“I’m just not doing the gifting thing this year,” my sister said in one of our daily morning calls late November. I was frantically trying to get some insight on what to buy our impossible-to-gift father this year, and was surprised by my sibling’s calm and unbothered response. “I just told everyone I’ve decided against it and to not bother getting me anything either,” she said cooly. “It’s actually very liberating.” I bet it is. Considering our holiday-obsessed family is one of the faithful yearly contributors to the U.S.’ seasonal spending boom (which totaled a staggering $936.3 billion last year), I was shocked at how easily and guiltlessly she opted out of gifting for the holidays.
Coincidentally, that conversation would be one of many I would have in the following week that hit a similar sentiment. My friend Susanna, a mother of one and grandmother of two said she’d only be focusing on small gifts for the kids this year. A neighbor and fellow dog mom April told me on a recent walk that she hasn’t done holiday shopping in years, and typically keeps her holiday plans fairly low-key and quiet. In an in-depth and more poignant conversation, my close friend Genelle Ligot (who is actually well-known for her thoughtful and consistent gifting year after year) proclaimed she was eschewing the practice as well, in favor of a more meaningful present: time. “I make ends meet. I hustle hard to provide and, during the holidays, I'll hustle more just to provide [gifts] for my friends and my family. But that's not the meaning of the [season]. The meaning of the holidays is to spend time reconnecting. That's why [many of us] have time off.”
Yes, finances are often a leading component to these counter-cultural decisions, but most of the people I’ve spoken to are also simply seeking to enjoy the spirit of season, a spirit that, at its core (no matter what you celebrate), centers on community and gratitude. So often, the stress of finding the “perfect” or “best” gift for someone — even at the expense of your bank account — can quickly drain any joy or merriment you may have felt, and replace it with the opposite emotions. In fact, a recent study by the American Psychological Association revealed a whopping 89% of adults surveyed reported feeling overwhelmed during the holiday season, noting financial concerns as a leading cause.
“Financial pressure can impact sleep, it can cause anxiety, depression, fatigue, moodiness, anger, fear, sadness, and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness,” explains psychotherapist Stacy Keiser. “The pressure that builds knowing you have to fill that gift list, can even cause all any of these feelings before the money has been spent.”
Most of the people I’ve spoken to are also simply seeking to enjoy the spirit of season, a spirit that, at its core (no matter what you celebrate), centers on community and gratitude.
For this reason, Ligot says she’s forgoing treks to the mall and spending hours trolling the internet for a perfect present for her mother and instead proposing “quality time” with those near and dear to her. “I would prefer an experience and a memory that we can share together [over gifts],” she says. “Going to a concert, going to a comedy show, a spa day, doing an activity together, things that can create memories in that way. That for me is a lot more of a gift than opening up something.” And while many might see gifting experiences as a solution for this, Ligot shuts this down as well. “I would prefer to be like, ‘Do you want to go see a show with me? I would love to do this with you.’ And then we each buy our own way. And then we come together.”
This approach may seem mush easier said than done, and counter cultural even considering the endless consumer propaganda we’re hit with as early as October surrounding holiday purchases and, of course, the annual sales that fuel — and even justify — said spending. According to an Adobe Analytics report, Black Friday sales for 2023 hit a record-breaking $9.8 billion, a 7.5% jump from last year. Shifting our mindset around seasonal spending often means shaking the societal traditions that have been in place for decades.
“In the past I would literally charge everything on credit cards and it was terrible,” says Ligot. “It's like, for what? Because it's the holidays? And then I have to play catch-up.” Keiser says abstaining and going against the grain, even for just one year or via smaller baby steps (cutting down your shopping list to just a few core people) could do wonders for your mental health. “It allows extra money to be spent on necessities or even experiences that create memories,” she explains. “It allows for less stress, greater mental health — we therapists get incredibly busy around the holidays due to dysfunctional family members, and expectations and pressures that people worry they cannot meet.”
Honing in on the aforementioned experiences and more memory-making gifts can also bring back a healthier and more wholesome connection to the holidays, not to mention the meaningful relationships in your life. Ligot says she’s been surprised by the lack of pushback she’s received in regards to her anti-gifting holiday plans. “I feel like the people that I've talked to, they're open to it and then it alleviates them to have to shop. [It’s one less person] to give a gift to and to spend money on,” she says. “I'll say, ‘Hey, are you cool with us not gifting each other anything, but rather go to a nice dinner or spend quality time and do an activity instead?’ [And they’ll say] ‘Yes, I would love that.’ I think if it was set up like that, it would be so much easier to [navigate the season]. Because I think a lot of people are coming from the same perspective. So I'm really trying to change it up, just for me, at least, to see how it goes.”
Perhaps more of us should follow suit and see if we can create some real change in regards to holiday culture. Who knows, maybe it’ll actually feel merry and bright?