It’s December and that means my family is gearing up for Hanukkah and Christmas, plus several birthdays—which means there’s a lot of talk about presents. Every year at this time I think about how we can limit the focus on “stuff” and shift the focus away from “stuff” and toward quality time with family and friends during the month of December.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m the first to admit that I love getting and giving presents. But I also know how gifts can start to overshadow everything else about a holiday experience, which ultimately misses the important (and teachable) point that relationships are more important than “stuff.” So here are some ideas that we have tried to refocus our expectations around holiday gift-giving.
I’ve unsuccessfully tried to put the kibosh on presents entirely, so instead have tried to re-envision what a “gift” might look like. Quality time as a family (or one-on-one) is a great present to give to your child, family, or friends. This might look like a special trip to your favorite coffee shop to drink hot chocolate and eat a cookie. It could be a family game night, or a special outing as a group or with an individual (I recently took my 3.5-year-old on a “date” to see his first play, and we had a blast!). One family re-imagined gift-giving to the adults in their family using a brilliant family presentation idea that combined the concept of family time over the holidays with the gift of time and knowledge.
My extended family often does a Secret Santa each year; while still giving a gift, it allows for more thoughtful gift-giving within a specific budget and/or parameters. If we do give gifts (which let’s be honest, we usually do) I like to make as many as possible. By making gifts, the focus is on the experience of creation and thinking about others vs. shopping and consumerism. Handmade gifts such as cookies, baking mixes, handmade soap or candles, or even framed children’s art make thoughtful gifts to family and friends. Consider details as well—can you make your own unique wrapping paper? Use wrapping paper or fabric wrapping to highlight family traditions or unique talents (dying fabric, sewing, painting, drawing, etc.) to share with others.
Think about the parts of a holiday that are really special to you and consider what exactly makes them special. As a child, I loved my birthday not because of presents, but because I could choose all of our meals for the day and help make them. As a parent, I get excited when I see holiday lights going up in the neighborhood and plan a family walk to look at the different light displays—bonus if we bring hot chocolate and cookies on our walk.
Think about the greater community and small ways you and your child can contribute to others’ happiness. Can you make food for others? What about adopting another family for the holidays? Consider volunteering at a senior center by doing art projects or singing. One of my favorite memories as a child is singing terribly off-key at our local senior center—they didn’t seem to mind! Consider starting new traditions such as making special meals or dishes for different holidays, singing songs, reading specific stories (we always read The Night Before Christmas on Christmas Eve), making wishes and sending them up using wish paper, or going on an overnight trip somewhere special to celebrate. The key here is making the holiday more about shared experiences instead of physical presents.
Over the past several years I have gotten involved in the Buy Nothing Project, which emphasizes a free gift-giving economy. I’ve joined several local neighborhood groups and have really enjoyed giving away items or offering services to my neighbors. Giving freely and without expectation of a trade or even knowing someone has been a great way to model kindness to my children. Using this concept, I encourage my kids to give things to others (toys not being played with, desserts that we make, etc.).
Another way to re-gift items is to give friends or family members things that they might enjoy that you no longer need or use. One of my favorite presents to receive was an adorable jumpsuit my younger sister re-gifted to me from her closet. Finally, consider local homeless shelters or areas of need in your community. Do you have extra warm layers that have been outgrown and are not being used to offer to others? Children understand the concept of helping others at a young age, and instilling a sense of kindness and generosity in your child early is a wonderful gift to them—and those in the community.
It can get easy to fall into the “more equals better” trap when it comes to giving holiday presents—believe me, I know! This year, consider the lasting impact of your gifts and how they will be received throughout the whole year, not just on a specific holiday. Sit down with your family and think through the parts of a holiday that you each love, and build your gift-giving ideas around those elements and see where it takes you.
By Jasmine Gibson, an educational consultant with expertise in early elementary education, supporting teachers, and designing curriculum.