‘Tis the season to scrutinize holiday gifts

It’s that time of year again – the holiday season. We know the drill: buy gifts for our friends and family, wrap presents, purchase and put up decorations, and so on. Commercialism has always been prominent during the holidays, but in recent times it has been taking center stage. First came the chaotic Black Friday in the 20th century, then Cyber Monday in the early 2000’s, and now…Cyber Week

As holiday spending increases each year, we need to analyze our gift giving habits and be thoughtful and conscious of the implications of our choices.

Yes, this takes time and effort. Yes, we’re all busy. But a bit of effort is crucial for not just the gift-receiver, but for all of us.

Let’s talk about Christmas: hands-down the most commercialized and profitable holiday. According to the Pew Research Center, 90 percent of Americans, both religious and non-religious, celebrate Christmas. Advertising and the Industrial Revolution have brought Christmas from the exchange of handmade items a few centuries ago to a booming commercial event sucking in more and more money every year. With increased commercialization, to us, it doesn’t feel enough to simply make presents for the people we care about; we must buy extravagant gifts and decorations and stocking stuffers and joke gifts and so on. These advertisements have defined the expectations for the holiday, turning Christmas into a stressful and superficial time as we scramble to meet what is expected of us. But it doesn’t have to – and shouldn’t – be this way.

With increased commercialization, to us, it doesn’t feel enough to simply make presents for the people we care about.

I am not anti-present; gift-giving can be okay, but it’s only okay if we give thoughtfully. The essence of thoughtful gifting is practicality and quality over quantity. Gifts of quality are thoughtful and useful to the receiver. They are sensible, last for a long time and, when they must be discarded, can be discarded safely. 

I don’t use “practical” and “sensible” to mean that everyone should give and receive socks for the holidays. We all need some entertainment in our lives – but entertainment that minimizes waste. Store-bought scented slime is fun to use and gives our hands something to do, but won’t it just get full of hairs and dust and have to get thrown away? A more practical outlet for our fidgeting would be a Rubik’s Cube or metal ring puzzle. But if you insist on slime, make some with baking soda; at least it’s safer for the environment.

More practical gift-giving means staying away from stocking stuffers, gag gifts, trinkets, and whatever other names we have for presents that are destined for the garbage. These trinket gifts are initially appealing for their goofiness but are often useless and poorly made. (Think a trinket dish with some sentimental saying. Think a chocolate-defecating reindeer toy that looks cute but gets used once for a few bites of chocolate and then migrates to that garbage patch in the Pacific. No, I didn’t make that up.) Though we may feel that the number of gifts should be proportional to the strength of the bond between giver and receiver, we must become comfortable giving fewer, but more meaningful gifts. 

Present analysis extends beyond the trinkets. In gift-buying decisions, we have to consider if the receiver will be able to use the gift for a long time or be able to pass it on to someone else. In other words, we have to consider the material. Durable presents often require a larger investment but they benefit the receiver and the environment in the long run. That laptop case made of thin plastic may be cheaper, but your friend will only be able to use it for a few months until it cracks irreparably and lands in the landfill. Of course, businesses want us to buy cheaper items to ensure the purchase of replacements, so it has unfortunately become harder to find more durable products. But investing in the more durable laptop case will minimize the amount of expended material.

In gift-buying decisions, we have to consider if the receiver will be able to use the gift for a long time or be able to pass it on to someone else.

The most durable and practical materials are often more natural. It’s better to buy products made of materials like wood and leather instead of unrecyclable plastics and synthetic fabrics which are non-biodegradable and are often harmful to the environment. It is true that some useful things just don’t come in a more eco-friendly material – I haven’t seen all too many wooden laptop cases or LEGOs around. But if you make an effort to find a laptop case or LEGO set that is sure to be reused, then go for it. In general, nature has the longer-lasting materials. Your aunt will likely be able to use those wool gloves longer than fleece ones, and your little sister’s wooden toys will outlast the plastic ones. It’s all about minimizing the need for replacement.

In addition, some presents are deceptively practical. I don’t think anyone truly needs another notebook or a scented candle unless they actually say they do. Overabundance of an item means underuse. Let’s eliminate that!

But wait. You might think, “Only people with lots of money can afford to buy more environmentally-friendly products.” Not so. Quality gifts don’t need to break the bank; price is not what gives a quality gift its quality. You just have to know where to look – if you can’t find what you’re looking for at the price you need in regular stores, thrift stores are a very useful place to find surprisingly high-quality items. The issue with buying higher quality gifts is that many of us are more comfortable with giving a larger, lower quality present than a smaller but higher quality present. Again; quality over quantity is the key.

Many of us are more comfortable with giving a larger, lower quality present than a smaller but higher quality present.

One of the best materials for a gift is actually an experience. This type of gift can be difficult as it requires planning and enough understanding of a person to know what sort of experience they would appreciate, but having experiences tends to make people happier than having gifts. Numerous studies have proved this, and we can safely agree; fond memories of an experience far outlast any object and will stay with the gift receiver wherever they go. This type of gift works for people of all socioeconomic backgrounds since, provided the experience is meaningful to the person, it can cost little to nothing. An experience gift for your nature-loving friend could be exploring an unfamiliar state park together. For your active mom, a good experience gift could be buying her salsa dancing lessons. If you give it some time and thought, you can accomplish more with less money than for a physical gift.

Thoughtful buying is not very appealing in its practicality; it times time and effort. But even if you continue to buy the same sorts of presents this year or next year and after that, at the very least, try to minimize waste in other ways. Try to use gift bags instead of wrapping paper since they can be reused to deliver other presents. Use as little material as possible to decorate your gift. Little efforts are better than none at all. 

As we head into the chaos of this holiday season, we need to remember that we do not have to completely adhere to the expectations that commercialism has rooted in our culture; it is in fact better if we don’t. Ultimately, we need to focus on that which is most important to us during the holiday season, whether it is religion and/or spending time with and appreciating family and friends. While the consumerism of the holidays helps our economy, we need to focus on what will help us as people as well as what will help our environment in the generations to come.