2016 was the year of Marie Kondo. The Japanese decluttering guru and author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up took on Americans’ closets, challenging readers to throw out any possessions that didn’t spark joy. A recently widowed Emily Gilmore flirts with the philosophy as a way to process her grief in the Netflix revival of the much loved series Gilmore Girls. While Kondo’s method is still up for debate, the popularity of the book proves that Americans have a complicated relationship with our stuff. With this and the current divisive political climate in mind, holiday gift giving can feel both daunting and superfluous. Who wants to give someone an unwanted gift, destined to collect dust unused on a shelf until it ends up in a landfill?
A November Gallup poll shows that Americans will spend a projected average of $830 individually on holiday shopping, with 30 percent spending more than $1,000. That’s a lot of money that may or may not result in a spark of joy. So, instead, some people are opting to forgo gift giving all together, give charitably, or shop only with female or minority-owned small businesses for holiday gifts.
“I’ve had it with gifts,” Eileen W. Cho, a 24-year-old Paris-based Korean-American photographer declared. “I have family all over the world, and I found myself spending all this time and money sending people things that I felt like they didn’t even really appreciate. And I’m not religious, so why am I celebrating Christmas? It’s just another day. People put so many expectations into holidays, and then they leave disappointed.”
“So this year I decided no gifts,” Cho said, “and literally the next day, my boyfriend’s parents gave me something I didn’t want. I had to open it in front of them, and it was so uncomfortable. I was so glad I had decided to not give gifts this year because I don’t want to make anyone feel that way.” Instead of sending her family gifts, Cho will be coming to the States to visit her parents and brother for New Year’s.
Putting time in with the people you love is a great alternative to traditional gift giving. “My husband calls it the gift of time,” says global business manager Alison Williams. Now in their early 30s, the couple has been exchanging experiences, such as concert or theater tickets, since they started dating in their mid-20s. “It’s expanded to our friends and family too. A few years ago, we had our niece come stay at our house for a weekend and she had 24 hours where she got to call the shots. The only drawback is sometimes it can take so long to schedule everything that Christmas gifts can last until June!”
Recently transplanted to London from the Atlanta area, the Williamses are still considering their best options for 2016. “We haven’t decided for sure yet, but I think we will be selecting charities to give to in honor of different people, [and] we’re looking to give to organizations that are valuable to [each] person. We might do a veterans organization for my father-in-law since he was in the service. It really frees us from the burden of belongings.”
New York City Web communications professional Norma Campbell agrees that adults don’t need to give each other things. She and her husband don’t exchange gifts because “we are adults with jobs who can buy ourselves things when we want them,” Campbell says. “We send our nephews in Texas a few things. In years past, we have planned experiences with people, but this year I made baskets for people that had products from nonprofit companies I wanted to support.” Her baskets included a Kiva gift card, Karam Foundation soap, Zach’s Bags, and a Thistle Farms soap.
Making sure that her family’s spending aligns with their values is very important to Sakea Manning, a fiction writer in her mid-50s from Altadena, Calif. “This year, any gifts we give will be fair trade, from Ten Thousand Villages or local artisan fairs in the Los Angeles area. I also bake a lot, making sure to use local produce. I might get some pantry items from Target. I think it is important to support Target since they are supporting transgender rights. At Thanksgiving, we talked about giving generously to the ACLU and the Human Rights Campaign, organizations that are going to help us get through the next four years.”
This isn’t the first year the mother of two college-aged sons has made a concerted effort to stress conscientious gift giving in her family. “We have very diverse heritage,” Manning said. “My mother is Japanese, and my father is Chickasaw, Irish, and black, so we just celebrate everything! It’s basically one thing after another from Halloween until January. When the boys were growing up, we would get together with other friends to adopt a needy family in the community for the holidays. I just found out that my older son organized his co-workers to do that this year. That was really the best gift I could get, knowing that I had raised him to do that.”
This rings true for Atlantan Danielle Johnson, 33, too. “I’ve never been tied to a commercial Christmas. but we will plan a family trip, and I like to check for things to do while traveling on If Only.” The site offers exclusive experiences with experts and luminaries who have selected a charity to benefit from the sale. She continues, “I also look to Essence or other publications for lists of black-owned businesses because sometimes my family will exchange gifts, but we don’t expect them.”
If your family does anticipate a gift exchange, it can be hard to break the habit. The uptick in engaged couples registering for charitable giving on sites like the I Do Foundation has expanded. Now anyone can create a similar registry on Just Give or Small Token. The notification generated feels more tangible than just telling someone that you donated to their favorite fund. The sites also allow you to purchase gift cards to encourage others to pick their own causes and donate. These alternatives are great if, like Johnson, you think, “It can be hard to figure out what to do for people who have a lot, so it’s nice do things that make people feel generous and included in a different way.”