It always starts so promisingly. My husband and I sit down to make the Christmas list. We check it twice. We commit to our budget. And promptly begin to destroy it.
The kids’ gifts accumulate under the tree like love letters, the kind of love letters that I will fish out of the vacuum tube, step on in the middle of the night, hide to avoid changing their batteries, or wash every week until my sons grow or I drop dead … and some weeks it’s a tight race, people.
A $20 token for a cousin, plus shipping and gift wrap, turns into $30. Neighbors I’ve never met stop by with a platter of homemade cookies. I say, “Oh, how kind!” I think, “Oh, crap.” Another name goes on the list. Boxes arrive, objects pile up in the closet, plastic wrap fills the trash, and I wonder if any of these presents will mean anything at all. Truth is, I can barely remember what I gave my family last year, much less what they gave me.
On Christmas morning, my kids tear into 40 gifts and leave 39 of them scattered among torn paper and ribbons, slashed by baby teeth when we couldn’t get there with scissors fast enough.
I open the gifts from the wish list I made by clicking glumly around Madewell and Amazon, searching for things I wanted and settling for things that were fine. I’m an adult, a mother and a voter, and the things I wish for can’t be bagged and decorated with curly ribbons, yet every year I make the list and my loved ones buy from it, and nobody feels anything close to magical about it.
My family is trapped in a gift cycle that feels like a monthlong Thanksgiving dinner: an exhausting amount of labor and care, leading up to an explosion of consumption that leaves us all feeling vaguely ill.
Which brings me to the question that my husband and I ask every year as we make the list and sigh, already exhausted: What if we just … didn’t?
Thankfully, many families have already figured out how to successfully reel in the holidays. Whether you want to save money, make more responsible choices, or rediscover — yes, I’m saying it — the magic of the holidays, check out these alternatives to the gift bloat so many of us have come to dread.
If you love traditional gift exchange but the prices are killing you, join a Buy Nothing group. These hyperlocal Facebook groups operate on a simple value system: Buy nothing, give freely, share creatively. Members can request specific items from the group and finally rehome items that have been collecting dust in the closet for years. One year, I made a date-night calendar for my husband comprised entirely of random gift cards from the junk drawers of my Buy Nothing community. When you Buy Nothing or even buy used, you make a great choice for your wallet, your community, and crucially, the environment.
Speaking of community and environment, skip the bath bombs and stuff a stocking with a charitable gift instead. If they don’t already have an organization they support, hop on DonorsChoose.org to find classroom projects that speak to the passions of your loved ones: theater costumes in honor of your 5-year-old method actor, plush reading mats in honor of a voracious reader, sports equipment in honor of your Seahawks fan.
Secret Santa is a workplace favorite for the budget-conscious, but if it feels shabby to buy only one family member a gift, try “Conspiracy Santa” instead. All the members of the group or family conspire to decide on the best gift for the recipient. Unlike a Secret Santa gift, a Conspiracy Santa gift is from the whole gang, a culmination of shared love, shared resources and good old-fashioned holiday sneakiness.
Patti Thibodeaux of Orting found a wonderful way to gift the great outdoors. “Get a Mason jar and write names of different hikes on scraps of paper. Fold them up and toss them in, then pull one for a new adventure destination!” Patti’s “adventure jar” also works for city slickers: jot down parks, museums, indie bookstores, or a game of Uno at the coffee shop.
To make memories that last longer than a AAA battery’s shelf life, give yourselves the gift of travel. When you add up all the dollars you might have spent on holiday trinkets, you might even be able to take the trip of a lifetime.
“This year, my wife and I decided to forego Christmas decorating and gifts altogether. We’re taking our 17-year-old daughter to Germany to experience the Christmas markets,” says Ann Christiansen of Puyallup. Sara Alexander of Sammamish says, “We are taking our kids to Vietnam and Thailand for two weeks as their Christmas present. They are 10, 16, and 19.”
If international travel feels daunting, you can still get away like Missy Alleman of Snohomish, who frequently rents cabins near Leavenworth for the holidays. “We have often skipped gifts and taken a trip instead. We take a tabletop tiny tree with us. We started this when our kids were very young … our kids are 26 and 28 now and still get excited.”
Another popular gift framework is the singsongy “One thing you want, one thing you need, one thing to wear, one thing to read.” Our family asked the Easter Bunny to adopt this philosophy last year, and the Hopper-in-Chief gave our sons wanted Mariners tickets, needed water bottles, ballcaps to wear, and programs to read. We spent a blissful Easter at the ballpark.
If you continue to joyfully exchange a truckload of gifts with your nearest and dearest, rock on and do you, boo-boo. But if you, like me, feel a creeping sense that among all this bounty, something is still missing, remember that when it comes to gifts, you can just … not. You don’t have to buy; instead, choose to explore, learn, and connect.
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