holiday gifts

Tips for Happier, More Humane Gift-Giving

by Marsha Rakestraw

This time of year the news is full of headlines about online sales, various shopping frenzies (Black Friday, Cyber Monday, etc.), and an even earlier start on holiday buying.

Juxtaposed with the high-energy holiday consumer craze are stories giving us tips for reducing our holiday stress and finding ways to make the season more meaningful.

And stories about people snagging the latest must-have toy or gadget of the year (whose popularity quickly fades and is replaced by another toy/gadget).

And stories about buying the perfect green gifts (that usually cost a lot more green than you’d ever want to spend).

The winter holidays used to be a time of spirituality, family, and reflection, and they’ve become an homage to consumerism, stress, and distraction.

This year when thinking about giving gifts to loved ones, consider these healthier, happier, more humane tips:

  • Don’t give a material gift at all. I know; it seems almost sacrilegious to say it. But, while gift giving for the holidays has been a long-standing tradition, it’s not a mandatory part of celebrating. As Tim Kasser and Kennon Sheldon reported in their 2002 study on the experiences of 117 people at Christmas time, they discovered that “people who emphasized time spent with families and meaningful religious or spiritual activities had merrier Christmases. …In fact, subjects who gave or received presents that represented a substantial percentage of their income … actually experienced less Christmas joy.”I know that giving gifts in my family became such a source of stress and resentment that we all finally decided to stop exchanging gifts — and we’re much happier for it.
  • Consider focusing on other important aspects of the season, such as spending quality time with family. Nurturing relationships is an important gift in itself. You can even give out “One Less Gift” certificates to let people know you’d rather spend time with them than get more stuff. Alternatively, in the season of goodwill toward others, instead of spending your time shopping, spend it helping those who need it; volunteer for local groups in your community. Make it a family (or friends) affair and share the gifts of your time and talents with others. If giving a gift is a must, consider these ideas:
  • Make a donation in their name to a worthy cause, especially one that supports their interests. My husband’s sister used to donate to their local humane society in our name each year, which made us both happy, helped others, and didn’t add to our stack of stuff. You can even band together with friends to make a more significant donation. How can most material gifts compete with that? Be sure to skip supporting the cause by buying the adorable commemorative ornament or calendar or mug, though; such items mean less money going to the actual cause and may support the very practices you’re trying to avoid.
  • Think creatively. Search online, and you’ll find some great creative ideas for gifts, such as fixing a treasured item that’s broken, or taking a class together. Think unique, experiential, personal, and meaningful. Do they love farmers’ markets? How about a split share in a CSA. Do they have a sweet tooth? How about baking them a different decadent delight each month. Have they been meaning to organize all those digital photos from that unforgettable trip? Make them a special annotated scrapbook on a shared photo site.
  • Make sure the gift is something that they truly need, want, and will use. Granted, my husband and I choose to live more simply than some, but it always seemed such a sad waste that many of the gifts we received for several years — though well-meant — were nothing we could use and usually ended up going straight to the thrift store (or in our closet because we felt guilty giving it away). Food can be a good gift choice, if you know people’s preferences. For many years we made pumpkin or banana bread-in-a-jar gifts for friends and co-workers. The gift was yummy and included a reusable jar and the recipe. My husband’s mother always sent us organic fruit from a company here in Oregon. One year we made all our family vegan recipe books of well-tested tasty dishes that they were likely to enjoy … and so they wouldn’t worry about what to feed us when we visited. A few years ago I found a great book by Joni Marie Newman called Vegan Food Gifts; it has a plethora of yummy gift ideas.
  • Make sure the gift fits the MOGO product criteria, i.e., the gift is:
    • humane to other people – that is, produced according to fair labor practices that do not exploit, oppress, and cause suffering to others.
    • humane to animals – that is, its production and use do not cause animals to suffer and/or die, or to be oppressed or exploited.
    • sustainable and/or restorative – that is, its production and disposal can be sustained through available resources, without causing destruction to ecosystems, and may even contribute to ecological repair.
    • personally life enhancing – that is, it brings something positive to their lives and does not become one more burdensome thing to take care of.
  • Make the gift yourself. But again, give them something that they really need or want. DIY is gaining in popularity, with the still-shaky economy and increased awareness of consumerism, but just because you can make something cool MacGyver-style out of toilet paper tubes and used staples doesn’t mean it should be a gift. Think carefully.
  • Rethink used. Used items carry such a stigma for some people. “What?! You don’t care about me enough to get me something new?!” But often, reusing items can make the perfect gift. Your friend has always raved about that doodad you no longer want? Wrap it up and surprise him with it. Know the perfect book to give your mom? You can probably find it in excellent condition at a used book store. One year a group of us had a “white elephant” exchange with a twist. Instead of bringing yucky junk we didn’t want anymore, we each found something truly useful from our homes that we were ready to pass on to someone else. Talk about fighting over good stuff!

On the Story of Stuff discussion board a few years ago, I saw mention of the “five hands” gift giving policy (shared by Christine B.). She said: “We have a ‘Five Hands’ gift giving policy. We can exchange items that are HANDmade (by us), HAND-me-down and secondHAND. We can choose to gift a helping HAND (donations to charities). Lastly and my favorite, we can gift a HAND-in-hand, which is a dedication of time spent with one another. (Think date night or a day at the museum as a family.).”

The Center for a New American Dream has a guide to help simplify the holidays. And they also created the So Kind Registry for alternative gifts. The wishlist registry encourages the “giving of homemade gifts, charitable donations, secondhand goods, experiences, time, day-of-event help” and other ideas.

Check out our Humane Holidays Pinterest board for additional tips and ideas for the winter holidays and beyond.

And to add another layer of humane-ity to your gift-giving, make sure the present and its gift wrap are recyclable, reusable, and/or biodegradable.

Image via CraftFancy/Flickr.