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I said no to Christmas presents this year, here’s how it’s going so far…

‘What do you need? What do you want?’

These are deep-delving, difficult questions and when someone like Oprah asks them we tilt our heads and stare off into the middle distance pondering ‘What does my soul need?’

Around Christmas time, we tilt our heads and stare at the John Lewis catalogue pondering ‘Does anyone love me enough to pay for cashmere pyjamas?’

I realise that I’m hardly original in pointing out that we all lose our minds a little at Christmas. George Monbiot memorably wrote about it in one of my favourite pieces of his called The Gift of Death, his main point being that we lose perspective at Christmas time and there is a devastating and ridiculous long-term environmental impact to all of us buying total crap for each other. Because we feel we have to buy something, because we need to be entertained for a few hours. In his words, ‘for thirty seconds of dubious entertainment, or a hedonic stimulus that lasts no longer than a nicotine hit, we commission the use of materials whose impacts will ramify for generations.’  He is begging us, eloquently, to ‘Think about the children!’ and the world they will inherit.

Monbiot makes an important essential point, one that I wish I could tattoo onto everyone’s eyelids and skywrite above every shopping centre: please stop buying dogshit presents. Your whimsy (and panic) have serious environmental and ethical repercussions. 

If you are going to buy Christmas presents this year, then take a deep breath and consider if ‘The World’s Smallest Walkie Talkies!’ is a gift that anyone needs or wants. Is it going to make it past Boxing Day? And then think about the people who made this novelty gewgaw and the people who are going to recycle it and decide to spend your money and your time some other way. If you’re really stuck for a gift to buy Dad (it’s always Dad) then may I suggest two failsafes- make something edible or buy tickets for something (bowling, go-carts, Les Mis… whatever you can do together without breaking the bank).

I’m being disingenuous. Of course, you spotted that, your hackles probably went up. I said ‘your whimsy’ and I put the tiny walkie talkies in your hands, when really, they were in mine. 

The dogshit is on my hands too.

On December 24th last year, Andy and I were up in Norfolk for Christmas, staying with my parents. We’d arrived the day before on a bus so loaded down with Christmas bundles that you could barely see the tyres. I was walled in by our extra bags and could only hear Andy muffled through wrapping paper and Amazon’s cardboard packaging. Despite all of the planning and buying we’d already done, we still had a few presents to find, namely toys for Andy’s half-brother and nephew.

So, on Christmas Eve, we made our way into Norwich town centre for some shopping and a Christmas drink…

Within minutes of entering a toy store for the first time in years, we realised that 100% of toys are flimsy, gendered horrors designed to extort money out of guilty and frazzled adults. We panicked. There was no time to order anything decent or make something or think of a clever alternative. We had to arrive on Boxing Day with GIFTS. I can’t remember what we ended up buying- that’s how excellent the gifts must have been- but it took several hours of frantic searching, twenty minutes of painful deliberation in TK Maxx and three times as much money as we’d planned to finally obtain sufficient presents to satisfy expectations.

What expectations you say? Well precisely. Our expectations that we have good taste and can use it to provide for our families, reflecting our good taste and social status and love for mankind through relentless list-making and then clever purchasing. Their expectations that we care about them enough to reciprocate the equal amounts of effort they had to put in to buy us gifts.

What if, we explained excitedly, no one bought presents ever again? What if everyone spent the Christmas money on themselves and we just celebrated Christmas with food and drink and time together?

My Christmas last year was lovely in many ways. I saw my family, I saw Andy’s family. I enjoyed seeing all of those people. We ate great food, we opened lots of presents. I was spoilt for presents in fact. Not only did I receive most of the things I wanted I also received a fair few things I didn’t want. Andy was the same. We carried even more extra bags back down to Brighton and then we both put our unwanted Christmas gifts together and filled a blue Ikea bag. After months of preparation and trepidation, that bag went straight to Shelter down the road. Our family likely did the same.

As I handed over that big crackly blue bag full of brand new items and after years of feeling overwhelmed at Christmas, I finally, finally realised that it wasn’t the presents that I enjoyed about Christmas, it was the people. CLANG! The penny dropped. 

Andy and I talked about it at length after our evening of sorting through gifts and we realised that saying no to Christmas presents made so much sense. The amount of money our family spent on us last Christmas seemed too much, we couldn’t match it and we were uncomfortable with them spending it, even if they said they were happy to. What’s more, we did exactly the same thing. We feel very grateful for our family and we want to treat them and show them how much we care, so we spend more than we can afford. We all go out of our way to look for unusual presents, or higher quality versions of previous presents, to organise experiences.

And then so many of these hard won gifts, exchanged on both sides, go unused. We buy so much that we can’t always get it right and there’s always that blackout point when you can’t even recall who you’re buying for and how much you’ve spent and you come home with, you guessed it… ‘The World’s Smallest Walkie Talkies’. Most convincingly, we had all spent the month leading up to Christmas feeling overwhelmed and inadequate because we had the pressure of buying gifts. The whole scenario seemed absurd!

Cut to this October.

Andy and I met my family for dinner in a pub and with very little actual thought to the consequences, I dived into telling them what I thought would be excellent news:

‘We don’t want Christmas presents this year!’

And, perhaps less welcome news, we aren’t going to buy anyone any Christmas presents either. BUT! (we jumped in quickly, before they could be disappointed) As we see it, the money that you save on our presents, you can spend on yourselves.  You can buy what you REALLY WANT, whenever you want, without the stress of a deadline.

What if, we explained excitedly, no one bought presents ever again? What if everyone spent the Christmas money on themselves and we just celebrated Christmas with food and drink and time together?

The reactions have varied hugely. Some have been nonplussed, some shocked, some see it as penny pinching and others as condescending. None of the reactions have been what we expected- relief, excitement, curiosity.

My  family were not happy. Andy and I were so surprised. We thought we were making the holiday easier, not just for us but for everyone.

We hadn’t realised how much buying presents was embedded in everyone’s Christmas traditions. My sister wanted to know if we would still buy presents for kids, it wasn’t fair to spoil their fun (we agreed we would). My Mum was really sad that she couldn’t give us gifts, she said she enjoys picking things out that we’ll enjoy, and she was looking forward to gifts from us, to see what we’d chosen for her. My Dad… well, he has always claimed to dislike presents and he seemed to support our argument here, but he is also usually the best gift giver every Christmas, so who knows what he really thinks.

Overall, it was not a success. The general consensus seemed to be that we were spoilsports ruining the Christmas spirit. Maybe that will prove to be true, this is only the first year after all. Maybe by January when I’m completely surrounded by no cashmere pyjamas, I will be kicking myself. I can tell you how it’s felt so far, with twenty days left till Christmas.

We’ve slowly told more people about this year’s no presents rule and the reactions have varied hugely. Some have been nonplussed, some shocked, some see it as penny pinching and others as condescending. None of the reactions have been what we expected- relief, excitement, curiosity. Here are the questions we’ve encountered the most:

Are we doing it to save money? Yes, absolutely. We’ve just moved to a new country with a new apartment and we don’t have much money. But that’s not entirely the reason.

Are we doing it as a protest against waste? Yes, absolutely. We have a lot of what we need and what we don’t have, we see as our responsibility to pay for it. And before moving we cleared out so much superfluous stuff, we want to be sure that we only own what we really need and what we really want. But that’s not entirely the reason.

Are we doing it because we judge other people’s mania about Christmas? Yes, absolutely. I don’t mean that I judge my lovely mother for enjoying exchanging gifts and thinking about her family. But I do judge how each person’s enjoyment is twisted and magnified until everyone feels under pressure and inadequate, striving to meet fantastical standards set by companies not people. But that’s not entirely the reason.

Are we doing it for some peace? Yes, that’s it, absolutely. This has been my overriding experience of the last two months: calm. I’ve been into town and around shopping centres, I’ve looked at gift guides and drifted onto Amazon’s homepage, and the whole time I’ve felt relaxed, tranquil. The only ripple on the serene lake of my emotions about Christmas has been pleasure at the idea that I will get to spend the day cooking and playing card games with my family. I enjoy both of those things, I can easily plan for both of those things.

I have lost the anxiety about money, the worry about not giving enough, the embarrassment at not appreciating every gift, the distraction of gifts over everything else, the strain of finding the time. I don't feel the loss of the actual presents.

What has struck me the most in saying no to Christmas presents is that I only feel like I’ve lost the downsides of the holiday.

I’m genuinely surprised by how little I regret saying no to lots of new stuff. Sure, it was always super nice to hold off buying more expensive things for myself and compile them into a list for my family and friends- ‘Here is all the stuff I dream off and can’t afford’. For one thing, it kept me topped up in perfume, a beauty product I really believe is worth the money but costs more than I can spare. I’ve never had a lot of money as an adult, so it was lovely to be treated every year, to own more than I really should own. But the wanting became the thing, and it wasn’t wanting human connection or to feel relaxed in my body, it was wanting outside things, and those things wear out and have to be replaced year after year. Eventually they became obstacles, they got in the way of seeing what I do need and what I do want.

I have lost the anxiety about money, the worry about not giving enough, the embarrassment at not appreciating every gift, the distraction of gifts over everything else, the strain of finding the time. I don’t feel the loss of the actual presents. If I want something, I will have to save up for it, or just buy it. And I am not someone who has a lot of money, I realise the weight of that choice and that responsibility. It’s about time I properly took responsibility for that though, I haven’t done a very good job up until now. I’ve given more than my fair share of bags of unused stuff to charity shops and I consider myself a conscious shopper. Clearly, I’m fooling myself. And enough is enough, I’m an adult, I can stop doing shit I don’t agree with, I can stop buying things I don’t need.

The decision Andy and I have taken this year not to buy or receive presents came out of last year’s guilt over how fortunate we are and how little we felt it. We are frustrated with how exhausting and muddy the whole Christmas holiday process has become. Since then, our decision has taken on a much bigger life. Not only have we said no to presents but we’ve also decided not to decorate for Christmas. As we’ve just moved into a new apartment, we don’t have much furniture or much of anything (see below!), so our holiday celebration has become, partly intentionally, partly inadvertently, narrowed right down to preparing good food and finding entertainment on the day itself.

And I have never felt better about it. We will have to work together to cook a nice meal and we’ll have to talk to each other, we have no distractions. My Christmas this year will be entirely for one reason- to see the people I love. Without all of the fog of gift-giving, I have never felt that more clearly.

Top photo from Kari Shea/Unsplash

Walkie Talkies from I Want One of Those – please don’t buy them!

Last photo my own. 

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  • Catherine

    Still don’t agree. Life is made up of everyday days. Some good, some bad but mostly ok and mundane (definition – lacking interest or excitement, humdrum) and Christmas changes that. The decorating, the special cooking that only happens before Christmas, the turning on the tree lights for the first time, the anticipation of family coming, and all the many other things that mean Christmas to me. A once-a-year reason to do something different, special, joyous and to leave the undecorated, unpresented mundane behind.

    • Emma J

      Hahaha, I hope I can write half as well as you one day. I suppose that a lot of what makes it overwhelming and stressful for me is the money aspect as well. I can’t enjoy all of the decoration, drinking and joy because it’s clouded by how much it costs and what is a waste of money versus money well spent.

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