In this, the season of giving, no matter what holiday you do or do not celebrate, it is nearly impossible not to become overwhelmed by the all-pervasive message our culture sends – that now is the time to buy, buy, buy in order to show the ones we love how much we care about them. Even if it’s something you don’t subscribe to, it’s hard not to be pulled in a little when we are all surrounded by so much for sale, and in reality, we all inevitably end up having some gifts to buy.
Sometimes buying holiday gifts can be fun, and even exciting, like when toy shopping for your children reminds you of your own holidays as a child, or when you find that perfect something that you know someone you love will be thrilled by. Unfortunately, this is all too often overwhelmed by the fact that gift giving has become less about showing someone that they are appreciated and more about buying lots of stuff, because, well, isn’t that just what we’re supposed to do this time of year?
When I was pregnant with my first child, I convinced my family (OK, I guilted them into it, 100%, by reminding them of the good example they needed to set for my soon-to-arrive baby) to take part in what I called “a good-deeds gift exchange”. A gift exchange – we call it a pollyanna where I’m from – a secret swap, Secret Santa, invisible friend, white elephant – it goes by many names and slightly different forms -is something most of us have or will participate in at some point, with family, friends or co-workers; regardless of the religion or backgrounds of the participants, it is a popular thing to do thing this time of year. What if, though, you changed it up, made the custom less about buying gifts, and more about showing someone that you actually care for them? What if you went out of your way, made an effort unrelated to money, to brighten up someone’s season in a way a material gift might not?
When I coerced my family into participating in this “good deeds pollyanna” we all end up surprising and pleasing one another with our good deeds. For example, my husband chose my mother’s name, and ended up taking over her nightly job of walking the dog for a whole week, so that instead of bundling up and trudging out in the cold each night (a dreaded chore for a woman who I’ve known to wear sweaters in August) she cuddled up on the couch with cocoa while my husband, who doesn’t mind the cold, strolled around the block with the dog.
My dad arrived at my youngest sister’s work one night and cleaned and closed the store for her so she could attend the biggest high school basketball game of the season. The only rule for the whole deal was that money spending should not be a factor. We had to be creative instead, to find other ways to show one another we were loved. And it spilled over to the rest of the season. We ended up doing nice things for one another just because, even for the family members whose names we hadn’t chosen out of a hat. We brought homemade hot chocolate to one another’s work. We helped my mom wrap gifts. We had a holiday season that was a little less stressful, one where we appreciated each other a little more.
More Than Money
Of course, it’s not always possible or practical to create a good deeds gift exchange, but there are other ways to give meaningful gifts. Instead of the usual filler presents that many people give and receive, why not make a meaningful donation instead? A gift to an animal rescue, for the dog or cat lover in your life. A micro-loan to a woman in an impoverished country, for the woman you know who owns her own business. Canned goods brought to party, instead of extra wine and flowers.
Let’s change the what in our gift giving – the “What the heck should I buy?” and the “What did you get me??” into “What can I do that is thoughtful and caring?” Or, “What can I spend my money on that is actually a meaningful and useful gift?” There are so many ways to show the people in our lives we care about them without material things, and usually, those ways are the most valuable of all.