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Why I Don't Give Christmas Presents

Submitted by Bethany on Thu, 12/12/2019 - 10:00

For almost the tenth Christmas in a row, I am purchasing/wrapping/giving exactly zero Christmas presents this year. I know some of you just gasped in horror - what am I, some sort of Scrooge? Do I hate Christmas? 

On the contrary, I love Christmas! I love the lights, the music, the worship services, the candles, the food, the tree - I pretty much love everything but the presents under the tree. I'm not actually even against presents in general, or against other people doing Christmas presents, I just don't personally do them at this particular time of year. 

It all started in December of 2010 when I was a poor seminary graduate working on a hospital internship salary and living with my parents because I couldn't afford anything else. That year, I was overwhelmed by the idea of buying presents for my parents, my brother, co-workers, and friends. I just did not want to do it.  So I broached the subject with my parents and said, why don't we just not do Christmas presents this year?

I'll admit that my reasons this first year were rather selfish. I did not have a lot of money and what I did have I didn't want to spend on stuff for other people. Not the most magnanimous of reasons. (To be fair, any extra money I did have I spent paying down my student loans, it's not like I was out partying with all my non-Christmas present buying money.) 

That year we decided that instead of buying each stuff, most of what we certainly didn't need, and perhaps sometimes didn't even want, we would spend money on a family experience instead. Using what would have been spent on stuff, my parents purchased tickets for a family cruise instead - which we took in February of the next year and is one of my happiest family memories. 

On Christmas morning there was nothing under the tree, and surprisingly, I didn't really miss it. Instead, we spent time eating breakfast together, gathering around the fire, and watching Christmas movies. Nobody had to clean up all of the wrapping paper, no one had to pretend to be grateful for something they didn't like, and no one had to spend money they didn't have just to try and make someone else happy. It was glorious.

From then on we had a new Johnson family Christmas tradition - no presents. After the success of no present Christmas, we decided to extend the rule to birthdays as well. We reasoned that we are all adults, who tend to buy what we want or need when we want or need it, and the stress of giving presents was needless and irrelevant. The new birthday tradition was to spend time together going out dinner at the restaurant of the birthday person's choice. It is low-key, we make it a priority to see each other, and we get to eat some delicious food. A win all around. 

In 2012 I met Joel and after a whirlwind romance, we were married before Christmas that year. I explained to him my relatively new practice of not giving Christmas presents and we arrived on a compromise as a couple - we would only do stockings for each other. That way Joel still got to do Christmas presents and I didn't have to do an overwhelming amount. 

I'm not sure I was ever really good at getting Christmas presents for people (I'm sure my mom used to help a lot) but that year I was especially abysmal at it. I completely forgot about it until the last minute, and while Joel went shopping on Christmas Eve (he is also last-minute gift-giver) I spent the few minutes I had between three different worship services that night at my desk, whipping up hand-written IOU's that I thought would be charming but turned out to be mostly sad and pathetic. We laugh about it now, but I remember crying on Christmas morning when I opened a beautiful, thoughtful present from Joel and he got my crappy hastily scrawled IOU's. 

From then on, we went to no gifts at Christmas for us, too. Instead, we take the money we might have spent on Christmas, and spend it on experiences together. We used to have MoviePass which provided many a date night - and I paid for Joel's pass while he paid for mine. For several years in a row, we purchased season passes to a local ski place and that was our present to each other. For the most part, we don't really focus on giving gifts to each other at any particular time of year, and instead, we surprise each other with things throughout the year. Even that has changed, however, as we started downsizing our belongings and then traveling the world. 

As the years have gone on my reasons for not doing presents at Christmas have changed and the joy I find in skipping out on this part of the season has grown. Now, I'm glad I don't receive any Christmas presents because I am doing my best to be a minimalist. This takes careful intention and focus as it is so easy to accumulate unnecessary stuff in your life. It's a bit easier right now as we travel, there is only so much room in the suitcase after all, but I know I'll really have to be on my guard when we settle down. 

I've become so used to not giving gifts at Christmas that I am always unduly surprised when I see other people stressing out about it. I can't tell you how many Facebook posts I've seen this year with people worried about all of the gifts they have to buy, the money they worry about spending, and the undue stress it puts on their holiday season. I have seen more than one person vocalize a wish to skip Christmas altogether because they are exhausted from the emotional, mental, and financial pressure of gift-giving. That breaks my heart. 

As a pastor, I would be remiss to not say at least a little bit about the fact that for Christians, presents are not supposed to be the focus of the season anyway. Our secular culture has co-opted so much of Christmas - making it solely about the lights, the food, the music, the tree, and most of all about the presents under that tree. Those presents are how you prove to your spouse you love them, to your kids how much you love them, how you prove to the world that you are successful. That is all a terrible, damaging lie. 

Christmas is about celebrating the Christ-child who comes to us in a lowly manger. Christmas is about celebrating God with us, Emmanuel. As the great Dr. Suess once wrote, "Maybe Christmas doesn't come from a store, maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more." 

So if you find yourself this Christmas season overwhelmed by the gift-giving you feel like you absolutely have to do, I am here to give you permission to take a step back and just not do it, or at least to do less. I promise the world will not end. I promise Christmas can still be magical without presents. Maybe going cold turkey at the last minute isn't the best way to do it. Perhaps this year you just start a conversation about fewer gifts with your family, your friends, your co-workers. 

Most of all I want to say that if the pressure of giving gifts makes you want to skip Christmas altogether - there is a better way. Tomorrow I'll share a post about how to move towards giving fewer, or no gifts at Christmas. It could be just what your holiday season needs. 

XOXO, Bethany