For the majority of those who celebrate it, Christmas might evoke piles of presents neatly wrapped under a tree, the last-minute rush through shopping centres playing Mariah Carey on repeat, and the anticipation of unwrapping mysterious – or conspicuously book-shaped and sock-shaped – objects.
Gift-giving at this time of year has its roots in ancient pagan and Roman traditions, later becoming associated with the nativity story of the Three Magi, as well as the historical figures of Saint Nicholas and Good King Wenceslas. As a reaction against the ubiquity of regifting, or returning unwanted items to the store, many of us take pride in our decisions to come up with alternatives to conventional Christmas shopping, such as giving home-made presents or sponsoring charitable projects for a humanitarian-minded friend (covered in our current December/January issue). Others decide to focus on highly meaningful items, eschewing plastic joke gifts and novelties that are stored away after a day and eventually discarded (hey, that’s also covered!).
But for some, like Tom M, a keen environmentalist from South Wales, this Christmas will involve giving up presents altogether – going gift-free, in other words. “My family have agreed that we’re all adults,” he told Buzz. “There’s very little point in exchanging gifts when really there’s nothing that we want that we don’t already have – at least not anything cheap enough for someone else to buy for us.”
For Jeff C, an American musician living in Cardiff, finances also play a role: “I just don’t have that much money, though once when I went back home for Christmas to see family I splurged, because I hadn’t seen most of them in a good while and hadn’t been with family in years for Christmas.”
For many, however, this splurge takes place every year: according to the Bank of England, the average UK household spends an extra £740 every December. It’s not just the money-saving advantages, though, that cause people to go without presents. For Christians, it can allow them to focus on what they see as meaningful at Christmas – the sombre reflection on a world in symbolic darkness, and a reverence for Christ’s humble beginnings. For non-Christians or those for whom piety is less of a focus in their lives, the absence of presents can relieve a pressure that allows them to focus on enjoying the simple pleasures that they have and others don’t: time off work, a warm home, and the presence of family.
This abstinence from present-giving owes something to the current minimalist movement. Associated with Marie Kondo and her ruthless TV shows, in which she encourages people to discard unnecessary items from their house unless they “spark joy”, the minimalism trend has expanded into a wider movement to rid ourselves of clutter in our homes and lifestyles. There’s even talk of ‘relationship minimalism’, in which the same approach is applied not to objects, but to romantic partners and friends.
The decision to reject the tradition of gift-giving, then, is embraced by some minimalists as part of this effort to prevent unwanted presents from taking up space in their lives – and even, for a few among them, to free their lives of any time and stress taken up by the pressure to find the perfect gifts.
The decision to have a gift-free Christmas is not without criticism. Deciding not to participate in a cultural tradition can be seen as anti-social, especially by those for whom gift-giving is an important part of their love language. Family, friends and co-workers may feel personally insulted that they can’t celebrate a holiday in the way to which they’re accustomed, while some see the decision as a marker of privilege by those who can afford to go without gifts.
For Jeff, though, the generosity of giving gifts is something to be enjoyed year-round, free from the pressures of Christmas shopping. “If I see something that makes me think of so-and-so and is a one-of-a-kind thing, I don’t care what time of year it is – I’ll get it for them. I enjoy giving gifts infinitely better this way because it’s a true surprise and feels more organic and sincere.”
words IZZY GRACE THOMAS
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