A Christmas Gift-Giving Guide for Minimalists…and their loved ones

A Christmas Gift-Giving Guide for Minimalists…and their loved ones

Christmas always seems like the hardest time of year to explain to people that you have enough stuff, and you really don’t need any more. Family, friends, colleagues…for most of the year they seem to accept (or put up with, at least) our plastic-refusing, stuff-avoiding, minimalist and zero waste ways, but somehow, when it gets to Christmas time, the message seems to get lost.

“But it’s Christmas! How about I buy you some eco-friendly stuff? Some reusable bags? A book about decluttering?” We don’t really want or need any of this stuff, but it can be hard to say no, or to explain how whilst you may have loved gifts as a five-year-old, times have changed and so have you.

Of course, we don’t help ourselves either. In turn, we try to push our own agendas onto our loved ones. We buy them cards from charities letting them know that rather than a present, we’ve donated money on their behalf to a village in Africa. We give them the eco-friendly gifts we like to use, like reusable bags, in the hope they will embrace our zero-waste ways. Or we give them nothing, thinking they will understand because they know that we don’t value presents ourselves.

Except often, they don’t.

We end up with a bunch of stuff we don’t need and don’t want, our loved ones end up with something they don’t want or appreciate (or worse, nothing when they did expect something) – and everybody feels misunderstood and unappreciated.

The truth is, gift-giving is complex, because giving gifts mean different things to different people. It took me a while to understand this. I was constantly puzzled why I would receive gifts despite asking for no gift at all, and that my close relatives would be offended because I hadn’t bought them a gift.

I thought that acting in the way I wanted to be treated would help them understand, but really it only brought resentment. Likewise, I couldn’t understand why my requests were falling on deaf ears, and I was left feeling guilty, with all this stuff I didn’t need and didn’t want, most of which ended up being donated.

It was a book I read that made me change the way I thought about gift-giving. It suggested we connect emotionally with others in different ways, and we feel appreciated in different ways… and one of those ways is through gifts.

Most people appreciate gifts, sure, but the idea that gifts could be someone’s main emotional “love language” – that it was the main way they felt appreciated and understood – was actually somewhat of a surprise to me. I assumed it was something we could all just “do without”. As someone whose major love language is “quality time”, I enjoy the festive season for the chance to spend extended periods of time with family and friends, eat good food and have long conversations.

For me, presents don’t need to be a part of that; I’d assumed it was the same for everyone else. I didn’t realise that for some people, presents are genuinely a big part of Christmas.

Once I’d understood this, I began to realise why I was receiving gifts I didn’t need or want. If receiving presents is the main way a person feels loved and appreciated, then it makes sense that they would want to give gifts in return. To them, it’s more than a bunch of stuff; it’s an emotional currency.

I thought everyone liked sitting around after Christmas dinner chatting and setting the world to rights, because quality time is my emotional currency, but I’ve learned that others (my husband’s family, for example) don’t get the same pleasure out of this at all! It’s easy to assume that what works for us works for others, but it doesn’t always.

With this in mind, I’ve relented on my hard-line “no gifts for anyone” policy. Remember, gift-giving doesn’t have to mean “stuff”. Being respectful of others’ needs doesn’t mean you need to buy a bunch of things.

Gifts can be experiences: meals out in restaurants, tickets to shows or concerts, a day out at a museum, time spent together as a group. They can be homemade (I prefer to stick to edible gifts with this; not everyone will appreciate a tie-died hankie), or homegrown (vegetables and fruit, cut flowers and seedlings all apply). They can be in the form of favours and sharing of skills (an evening of babysitting, an afternoon gardening, walking the dog).

I try to keep bought gifts to an absolute minimum, but if I decide that a physical gift is more appropriate, I opt for second-hand: charity shops and also vintage and antique shops, or online auction and classified ad sites.

This doesn’t mean I’ve got it completely right…it’s been a process of learning and understanding over the last few years. After all, for many years I gave and received gifts willingly. This is still new territory for us and our families.

It has been somewhat of an adjustment for friends and family to learn to accept that when we say no gifts, we really mean it, and for me to understand that just because I don’t want anything, applying this rule to everyone else may result in offense being taken (learned the hard way).

Initially, I suspect that our families thought this way of living was a phase that wouldn’t last. We probably thought that we could bring them round to our way of thinking. Now we’re all learning to find a happy medium. Slowly they’ve become more sympathetic to our different values and needs. Whilst they may not agree, they have begun to accept. Likewise, so have we.

Now I’d love to hear from you! How have you dealt with conflicting ideals between loved ones at Christmas? Have you learned to compromise, or reached a mutual understanding? Is it a compromise you’re happy with, or do you still think there’s work to be done? Do you stubbornly refuse to back down – or do they?! Is gift-giving still a source of conflict during the festive season? Have you had good experiences, bad ones..or both? What lessons have you learned? I really want to hear your insights on this so please leave a comment below!

49 Responses to A Christmas Gift-Giving Guide for Minimalists…and their loved ones

  1. We send out cards, and don’t do gifts most years. We consider the holidays about time together, and if we do gifts, they’re about experiences. This year we’ve got tickets (prepurchased, of course) to Star Wars and are going for dim sum. We’ve never felt the pressure, as people know what’s important to us and what is not. The holidays should never be about feeling obligated to buy stuff – that’s the opposite of the intent of the season.

  2. I loved this blog post! You have been so thoughtful about the whole idea behind gifts and I really like the way you consider things from other people’s points of view. Good luck with your gift-giving or non-giving!
    Keep up the good writing,
    Lex.

    • Thanks so much Lex! I’ve been trying to find a way to fit my values with my family’s values for four Christmases now, so I’ve learned some valuable lessons…and I’m sure I’ll learn some more!

      Happy Christmas to you too! ; )

  3. A few Christmases ago I declared that my husband and I would be giving no gifts and that we expected no gifts in return. Thankfully our families took this well, I think everyone breathed a sigh of relief at one less gift to buy! We give gifts at other random times of the year, usually things we’ve made or grown or found at a garage sale. This post is a good reminder to be sensitive to others and think of creative gifts that aren’t just more stuff. I still buy for our young niece and nephew, I always send them books because I think that reading is so important and books can always be given away to other children when they are finished with them.

    • Hi Liz, thanks for your comment! I wish our families could accept our “no presents” ideal completely, but we seem to be finding a compromise. I think at first my husband’s family thought it was my rule, not our rule…and that it was a phase rather than a lifelong decision! We’re getting there, slowly : )

      I read a great article about gift-giving for children, and it said that as a child gifts reinforce that they are special, and appreciated, and I think it would be pretty hard to explain to a kid that you’re minimalist and / or zero waste and for them to understand. That said, we don’t really buy “stuff” for our niece and nephew – they get so much from their grandparents, we can’t complete and we don’t want to. We give them experiences and make them little vouchers so they have something to open. Last year we bought the family a board game – from our point of view it sat within the experience framework, but then one of the kids got about 3 games for his birthday a month later and we realised they receive so much stuff, they have more than any kid needs, experience-related or not. This year, no stuff at all!

      (I do like the idea of books but the niece who reads probably owns more books than her local library holds, so there’s no need for more!)

  4. Wow, I never realised that gifts can be emotional currency. That does explain a lot!

    I have just celebrated Sinterklaas’ (Dutch predecessor of Saint Nick) birthday with my in-laws. Over the years, we’ve done a bunch of different things. We have bought random gifts and played a dice game to win the gifts. And we’ve done Secret Santa. This year, we had a big discussion about how to celebrate. I really enjoy the creativity that Secret Santa imposes on us, the time spent on finding an appropriate gift and being creative with the wrapping or with poems. My father in law resents it and usually leaves it to my mother in law. Which is a shame, because we want him to join in as well! And my sister in law and her boyfriend, like us, have realised they usually just get more stuff they don’t need or want.

    We have given each other quality time. I’ll be going to the Beauty and the Beast musical with one sister and enjoy a sugar-free high tea with the other. And my husband will take his dad to Disneyland (Paris) and has been invited to brunch with his mom. We had a great time with the gift-giving, as we have all searched for things we love and knew our secret santa would enjoy as well. And there is more quality time to come! :)

    • I know, right Judith?! This book was like a revelation to me. I immediately realised that both my mum and my mother-in-law are gift-givers, and me trying the quash this was just causing unnecessary friction! I recommend you borrow it from the library – it’s very insightful as to the way people behave, and why!

      I like the way you’ve celebrated over the years, it sounds like an experience in itself! Your plans for this year sound perfect I think! : )

  5. We use gift lists amongst our families- this ensures that everyone ends up with something that they actually want/ need. Extravagant gift giving has never been a thing, on my side of the family- so I’ve never purchased grand ideas. My parents generally ask for small things like bubble bath, talcum powder or Classical music CDs. I know these will be things that they will use. My husband’s side of the family can be a little more extravagant, but they will happily stick to our list.

    Although a couple of year’s ago- my father-in-law heeded our request for experiences and came up with the idea of segway tickets. We had a great experience and it was something we would have never thought of ourselves! This year, I agreed with my Mum that we would all stick to ‘token’ presents- probably items of £10-£15 in value. It seems that my extended family- Aunts & Uncles still give us random items that we generally don’t want, despite the fact that I thought we’d agreed it was no longer necessary to send presents (since all the children (us) grew up, but still for the last 15 years they persist!!!) I don’t send them anything, really in the hopes that one day they will get the message and plus, we really don’t have the money to buy presents for all our large, extended family.

    P.S. For anyone who wants to read it- the book that talks about all of these things is The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman. There are many different editions, tailored to different life stages. They also seem to have a website here: http://www.5lovelanguages.com

    • As a kid I loved writing lists – I’d pour over the Argos catalogue choosing all the things I liked, and invariably not get most of them (which is a good thing, as there was a lot of tat in there!). Nowadays I don’t like lists, it feels too transactional. “You get me this thing and I’ll get you that thing…” especially because as we get older and have most of the things we need, it’s harder to think of things we truly want.

      The Segway example is exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about! Often experiences like this are things we’d never pay for ourselves because we think they’re expensive, or they simply don’t occur to us, or they are a little out of our comfort zone – and then we get a gift and we have to do it, and it’s always always so worthwhile!

      Thanks for sharing the link – I did link to it in my post but it’s probably not that obvious. The book is very insightful and everyone should read it, I think! ; )

      • I don’t see any links in my browser (Safari), just some emboldened text. Maybe it is my browser’s fault?

        I agree the lists feel transactional. I honestly don’t see the point- none of us actually needs anything if we are truthful! But especially as half our family live in the USA and it’s very hard and expensive to buy from here! But they’d be upset and offended if we didn’t, so we all indulge in this merry-go-round. I don’t know why we don’t all agree to keep the cash and treat ourselves. However, my list consists mostly of gift cards- particularly for a certain DIY store as we are renovating our house. So at least my list ensures that what I receive will be useful! For a few years when our nephews were very young, we tried to give money that could be put in a bank account and grow with interest. We hope that they will keep it there until they are at least 17 and then maybe they can put it towards driving lessons or their first car.

        • Haha, it’s linked to the text “book I read” which appears in turquoise. It’s probably not very (at all?!) obvious! : / Something to fix in the new year!

          We have a similar situation with my family living in the UK and me living in Australia. Postage is very expensive from here (about $25 for anything under 500g, and one you get over that it’s $60+ for 1kg, and more for more). It costs more than the gift would! My family are happy that when we’re here, they don’t buy and we don’t buy. It saves a lot of stress!

          It’s all about finding the middle ground – how to stick to your values without upsetting / offending! And I think we often learn this middle ground the hard way! ; )

  6. You wrote my thoughts exactly – including the realisation that gift giving can be the love language of others. I almost wrote a blog post about it myself but this is much better. Thankyou for articulating what I couldn’t.

  7. This is just what has been on my mind a lot! I also read the 5 love languages, so totally get that everyone is different. Also, sometimes the zero waste way is just not appropriate?! Can’t believe I am saying that – but it is true I feel. I was lucky to be paid some money for an article in a magazine and we are using it to buy gifts for a small home in Johannesburg, where there are mainly elderly people who were homeless and disadvantaged kids. They will no doubt LOVE awesome presents, that they can unwrap, that look special, some of them have never had such things, or even been able to recall it. I have been known to give gifts wrapped in newspaper and tied and decorated with pretty bits like leaves and cones and such, I could be wrong, but I think someone who has known poverty and the streets most of their lives might not feel the same appreciation for that style!? Luckily our family were on the same wavelength of not buying presents, for various reasons, except for the kids. It is tricky. Like you say, we just need to stop and think about others not ourselves. Buying someone a reusable cup, to try encourage our lifestyle on to them, is not really in the spirit of giving!

    • It’s on all of our minds at this time of year, I’m sure! ; ) That’s a lovely thing to do. I didn’t write about children in the post but I’ve mentioned in the comments above, I do think we need to consider children differently. That doesn’t mean buying them mass-produced use-once-and-throw-it-away junk from distant countries, but remembering that as children, gifts mean more to us and tell us that we are special and appreciated. Homemade, second-hand, and experiences all count of course – it just needs different consideration. Not having kids of my own (we have a niece and nephew but it’s different of course), I’m not navigating this minefield – and I’m thankful as I imagine it’s pretty hard!

      I know people who’ve given their entire family cards from Oxfam gifting a goat to a village, and the family really hasn’t appreciated it at all. They wanted the shiny mass-produced stuff, and this was too far in the other direction. In contrast, we got an Oxfam gift card for our wedding (for a well in Africa I think) and we loved it! We’d asked for no gifts, and the giver must have felt the need to buy us something – and for us it was perfect. You have to be mindful of the recipient’s values as well as your own!

  8. I’ve never understood that whole Christmas gift thing. In the Netherlands we have Sinterklaas (where Santa is based on) but it’s only for kids and on 5 December, the start of winter. It was to keep the kids busy in the dark days of winter so they got toys.
    Christmas was a time of going to church and eat with the family, no gifts involved besides maybe a contribution to dinner. Moving to Australia (and quitting religion long ago) didn’t change our habits! We go bush camping over Christmas and are back when the rest of Australia is ready to leave for their stint of holiday.

    • Australia is so much more laid back than the UK, I find it such a relief! You wouldn’t even know it was Christmas coming until December. In the UK the shops have all their displays from September, the ads bombard you constantly, and because the supermarkets close for a day people buy more food than they can eat in 2 weeks. There’s national panic when there’s a sprout shortage, a few years ago when Heston Blumental launched a Christmas pudding for Waitrose and it sold out, people were selling them on eBay for £100 + !

      I think the vibe is different here because it’s also the start of summer. That said, maybe I just hang out with different people with different values now! Seriously though, I do think it’s more than the people… it feels less consumer-driven.

      Bush camping sounds like the perfect Christmas remedy Wilma!

  9. What a wonderful post. It really struck a chord with me! Thank you for writing it. I find ‘gift giving’ very stressful because I really don’t like giving gifts that are unnecessary or not ‘needed’. Sometimes it is really difficult to give a thoughtful, practical gift. And the pressure at Christmas! Thankfully our families have decided to do secret santa the last couple of years and we email out a ‘wish list’. As I’m just starting on a more eco conscious journey, it felt so wrong to be sending out a list at all but it doesn’t feel right to impose my views and beliefs on others. Although it is very tempting to give people reusable coffee cups, reusable bags etc. I love the idea of giving experiences. I think that is lovely. We had a couple of very relaxing trips to the local islands last year which were given to us for Christmas. A long time ago, someone said that gift-giving can actually be quite hostile. In countries like Japan, families often have a whole room/wardrobe dedicated to gifts that are received. I think they often re-gift these presents because gift-giving is a strong part of their culture.

    • Thank you very much! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. It is very hard to think of thoughtful practical gifts on cue just because it’s the 25th December, and you have all the competition from all the other family members trying to think of thoughtful, practical gifts too! Plus how many thoughtful, practical gifts does one person need at once?!

      I used to write lists for my parents, but as I got older I liked this less and less. I needed and wanted less, but also felt they should know me well enough to know what I’d like – plus I don’t likethe way it feels like a transaction – it feels kind of “loveless”, you know? But not writing a list meant I got things I didn’t need at all, then demanding nothing at all just felt too confronting for them. Now (we’ve been working on this for years) they’ve really embraced the experiences idea. For my husband and I at least… they still buy each other stuff they probably don’t need! ; )

      I have no doubt that you’ll get there. Send a lift this year, then tone it down a little next year, then suggest something different the year after, and see how you go. change doesn’t happen quickly, and often the habits we have are embedded in our family traditions. They can take time to change, but it is possible!

      Good luck! x

  10. I agree…food gifts are almost universally appreciated, and I love that I KNOW they’ll be used (as long as it’s something like cookies :) instead of just sitting around in someone’s house forever. It takes a bit of extra time to make things, but it’s certainly worth it. Giving food is such a great gift and makes me feel that I’m not raising a big stink about zero waste/minimalism during the holidays–I want to be conscious of consumption but also not scrooge-like. Thanks for this thoughtful, lovely post!

    • Does anyone else find that they either get a tonne of chocolate which just sits in the back of the cupboard until its past its best. Or things they won’t/ don’t eat? Like bottles of wine for us, or random foreign items. Personally I really would rather not receive food items, however well meant.

      • Thanks Litterless for your lovely comment! : ) Glutenfreeness I can’t believe I’ve you don’t appreciate food items! Although when I read your comment again, I think you are talking about bought food items. I’m a homemade food gift giver – nothing beats homemade deliciousness! How do you feel about this?

        I totally relate about the pre-packaged stuff though. My husband’s granddad buys us chocolates from K-Mart every year. The first year we ate them (they weren’t very nice), the second and third years my husband took to work, and last year my father-in-law had the genius idea about giving to the Food Bank. I ummed and ahhed little, because I felt it was a bit cheeky to put food I don’t want to eat myself there, and wondered if it was better to just landfill – I don’t think eating that kind of processed food is good for anyone – but then I figured, if people want to buy it anyway, it’s less wasteful, so we did. If we get any this year they will be going straight there again.

        I do also think that food items are easier to re-gift than lots of other random Christmas gifts…

  11. This has been such a struggle for me. I’ve become ZW in so many aspects of my life, but with Christmas I chickened out and stuck with my old ways. The one difference is I’m giving out some reusable items (if I KNOW the recipients will actually use them–I don’t want it to sit on a shelf).

    Hopefully next year I’ll be less overwhelmed by the holidays and become more creative!

    • It’s all a journey Danielle! Christmas is particularly hard because there’s so much expectation attached, based on doing the things the way they’ve always been done, and tradition… but that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to get your zero waste ways in there slowly! At least it’s only once a year, so you’ve got a whole year to practice and figure out how you want to tackle it next year! I find birthdays are good, as it’s a way to test things out in small ways and sneak in ideas before the big Christmas consumer explosion! This is our fifth Christmas of being minimalist / zero waste, and it’s the first year I’ve felt really clear about what we expect, and that our families understand this too. We have had many struggles along the way!

      Everything gets easier with practice! ; )

  12. Christmas presents stress me out! I’ve got a pretty good situation – my immediate family still distributes lists and buys each other (and partners) gifts (total five gifts), but we’ve got a Kris Kringle system for the extended family so each of us only needs to organise one gift. Even so, I still get stressed out by trying to imagine/make/get so many gifts in a short period of time…plus there’s two birthdays in the months after Xmas, so I’ve got to hold some ideas back in order to have something to give again.

    One of the ways I’ve dealt with my stress is to decide that Christmas is a time to give small, not particularly significant gifts (I save big gestures for birthdays). I also see if there’s a way I can repeat gifts, for example my mum loves the personalised diary I give her each year. I still struggle gifting for my brothers because they often want objects that I can’t make or buy second hand. But they are open to experiences and I think (hope?) my assumption that they’re disappointed with my gifts is misplaced.

    • I couldn’t even imagine having to deal with an extended family! The Kris Kringle / Secret Santa thing is such a good idea, it must save so much waste / stress / stuff. I have a similar thing…my husband’s birthday is the 5th Jan, and our nephew is the 9th Jan.

      We do a similar thing – keep significant gestures for birthdays. It’s more meaningful and doesn’t get lost in the frenzy of Christmas. We just keep Christmas to token things. Glen and I don’t bother getting each other anything – my birthday is October and his is Jan, so Christmas is in the way, more than anything!

      Have you thought about baking your brothers’ anything? Or would they not consider that an appropriate gift?!

      • You know, I’m not sure I have thought of baking them something. I think they’re more savoury people, but perhaps I’m wrong about that. I have made cumquat brandy (popular, but I didn’t get around to making any this year), spicy bbq sauce and spice mixes (gratefully received but didn’t seem to get used).

        • Savoury edibles! What about spiced nuts? (Who doesn’t love nuts?!) Or if you are really short of time you could do some fancy layering of bulk nuts / seeds / fruit in a glass jar. Hmmm…if you’re happy to bake, how about savoury biscuits? do they eat cheese – cheese biscuits? Cheese from a local deli and biscuits?

          I am going to have to stop as it’s making me hungry!

  13. I’d really love to know the name of that book. I think my family could be suffering from different ‘love languages’ throughout the year

    • Bella I did link to it but it seems it’s hard to see. It’s called the 5 Love Languages. There’s a website too and a quiz you can do to find out yours. It’s a really easy book to read and very insightful. Check if your local library has it!

  14. What a great post! I would happily do away with presents also but in my partner’s culture gift giving is HUGE and his family just can’t wrap their heads around a Christmas with no presents. So rather than risk offending them I came prepared and came up with a wishlist of “things” we want/ need. For example a box of bamboo toothbrushes, a box of the plastic free toilet paper we buy, a second hand slow cooker (specifically requested second hand and not new, lol, it took a bit of reassuring before they believed that I would actually PREFER a secondhand one and was not just saying that to try and save them money) All relatively inexpensive items that we will actually use. We also requested second hand building materials to go towards our tiny house build but somehow I don’t think that we’ll end up with a a stack of pine studs wrapped up under the Christmas tree…

    • Thanks Sandra! I like your list a lot – we recently bought a big box of plastic-free eco toilet paper as a wedding gift…after all, it’s incredibly useful! Isn’t it funny how people don’t understand how great second-hand is?

      I’m intrigued…what do you buy them in return? Do you try to stick to eco things or do you have to try to accommodate their lists?

  15. Oooh pyrex dishes, I can see the appeal there! The thing that frustrates me so much with Christmas is the whole “gifts on demand” ideal. It’s 25th December so everyone has to give everyone they know some stuff, whether they need it or not. I’m not completely opposed to buying presents at other times of the year if I really truly know they will be useful… but that’s not often. Most family members already have too much stuff, in my opinion! ; )

    I think my parents worry about this too (they think I sell everything on eBay – it’s almost become a family joke, which I don’t think is a good thing) but it’s probably meant they give me less “stuff”, and it’s probably why they’ve embraced experiences too. And hopefully as we have more experiences together, it will strengthen the attraction!

    I like your rules! Plus I love that it worked – a sign that you have good friends who know you well! I especially love that you got your quality time and created all those memories with the people you care about : )

  16. Gift-giving may have gone crazy and I completely understand why environmentalists, minimalists, devout believers…. are uncomfortable perpetuating it but I also believe we need to distinguish blatant consumerism associated with gifts (whether materials or services) and gifts as a deeply rooted anthropological phenomenon. Down the centuries gifts were an important part of the glue that bonds individuals and groups, building trust and reciprocity that helped them survive in difficult times. Whilst many of us are no longer living on the edge, those instincts are still there because human ties still matter. Importantly reciprocity is nurtured not just by the act of giving (an act of generosity) but also by the act of receiving (an act of graciousness and humility). I try to keep this in mind both at traditional times of giving but also when cultivating generosity throughout the year.

  17. In my family people usually say no gifts, and I take them at their word, and they get me a gift anyway, but I have nothing in return because we had aggreed on no gifts! Very annoying. I love getting gifts, but I prefer people keeping their word!

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