Writing A No-Gifting Holiday Letter

My favorite time of year is upon us. A time of brisk morning air, evening fireside chats, excuses to snuggle and wear socks to bed, and gathering for no jolly good reason at all except for the fact that it’s that time of year. Intermingled among all this is the season of gift giving, interlaced with all sorts of well-meaning intentions designed to show affection and care. How then, to break one’s bubble and tell them not to give gifts at all, in order to avoid waste, excess consumption, and negatively impact livelihoods and the planet? Such Grinch-like talk will surely get you uninvited to Aunt Sally’s Christmas dinner. But lack of such talk could keep you in a cycle of forever contributing to unnecessary waste production and consumption. Which idea can you be more at peace with?

For myself, preceding any sort of wish list requires a conversation, which could be substituted by a letter if you’ve got some ‘splaining to do for a large number of people or if the face-to-face interaction is just too awkwardly painful to sit through. It requires bravery fortified by resolve, THAT I can guarantee you. It also requires an openness on my part, since I have no control over the openness on their part. Meaning, I must accept the possibility of rejection. For some, gift giving is just something very much ingrained in their being. I know it once was the case for me. There used to be a time where everyone I knew got a gift from me, whether they wanted to or not. I used to think it was the best way I could spread joy and show love. Today, I see the holidays as a heavily marketed event that promotes large amounts of consumption packaged in the form of gifts. Not everyone shares my view point. But I know that I’ve changed, and maybe over time, they may too. Regardless, allow people to be themselves. It is important to share your view point and stand strong as a mountain around your values, but it is equally important to allow others around you to be fluid and flow as a river, going their own way. Be open to being denied your wish to veer away from gift giving, because it is, after all, a wish.

The hard part, off course, lies in finding the best way to communicate that wish. Each family is different, and the way you communicate greatly affects the way the wish is received. With my immediate family, I have had endless conversations (throughout the year) about my stance. But what of extended family and friends? The easiest thing to do if your family is keen on sending each other wish lists is to include a letter addressed to all. Every year, people ask me for a wish list. And when I say “You don’t have to get me anything”, they typically respond with, “Just send it to me, anyway.” So I do, attached with a written letter. I have included this letter last Christmas, for my most recent birthday, and yes, this Christmas as well. May you find inspiration and support.

Dear all,

Please do not feel the need to get me a Christmas gift this year. I’d rather Christmas be about spending time, not money. I am more than happy to receive NOTHING. Actually I would feel a weight lift, since I feel stressed knowing that our consumption choices do affect the environment. Our resources could be used elsewhere, like buying a Christmas meal for a low-income family, or sending the gift to a child in a third world country. Please consider.

On that note, if you cannot keep yourself from the gift giving spirit, I ask that you kindly respect my wish for having as little negative social and environmental impact as possible. I request no plastic packaging, which requires either picking up these items from the store or writing letters to the companies to request zero plastic packaging in the shipping. No gift wrap is necessary, but if you wish to wrap, please be mindful and avoid plastic wrap, including ribbons and bows made from cellophane. There will be no need for plastic tags stickered onto gifts as well. Lastly, please use the links specified in this document if you choose to gift. Do not substitute products with other products as a majority of these are chosen specifically for their sustainability in material, fair trade, or direct global impact in poor communities.

Future thank you, regardless of what you choose to do.

XOXO,

Sam

Yes, it takes guts. Yes, it may not be well received by some. But after sending letters of the like twice before, here is the change that I am happy to see.

  • This year, my siblings were open to limiting the gifts to under $25. We used to spend $100+ on each other, and limiting it to a small price really allows us to focus our dollars on what we truly need.
  • This year, my sister-in-law approached us and asked if her, Mr. Debtist and I could skip gifts this year. She said that she had also asked her closest friends to do the same, and it was received with open arms. She only felt comfortable asking us this because we have made it clear in the past that gifts are not important to us. The conversation had already been started.
  • We have requested to participate in only the Secret Santas for the parties we are attending. Meaning, for the years that we are attending the other side’s extended family’s party, we will be skipping gift giving for the side we aren’t attending.
  • My husband and I will not get gifts for each other. We gift to each other throughout the year in forms of travel, quality time, and everything else we do to create an intentional lifestyle. At the end of December, we will be traveling to Australia and New Zealand, which is “gift” enough.

I hope that in sharing these moments, you find the courage to speak up for the lifestyle you want to lead. Change can happen, no matter how minute, but it all starts with awareness about how our actions today affect the world we create for tomorrow.

New Norms: Saying No to Secret Santa

As we continue with the holiday season (Christmas is less than two weeks away!), I continue reassessing the traditions that come with it. I find myself participating in festivities for the sake of tradition, which is never a good reason to participate in the first place. Tradition keeps people repeating the same thing over and over again, is based mostly on emotions associated with the past, and usually involve rigid practices. There is no room for creativity with tradition, no room for forward thinking. Awareness sheds light on the fact that it isn’t really I who wants to partake in the yule tide carols, just like I realized long ago that it wasn’t really my choice to go to church. But every Sunday I woke up and went to church and sang in the choir for 12 years. I attended every single Easter Vigil Mass, Palm Sunday Mass, and Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, until there came I point where I felt it strongly in my heart that it was not my own decision and to continue doing so would be fraudulent. I still live a selectively Roman Catholic lifestyle in terms of ethics, but without the absolution and the rituals. I took some of the lessons with me, but got rid of those that did not serve me. Likewise, I carried that mindfulness over to the holiday season. Picking and choosing which parts of the holiday I still want to keep for myself is difficult to do without feeling like much of a Grinch, if it weren’t for the core group of like-minded people I’ve surrounded myself with to support me.

I vividly remember going out to lunch with a high school best friend the week before Thanksgiving. Prior to high school, I moved 10 times in my life, so the high school friends that I kept in touch with over the years are technically my longest friends. Everyone else before high school, I have lost touch with, mostly because I was young, and partially because pen pals stopped being “a thing” in early 2000s. There are only a few high school friends that I still talk to today, and they are the people who have the same views on life as I do. Those who I grew apart from I don’t have contact much with, because like tradition, keeping in touch with someone for old time’s sake is, to me, a waste of time.

But I digress. My high school friend and I met up for our occasional lunch dates on a day that I had off. Typical of our usual dates, I would drive to her work place and she would take her lunch break after I have arrived, so that we could go and grab something to eat. We were sitting outside in sunny California weather, when she brought up the topic of Secret Santa at the workplace.

“I hate Secret Santa,” she said to me. She explained that every year, her workplace does Secret Santa with a minimum spending limit of $25. However, people at work don’t really know each other on a personal level. So every year the presents are the same, generic presents, usually alcohol-related or Starbucks gift cards, or if you’re unlucky, an item that you don’t even want. My friend doesn’t drink alcohol, like myself, so I can see why the alcohol bit is a turn off in the first place. Plus, she said something that made an imprint in my memory. “If I want Starbucks, I can buy myself Starbucks. I don’t need someone to be required to buy me my own coffee.” She was so frustrated with the whole thing and with an exasperated sigh, she told me, “So this year, I told them I wasn’t going to do it.” I kind of just looked at her, until something in my brain clicked. You can say no. I think I had that OMG-AHA! moment, and she laughs lightly and says, “So far, I’m the only one who said no. Let’s see what happens.” She shrugged and I laughed with her and told her that she was a genius.

The funny thing is, as early as October, I sent my extended family on both sides quite a long email about how I do not want presents for the holidays this year because I was trying to be more mindful. Every year, I get about 20 presents from my extended family, mostly stuff I do not want or need, and within the first few months, I have to find a way to de-clutter it all. So I wrote to them explaining that there is no need for presents and if they wish to gift, to consider maybe donating to charity. So the concept of opting out isn’t new, but for some reason, I never thought to extend that to other groups of people, with other traditions.

So off course, the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, someone came around my work handing out little pieces of paper for our Secret Santa. They asked me to list three things on it, and to return it to them at the end of the day. I grudgingly took the piece of paper, and remember thinking about it, folding it up, and tucking it in my lab coat, as if in slow motion. During downtime throughout the day, I kept thinking, what do I want? I even took out a little black notebook from my purse and a pen to jot down ideas. I came up blank. I couldn’t really think of what to ask for, because the few things I wanted, I had already asked my parents and brother and sister to get for me. And then I thought of it. What I want is to not participate this year. If I had to rack my brain to come up with even ONE thing to ask for, I do not actually WANT that one thing. I only want it because I was told that I need to want something.

I texted Mike right away and told him that I was asked to do Secret Santa but that I don’t feel like doing it. That same day, Mike had been debating about going to a work lunch outing. One of his managers was leaving, and the team was going to go out to celebrate, at lunch, AND after work at Happy Hour. Mike didn’t want to celebrate twice, spend twice as much money, and twice as much time. He had been talking to me about this the last few days, and I told him, well, you could skip the lunch? I could tell that he felt the pressure to join the entire team to take their manager out to lunch, but that he really did not want to go out twice. So when I texted him about my Secret Santa dilemma, he texted back and said, “Okay, don’t do it. I told them no to the lunch thing. You can do it too.” And just like that, I texted Mike a quick “Thanks!” and texted my high school friend saying, “Guess what! I’m saying no to Secret Santa too, just like you! I don’t want to spend $50 to buy someone a present when I can’t even think of a single thing I want someone to buy for me.” To which she said, “$50?!?! People ARE insane.”

I did not mention the Secret Santa to my coworkers for the rest of the day. Towards the end of the day the office manager asked for my slip of paper. I looked at him and simply told him, “I’m sorry. But I cannot think of one single thing I want to ask for. I don’t want to participate in the Secret Santa.” Surprisingly enough, he just smiled and said, “Okay!”

And the snowball kept on rolling. Here are other things we’ve done to change up so called traditions.

  • Me, Mike, and the sister in law trying to convince Mike’s mom’s side to drop Secret Santa. When we got a lot of push back, convincing them to decrease spending from $50 to $25.
  • Texting the girlfriends and asking not to exchange gifts this year.
  • Cutting our spending on our family members’ gifts by half. Asking family members if we can split their gifts with other family members.
  • Switching up which extended family gets Christmas Day.
  • Not agreeing to attend my family’s yearly Las Vegas trip.
  • Backing out of some family Secret Santa’s, AFTER the names have been drawn. Telling them to re-draw names, because we no longer want to participate in gift exchanges for parties we aren’t even able to attend.
  • No longer continuing the tradition of buying Christmas decoration during Christmas time. Exception: The Christmas tree. Still debating if it was a worthy purchase, but enjoying its scent and bareness. Likely to be a continued tradition.

Here are traditions we still kept:

  • Gift exchange with immediate family members and one secret santa exchange with our core group of ten friends
  • The aforementioned Christmas tree
  • Occasional Christmas music

Decisions still to be made:

  • Will I attend the holiday party this year? I am absolutely dreading it. I was talking to Mike last night about how much I did not want to go. I work at two different offices, owned by the same guy, but with two completely different Christmas parties. One is more reserved and polite, and the other is just straight up rowdy. This year, I am working with the latter on the day of the party, which means that is the party I am invited to. Every year, they go out to a restaurant or bar as a group, and there’s lots of tequila shots being passed around. Stories of people getting hammered and blacking out continue on to the following Christmas. Stories of continuing the party afterwards at some club. I would rather go home and read. I’m leaning towards skipping out on those “festivities”, though I’ve already had multiple people questioning me whether I can make it. It’d be nice not to.

Grateful for my high school friend, Mike, and the sister in law for being of the same mind. Grateful for our families who have been very open and accepting of our new no gifts rule. Grateful for change, and the ability to think for myself. Grateful for old traditions, but even more so, newer traditions.

How is your Christmas changing?