Gift-Giving On the 21st Century Christmas
(On Buying Less While Living More)
As the festive season is in full swing we too get to think about Christmas gifts and the very idea of gift giving. Usually during the few weeks of the pre-Christmas countdown you find lots of articles online offering advice and tips on the “what’s”, “where’s” and “how much’es” regarding Christmas gifts. While that might often come handy, this article will not be quite of that sort. We at Be-with believe that minimalism is fully compatible with conscious and careful buying and gift-giving. We don’t shy away from owning and offering nice things (that’s part of what we’re doing here!), but we also see the reason in spending less and, consequently, living more and spending more time with our loved ones. This is why, during what is probably for many the most stressful time of the year, we’d like to offer you the account of Agra Lieģe, who talks about the way minimalism in her life has lead to a more conscious and liberating approach to gift-giving. There is practical advice too, so dig in!
For a while now I had been reflective of the concept of gift-giving. At the same time, in the close vicinity of these thoughts resided my growing awareness of the meaning of minimalism in my life. I might not have called it that to begin with, but my beliefs and life choices were steering me more and more in this direction. And it so happened, quite naturally, that the issue of gift-giving in the context of my slowly emerging minimalist identity became more acute with the rapidly approaching Christmas season – the time of ferocious buying.
Every little helps – Marie Kondo and decluttering
Until recently the word “minimalism”, for the most part, was linked in my mind, slightly ironically, with the name of Marie Kondo. I have to admit that I did watch quite a few episodes of “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” and had a bit of a laugh too. At the centre of this show is Marie Kondo, the tiny cute Japanese “organizing consultant”, who in each episode goes over to yet another massively over-stuffed American house and makes its’ inhabitants get rid of everything that fails to “spark joy” in them.
It was all good and well until Marie Kondo launched her own online store, basically implying that once you’ve gotten rid of your own useless crap, you should start buying her useless crap to fill the newly emerged gap. But that’s probably another story for another time. Anyway, at the very least the show inspired me to move into a new wallet (whilst getting rid of all the useless receipts, loyalty cards and expired credit cards from the old wallet) and re-organize my sock drawer.
Earlier this year I made a big move – I moved to live in Poland, and the moving process itself helped me to minimize my belongings considerably. Thus, while watching the scary mountains of Marie Kondo’s clients’ clothing being exposed in the show, I could already give myself a slightly smug pat on the back for having left most of these of troubles behind. And yet, while this DIY mini-minimalism works well enough at our home, it didn’t help to solve the issue of gift-giving – Christmas gift-giving in particular.
Whatever is wrong with buying gifts?
For a while now I’ve felt that there is something wrong with the idea of gift-giving – at least with the idea that you absolutely must give gifts to other people on particular days of the year. I fully support free-style gifting – giving something you’ve accidentally come across to someone close to you who, you are certain, will absolutely love and use the thing… but this is very often not how Christmas gifts work, is it?
Last Saturday me and my partner went Christmas shopping for the kind of small (and mostly chocolate-based) gifts which you need to stock up in bulk for all the expected and unexpected marginally Christmas-related meetings you’re about to have in the near future. We were pretty efficient and only spent a couple of hours doing this. We even had the time afterwards to go to our favourite old fashioned bakery next to a beautiful park in Poznan called “Francuski łącznik” for coffee and pie, so the day was not fully lost.
But somehow I couldn’t shake the feeling that no human being should ever take even a tiny step in the direction which goes against their gut feeling. And spending practically all daylight hours in a supermarket definitely felt that way to me. I have to mention that we are not stingy people, nor do we hate our friends and family, and wish to deprive them of anything that they deserve. But somehow the idea of random material objects being the best and most valuable thing that you can contribute to someone else’s life started to feel more and more ridiculous.
Consumerism versus minimalism
And then some kind of cosmic magic took place – we were browsing Netflix that evening (after putting away all the chocolates, cookies, plum-flavoured vodka bottles and wrapping supplies and pouring a nice glass of Sauvignon Blanc) and this film “Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things” came up. We decided to give it a go and after mere couple of minutes in we were already hooked. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, for the dissatisfaction over a day off partially spent in the shops was still gnawing at us.
The film’s message was crisp, well structured and insightful. The whole thing was narrated by the two self-proclaimed minimalists Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus (they also run the informationally dense website), who had both arrived at the realization that money has failed to buy them happiness. They had come to the logical conclusion that the American Dream should be ditched and, leaving behind six figure corporate jobs, they had begun their minimalist journey, hoping to bring others along.
Long story short, minimalism is not about deprivation – it doesn’t encourage you too live a monk-style life, rejecting the material world as such. In a way it is more materialistic than it might sound, because it invites you to enjoy good things – but only the ones that you actually need and are able to use. Which is why it also seems so clearly to be telling the story of what’s wrong with the Christmas gift-shopping in today’s world.
For all our Latvian readers, we can suggest following the Seek the simple blog and Instagram account. Their last post on Instagram is about Christmas gifts, and what a great one! You can read about minimalism on their blog (in Latvian) and learn from them by watching their live videos or attending lectures.
Gift-giving – proceed with caution
Certainly, in this world there are people in great need – in great need of the most basic things. But this is not what I’m talking about here. The people involved in the ubiquitous consumerist charade are not in need of more stuff. Of more random stuff that somebody, forced by a tradition, felt obliged to purchase and gift them. I, for one, am ready to give up the whole concept of gifting altogether. Me and my partner talked about this after watching the film and, as the first step, we promised to completely stop giving to each other for whatever the occasion – be it birthdays, Christmases, Valentine’s days, what have you.
We also joked that this year, when giving Christmas gifts to family and friends we’ll also be formally announcing that this is the last time they’re getting something from us. Well, who knows, we might actually do it. But it doesn’t need to be all black and white. I don’t actually oppose giving – what I oppose is the stressful and for many also hard-to-afford exchange of meaningless garbage, which is adding zero value to people’s lives. And I oppose the equation of gift-giving to care, attention and love. These things are what they are – you can give them directly, and don’t need the medium of material items.
All that said, I also believe that I have some humble advice to give with regards to gift-giving. I don’t live in the dream world, and I understand that not everyone can proudly turn their back on family and societal traditions, and simply decide to walk away from gift-giving. At this point you already more or less know what my approach to consumerism is. In the light of this I can tell you about how I approach gift-giving personally and, who knows, it might even turn out to be useful for you this month.
Gift type 1 - experiences
Here’s something I’ve already been doing for some time now. I feel especially comfortable with this practice because it is as much a rule for me as it is for thee, so to speak. I very much enjoy experiences – therefore, whenever possible I try to spend money and time on experiences, rather than things. It is not a rule – it is just what I know feels right for me. I love theatre, opera, classical music concerts and travel, and these experiences are forever more important to me than the things the same money could buy. Therefore, I feel comfortable and positively joyful to give these experiences as gifts to others too.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be all fine arts-related – our tastes differ as much as our gift budgets do. But surely there does exist an experiential gift which is both affordable for you and potentially joy-sparking for the person it is intended for. It can be an air ticket and it can be a ticket to a movie in the closest movie theatre. As long as you are thoughtful about what the recipient might enjoy, you will not get this wrong. A little something that says – I’ve spent some time thinking about you, about who you are, about what you enjoy, about how important you are to me – will go a long way.
Experiences enrich lives, while material things might just end up sitting on the shelf, adding no value whatsoever. For me it’s almost down to a gut feeling – I feel light and happy having gifted an experience which I know the recipient will appreciate and enjoy.
Gift type 2 – practical gifts
Another kind of gift, which I feel very comfortable giving, is a practical gift – something that the recipient actually needs and will definitely be using. I know that practical gifts tend to get bad press – like in the joke where the husband gives the wife an iron or another boring household item for Christmas, and the romance is as good as dead. But I really think that there’s nothing wrong with practical giving, as long as it’s thoughtful and informed.
A practical, useful gift can really go a long way – it will make someone’s life easier, which is not a small thing. If someone close to you is between jobs, struggling, moving houses or if you simply know that they’re in need of something specific, I’m positive that in this situation they’ll appreciate a practical gift much more than any kind of luxury item. If you feel uncomfortable about it or unsure – be open and talk to them. Tell them that this year you’d like to give something actually useful, rather than do the mostly unsuccessful guesswork. They’ll love it.
I can tell you what I just did. I have a 19 year old sister, and I’ve been badgering her for over a year now to finally start working towards getting a driver’s licence. My argument was – do it while someone else (namely, parents) is willing to pay for it! But, somehow, it was still not happening. So, I decided that it’s time for a little Christmas magic – a slightly enforced practical gift. I got my dad on board too (it is expensive, after all!) and signed her up for the course. I did talk to her before, though, because, of course, it’s her time and her daily routine that has to be considered, but she was happy to do it. And I can tell you, this really felt like a good gift to give.
Gift type 3 – time “vouchers”
Another kind of gift which I consider to be a great option for both adults and kids are the time and service vouchers. Let me explain. This is a great and potentially humorous DIY gift, which literally anyone can give to anyone else, provided that you know something about their needs and wishes, and that you have some time and energy to share. This is basically the giving of the most precious thing there is – your time, but (in order for things not to get too sappy) it comes in a fun packaging.
I will give you an example – this is something I have wanted to do for quite some time, but haven’t gotten around to yet. I have a friend (my best friend, actually), who’s recently had her third child, and, as you can imagine, time has become a pretty precious commodity for her. We don’t live in the same country anymore, which makes this gift a bit tricky for me to give right now, but I’ll try to figure it out. Basically, my idea was to give her a voucher book – a little handmade thing with a bunch of vouchers inside, each of which would give her an evening off – the “Evening Off” vouchers. This way I’d gift her my time as a babysitter and she could do whatever she wants. A date-night with her husband, perhaps?
This is one way to do it, but there are as many ways as there are people. I’m sure you’re already thinking of your own way of gifting your time to someone for whom it would be precious. It can be more than just time – you can offer your skills and talents too. You can gift language lessons, musical instrument lessons, a crash course in digital marketing or continental philosophy. Or give a voucher which requires you to go over and bake cookies at request. You know. Whatever it is. I’m sure you’ll figure it out.
You might have company
These are just few examples of what I consider to be conscious and thoughtful gift-giving. I’m sure you’ll go and have your own brilliant ideas. All I’m trying to say is – don’t do it out of inertia, don’t do it beyond your means, don’t do it stressed and only because you’re supposed to.
Talk to your friends and family about some other type of arrangement – maybe you can all go somewhere nice together this year and spend the gift money on tickets? Maybe you can do some charity work together, if everyone gets on board? Or maybe one of you is in greater need than others this year, and the funds could somehow go to only them? You might feel like you’ll be the odd one out to suggest something like this, but it’s worth a try – perhaps you’re not the only one who’d like to finally wake up from the nightmare of consumerist Christmas and do it your own way instead.
Have a great holiday season, however you celebrate!
About the author: I am a reader, a writer and I love hiking in the mountains. If I can avoid going shopping to IKEA - I will. And I enjoy thinking and writing about the things that keep me up at night the most. Especially, if there is even the slightest chance that it might help bring about even the tiniest bit of change.