I fully embrace Christmas. I love the cheesiness, the festive lights, and I also enjoy buying presents – with a caveat. I started listening to Christmas songs in September, although, as a disclaimer, my friend put the playlist on. I just didn’t fight it.
Come 1 December, I am ready to fully throw myself into all things festive: put a tree up, make some mulled wine or cider, wear festive jumpers and blast (even more) Christmas songs. One of the main components of the festive season is also buying presents for your loved ones. I do love thinking of presents to get my friends and family and enjoy the process of buying presents (unless on a busy Saturday two days before Christmas). That said, I find the practical side of getting people presents can often put massive amounts of pressure on you.
The above screenshot of an email I got this morning perfectly captures my point. As is typical with how consumerist Christmas has become, shops amp up the pressure like Hotel Chocolat does by suggesting a number of people I should add to my ever-growing gift list. I really dislike these kinds of emails as they make you think of presents that you "have to" give when you may not have thought those recipients need Christmas presents.
I have a big family. Already, my ‘core’ family unit is quite big: I have three siblings, a brother-in-law, a nephew, and two parents. These are all people I want to get presents for but the costs quickly pile up. Add on to that extended family: In an ideal world, I’d like to get everyone in my family a meaningful gift (as well as friends!) but the more people you want to buy presents for, the more your budget gets stretched.
There are two things in particular that stress me about gift-giving: the financial burden and how thoughtful the gifts are. I want to emphasise that I don’t think thoughtful gifts have to be expensive, but I do think it is difficult to get thoughtful things for everyone on a shoestring budget, given how you want to cater to their tastes. It’s one of those situations where, for a thoughtful gift, you either spend a lot of time or money on it. Added to this is also the pressure of reciprocating when you receive a gift from someone.
The financial pressure
First of all is the financial burden. Moneysavingexpert.com’s Martin Lewis hits the nail on the head with this issue in the below video. He discusses the transactional nature of gifts, which make us feel like we have to return the favour for want of appearing ungrateful. He traces gift-giving back to a type of social banking in which more affluent members of society would bestow gifts upon younger members of society to help them start their lives.
As is, the list of who you get presents for can seem never-ending. One phenomenon in particular is buying presents for teachers. Now, the gesture is certainly a kind one and a token of appreciation, but teachers end up with a lot of the same stuff that they may not necessarily use.
And it’s exactly this which can be a financial burden. I’m not saying ‘Don’t buy teachers gifts, they don’t deserve it!’ but actually, if you’re finding yourself under financial pressure, you shouldn’t feel obliged to get unnecessary gifts as kind gestures. Buying a number of presents adds up and you may have other expenses which you feel you should prioritise, but can’t at the moment because you feel you have to get people presents.
Putting thought into gifts
The second issue I have with the season of giving is how thoughtful my presents can be. As Lewis points out, this ‘tit for tat’ transaction honestly turns into giving someone tat. If, for budgetary reasons, I only have €10 to spend on a present for each grandparent, I don’t just want to get them a set of body lotion and shower gel. Usually, people receive a lot of these generic gifts and they don’t necessarily use them.
To add to this, I increasingly think about waste and sustainability. I could probably write about the environmental impact of Christmas in general in a separate article, but I’ll keep it limited to gift giving here. If I purchase a small gift for someone that I don’t know they’ll like, but that I’m getting because I don’t want to not get them something, I feel like I’m buying something for the sake of it. There are so many aspects of waste inherent here: the waste of money purchasing something that won’t be used, the waste of materials used to produce it, wrap it, and more.
I think this also applies to receiving gifts. Being frank here, I’m not the only person here who has received a gift that just gathered dust over time. I want to try and become more thoughtful with my gift-giving to not give someone something that ultimately doesn't appeal to them. There's also a general sense that you can't pass on gifts that aren't your cup of tea as it's ungrateful, but forgetting about those presents as they lay in a particular cupboard doesn't seem like a better solution, in my opinion.
However, it isn’t that easy to get more thoughtful presents if your budget is relatively tight. In that case, one option could be to donate to a charity that’s close to that person’s heart. After all, any amount is better than nothing and you move away from the sometimes overwhelming materialistic nature of Christmas.
This year, my family have changed Christmas up slightly. My siblings and I decided that, instead of having to gift something to each of us, we’d just do a Secret Santa type of allocation and focus on one person in particular. In this sense, we can put more thought into our present for that one person.
Another way to combat material waste is to get people experiences as presents. I think this is also something that can be flexible depending on your budget – for instance, you could get them a ticket to the cinema, a subscription to something, a pass for museums, or concert tickets.
Earlier, I mentioned how selecting a thoughtful gift often requires spending either money or time on it (or both). One of my friends really enjoys getting presents for people. As a result, she often gets people presents months in advance because she’ll have thought of something really unique and special. She tracks down these unique presents both online and in person and because she does this throughout the year, she probably doesn’t sit there at a loss for what to get someone when it comes to November. I want to try and emulate her so I don’t end up in a situation where I’ve run out of time and money’s tight as well.
Ultimately, the issue lies in how Christmas has turned into a celebration of consumer culture. We generally think of presents as things we need to purchase rather than make or pass on to others. Now, with the advent of Black Friday spreading through Europe as well, it seems that the festive season is truly about spending money. This is one reason that I like the idea of thinking to get gifts throughout the year. This way, you don't fall prey to false promotions and potentially amped-up prices during the weeks before Christmas.
Nathalie Lodhi is a freelance translator for RTL Today and occasional journalist living in Edinburgh.