tackling tough conversations about gifts with the people who love you most.
A not-small concern of many folks reading this newsletter is broaching the topic of gift giving with family members and loved ones who might care deeply for your children, and less so for your gift giving philosophy. For families hoping to deemphasize consumerism, to value quality over quantity, and to eschew some of the more excessive tendencies of the holiday season, conversations about gifts can be fraught. Attempts to explain a wish for a simple, sustainable gift-giving practice can come across as snobbish and controlling. Who calls this a gift-giving practice, anyway? You might have what you think are frank and straightforward conversations and still wind up feeling unheard or misunderstood. These conversations can breed resentment or confusion, and often, both! JOY TO THE WORLD! The fact of the matter is that it’s not always comfortable to choose a path that diverges from the mainstream. Almost always it requires shaking off old expectations, forging new traditions and guiding the people who love you along the way. It requires being a little bit weird.
If you feel strongly about trying a different approach to gift giving, I think the best time for gift guiding is before the holidays, not after. It’s been nearly a decade since I celebrated my first holiday as a parent. In case it’s helpful, here’s my best current advice for anyone who might find themselves wading into the wilds of gift giving conversations over the weekend:
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1. Embrace the counter-cultural nature of your requests. I think my number one suggestion is to lean into the strangeness of your stance. Asking for less in a culture that values more is out of the ordinary. Breaking from the mold that would have holiday celebrations look like the stuff of television commercials and Hallmark Christmas movies goes against nearly every cultural trope we’re bombarded with during the holiday season. Suggesting that kids might not need piles of toys under a tree runs counter to what toy manufacturers, storytellers, and songwriters have been telling us for more than a century. Who are you, anyway? Scrooge?
How counter-cultural you are and what culture you’re running counter to, will differ from family to family. Maybe for your family what’s wacky and unusual is grandparents giving only one gift. Maybe it’s grandparents supporting an extra-curricular activity instead of giving a physical present. Maybe it’s a trip to the zoo or a membership to a museum. Maybe it’s a holiday with zero gifts of any kind. The specifics are less important than the invitation to participate in something different. So:
2. Own this as your personal project. Invite the people you love—grandparents and siblings and your nearest and dearest—to join you. Invite folks in by piquing curiosity rather than offering instruction and rules. No one wants to feel like they’re being told what to do—or, worse, to feel like what they have been doing is wrong—but being invited to participate in something new or novel or otherwise meaningful can feel good. Maybe even exciting? Questions for grandparents et al could be:
Want to try something new this year with presents?
Want to help us make this happen?
I know this is weird, but we really want to try something where Christmas looks like X,Y,Z.
Do you think you can help us try to do this wacky and unusual thing? YOLO, it’s gonna be so fun!
Are you confused? We have some ideas if you want to give it a try.
Mostly, remember that the only person whose gift giving you can control is you. And in general, for your own self-protection as well as for others, I think it’s wise to limit your gift-giving conversations somewhat. Sharing your philosophy with the neighbor who likes to offer your children a gift at every whiff of a new season is not likely to go very far. Having a longer conversation with your own parents who are open to your perspective, is probably more worth the effort.
3. Present your particular hopes as part of a larger philosophy. I know it sounds grandiose and maybe it is, but I think the more specific we can be about the whys (as opposed to the whats), the more helpful the conversation about consumerism can be. It can be helpful to figure out for yourself why you want your holiday gift giving to look a certain way in the first place. Is it a question of cost or resources or time or space? Maybe it’s all of those things. Being able to name the various reasons for myself, and then offer them as explanation to the people I love, has helped me broach these conversations far more effectively than merely giving examples of the kinds of gifts I’d like for my kids to receive. That said,
4. When asked, tell. Sometimes specifics are very helpful indeed, especially when it comes to kids. If there’s something you need or something you love, get as specific as you’d like and then remember,
5. No matter what, results will be mixed. Even after having direct conversations with the people you love, something is bound to get lost in translation. In the same year that you thoughtfully source and restore an antique dollhouse for your child, they might well receive an unexpected dollhouse replete with an elevator and a hot pink slide. This will likely be extremely annoying! You might be lovingly wrapping up a baby sweater that took you the better part of a year to knit by hand at the same moment that an auntie is wrapping a bundle of three sweaters purchased during a Black Friday sale. This might make you want to cry! But it’s important to remember that all of these gifts are coming from a place of love. Because,
6. People are mostly not trying to be jerks. More often than not, it’s real restrictions of time and resources and skill, and not a desire to undermine your wishes that accounts for the difference in gift giving styles. (Also: different people just like different kinds of things!) I don’t think people approach the holidays with an intent to be reckless and wasteful. Our neighbor, who with the delivery of one large black garbage bag, gave my children more gifts than I had amassed in a whole season of careful shopping, was not trying to give me a HEART ATTACK or OVERRUN my apartment with toys two days before Christmas, or MOCK my attempts at sustainability. He was trying to make my kids—and probably himself—happy.
7. What you do with the gifts you receive is up to you. From that enormous black garbage bag, I had my kids choose one board game to share and the rest we stashed behind a folding screen in our building’s hallway to save for a toy drive this Christmas. I’ve said this before: I don’t believe that gifts should be burdens but ultimately the only the person who can decide that is the recipient, not the giver. I don’t think people should be forced to keep things in their homes out of a sense of obligation, which includes things like large plastic garbage bags of kids’ toys just as much as small parcels of handmade candles. If you enjoy it, if you can use it, if it brings you a moment or a lifetime of joy, then terrific. If you don’t, if it doesn’t, let it go.
8. Lead by example. If homemade or secondhand gifts are important for you, then offer them. If gifts of experience bring you joy, extend that joy to someone else. If gifts that can be easily used up—eaten or burned or slathered lavishly on winter-dry skin—are what you love to receive, well, give unto others.
9. Not everyone will appreciate your approach. The novel with creased pages and a coffee splatter that you tie up with a bow and offer to a third person in a line of readers might well be met with confusion. Your homemade elderberry syrup might be received with suspicion or disdain. The wonky homemade candle might not live up to the box-set of tapers that someone has been admiring. On the other side of things, schooling ornery in-laws about the plastic lobby and phthalates as they hover their mouse over the play kitchen on Black Friday, might not be in your best interest. Sometimes, the path of least resistance and the most loving thing we can do is to meet each other where we are. Get the mythical mother-in-law the Elizabeth Arden Gift Set that she’s been hinting about and save the homemade elderberry syrup for your crunchy sister.
10. To give a gift is to attempt to make tangible our love. It’s totally PREPOSTEROUS! It’s a nearly impossible task and it exists within the complexity of culture and value and economics to say nothing of personal, peculiar, particular, sometimes-quite-unknowable preferences!!! For those of you attempting, against considerable obstacle, to give a gift this season, or to receive one with grace, I’m wishing you the very best luck.
PS. The photos for this letter were originally part of a Reading My Tea Leaves post about sustainable gift wrap, which has lots of evergreen ideas, if I do say so myself.
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