Why it’s time to rethink our gift-giving strategies

gift-giving strategies christmas fi
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I can’t pinpoint the exact Christmas that everything changed. Actually, I don’t think there was exactly one. There was a point, however, beginning several years ago while watching my sons and their cousins open Christmas gifts, that it hit me: This is not what Christmas should be about.

Watching all the kids quickly open their gifts, say the obligatory “thank you,” toss their gift aside and look for the next gift to open stole some of the joy of Christmas morning from me. And from them, I believe, if they had been old enough to realize it.

But both parents and grandparents alike loved seeing the joy on their faces as they ogled over their unopened gifts. Their grandparents took pride in the pile of gifts that lay before them on Christmas morning. They reveled in ensuring nearly every gift on their “Santa List” was purchased and that they were not disappointed.

Then, an hour or so later, all of the gifts except the one or two favorites were already forgotten. And I began to wonder why. Why did we do this? Why did all of us spend so much money on the latest toys and fads that none of our kids needed or often didn’t appreciate for very long? Had we taught our kids to expect us, and their extended family, to cater to their every gift whim? When did we forget the “why” of gift-giving and give in to the commercial “must” of gift giving? And, most importantly, how do we go back?

Ever notice how the more often you experience an event or activity, the happiness associated with the experience is diminished? Or that, no matter how good or bad something may seem, we always, eventually, return to our baseline of emotions? Turns out, there’s a name for this — hedonic adaptation.

Kinda like that first bite of chocolate cake, first gulp of water on a hot day, first time on a roller coaster — no subsequent time equals the satisfaction of the first.

It turns out that research has shown that giving actually provides more satisfaction than receiving. You know the feeling: You’ve found the absolutely perfect gift for someone special and you eagerly anticipate giving the gift and watching the reaction and (hopefully) joy of the recipient. I adore this. So, maybe us givers are complicit in the over-giving of Christmas gifts for our own joy and should not blame it all on the young recipients.

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According to the National Retail Federation, holiday shoppers will spend an average of $1,007 this year, up just slightly from 2018. I have to wonder how much of that money will provide true joy and holiday spirit. And, according to Bankrate, many gift givers feel pressured to spend more money than they are comfortable with. Since when did running up your credit cards become a must for giving happiness and joy to others? And, I wonder, what would actually happen if everyone just stopped. Could they still find joy and fun in Christmas?

After many conversations, my husband and I stopped. We stopped buying gifts simply because they were on a Christmas list. We stopped buying more stuff for the sake of buying stuff. We stopped going along with the commercialization of Christmas and tried to get back to what it all means.

We didn’t stop giving gifts altogether. It truly does bring me a great deal of pleasure to give just the right gift. We did, however, scale way back on the amount of gifts we gave to all family and friends, not just the kids.

There are a few things we’ve tried when it comes to not only cutting back on the amount of gifts given, but also in making gift-giving more meaningful. I’ve always had a problem with kids making lists and adults buying gifts on said list. To me, it’s all very impersonal and robotic. When I think back to all of the very best gifts I’ve ever received, they were the ones I never asked for; the ones the giver somehow connected to me and wanted to make personal. This is what I think gift-giving should be.

We have some favorite gift-giving strategies that we’ve used over the years that I am happy to share. I hope they help rekindle the joy of gift-giving for you.

3 gifts for Christmas

There’s the three-gift strategy — something you want, something you need, (something to wear, if you want four categories) and something to read. While I don’t follow this strategy every year, many years I have enjoyed finding the “perfect” gift in each category, and my kiddos have been pleasantly surprised with their gifts — even the “something you need” and “something to read” ones.

Gift experiences

As my kids have gotten older and the toys have lessened (thank goodness), my very favorite gift-giving approach has been to give “experiences,” not “stuff.” Some examples: dirt bike riding lessons, zip-lining, snowboarding passes, archery lessons, trampoline parks. Included in this category are gift cards to some of their favorite restaurants or ice cream shops, because either we join them and get the bonus of family time, or they share them with friends and create fun memories.

I love knowing we are giving the gift of experiences and memories, not simply more things to be tucked into a closet and forgotten.

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Adopting a family

Since before my sons understood what we were doing and why, we have “adopted” children or even families at Christmas, either through the elementary schools they’ve attended, the schools where I’ve taught, or local charities that ask for help sponsoring needy families. Once my sons were old enough to understand and truly participate, they became involved every step of the way. We explain to them that, since we are fortunate enough to already have everything we need, it’s important that we help others by trying to give them what they may otherwise not have during the holidays, and that this is part of our Christmas budget.

We choose the family together, shop for the children based on their lists — making sure to buy something fun they want, but also some essentials such as jackets and shoes — and provide the necessary ingredients so the family can enjoy a holiday dinner. My kids have truly come to understand how important giving to others is and they thoroughly enjoy this experience.

Giving to charities

None of the adults in our family “need” me to buy them anything. Thankfully, they all have more than enough. Each year, my sisters and I struggle to think of the perfect gift for my parents. How many golf balls and pairs of yoga pants does a person need?

For many years, we gave them “experiences” — dinners, movie passes, tickets to a play. However, I also began giving donations in their names to causes I know they believe in. I’ve given to organizations that support women, children, veterans and more because of what is meaningful to them. They always appreciate the gesture and we hope we’ve made a small difference.

Make something

One year, I made every family member personalized drink coasters. Another year, it was having the various cousins do an art project to then give to their parents. These are the times when I, the giver, experience more joy giving than I believe the receivers do in receiving.

I also give baked goodies to our neighbors. Just a small gesture for people we truly value and appreciate.


Think “presence,” not “presents.” Give the gift of your time. Take a family member to lunch. Ask an elderly neighbor to coffee. Take your niece to the movies. Take your kids on a hike.

Giving should be meaningful, not obligatory. It should be enjoyable, not stressful. Rethink the “why” of your gift-giving and you may just discover newfound joy in the process.

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