end up being clutter anyway. You also have to watch out for the nasty chemicals that many products contain, and be aware that many people have sensitive skin.
  5. Ask them what they really need — this is something my immediate family always does and it works well for us, but it takes away the element of surprise so not everyone will appreciate it.

If you can’t move past the idea of giving a lasting physical object, then consider buying something that will have a positive impact on the world. Think fair trade or locally made; carbon neutral; cruelty free; second hand, recycled or upcycled; organically grown; minimally packaged; reusable and built to last; or home made. Great places to start looking include Trade Aid, ecostore, Huckleberry FarmsRed Cross or Mercy Hospice Shops. Or choose a gift that can provide hours of entertainment and social fun, like a board game or a ukulele for indoorsy types, or a soccer ball or frisbee for sporty types.

On the other hand, you could make a joint decision with your family to not give presents at all, and instead appreciate the time spent with loved ones at Christmas. However, I am hesitant to suggest moving away from gift-giving altogether, and not just because I enjoy unwrapping presents! Giving can have personal and social benefits. At a personal level, the Sovereign Wellbeing Index notes that “giving money away tends to make people happier than spending it on themselves.” And many cultures see gift-giving as an integral part of forming and strengthening social bonds. For example, New Zealand historian and author Michael King wrote in Nga Iwi O Te Motu that in Māori culture “aroha and mana gave status to distribution, not to accumulation.” In other words, you would gain prestige and affection from your community by sharing your wealth instead of hoarding it. Perhaps, then, the best way forward is to reorient our modern gift-giving practices to focus on sharing not shopping.

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