Overcoming Consumerism: Alternatives to Gift Giving at Christmas:
I’ve struggled with and suffered from compulsive spending all my life and in that time I’ve learned a thing or two about it. I suspect a few of you reading this struggle with it also, so in the next few posts were going to look at specific tips to overcome compulsive buying and over-spending. If you want to become a vandweller, and adopt a simpler more minimalist lifestyle, I hope we can learn a few things together.
But because it’s Christmas, and many of you are probably struggling more right now than at any other time of the year, I want to offer you some alternatives to Christmas shopping. My goal is to help you avoid going deeper into debt and filling your lives with more stuff you don’t really need and may not really want.
How we’re Brainwashed to Be Addicted to Spending
The majority of Americans struggle with over-spending whether it could be classified as an addiction or just a strong compulsion. I suspect most of you saw the evidence of that when you tried to move into a van. The reason we’ve become a nation of compulsive over-spenders is we’re systematically brainwashed from birth to connect love and things. Whenever I write that, I hear from people who insist that they haven’t been brainwashed. But at Christmas the incredible hold things has over us is so obvious it’s very easy to see. To the American mind, things equal love and so, we give gifts of things to say “I love you.” I think it’s helpful if we understand just how powerful the hold gift-giving has over our national psyche.
1) Cultural traditions.
To understand how we’be been brainwashed by cultural traditions, you have to go back to the first year of a babies life and see that the child is constantly trained that gifts=love and therefore no gifts=no love:
- At birth the baby is brought home and there are all the gifts from the baby shower. The people that love mommy expressed that love with the gift of things. If they love her, they gave her gifts and lots of food. Gifts of Things = Love
- A little while later, it was Valentines day and Daddy and mommy love each other so they celebrate and prove their love by giving each other gifts and food. Gifts of Things = Love
- Next comes Easter and we learn about the ultimate act of love in our societies dominant mythology that god loves us so he gave us a gift. Of course we celebrate the love by giving gifts of little pretty things. Gifts of Things = Love
- In the summer gramma comes to visit and she brings gifts to prove her love. Gifts of Things = Love
- Throughout the year mommy, daddy and babies siblings have birthdays, and each time we celebrate how much we love them by giving them gifts. Gifts of Things = Love
- Later, daddy goes on a trip and when he comes home he needs to prove he still loves baby, so he gives baby some gifts. Gifts of Things = Love
- Then in October we rejoice that god proved his love for us by giving us the gift of a good harvest. We celebrate by giving each other little gift treats of food. Gifts of Things = Love
- Finally comes Christmas and in the dominate religion of our culture we celebrate Love by a gigantic orgy of gifts of things. The more we love, the more we give. We compete with each other to show our great love with greater and greater gifts. Of course quantity is every bit as important as quantity so we go berserk in our giving. Gifts of Things = Love
- A little while later it’s babies birthday so we celebrate and prove our love for baby with a party with lots of food and gifts. Gifts of Things = Love
- Every day baby sees daddy and mommy going to work to get money to buy things. Baby soon learns that money and things are more important than family because they abandon her every day to go get it.
This pattern that began in babies first year will be repeated every year of his or her life. All by itself it’s plenty to make certain that we all grow up addicted to things and are convinced to the core of our being that things mean love and without things we aren’t loved. All any human being really wants is to know he is loved and by totally connecting love with things we are guaranteed to be addicted to things and will crave more and more stuff all our lives.
2) Powerful Stories
But our conditioning to be addicted to things doesn’t stop with just those cultural patterns; as babies mental capacities grow, she/he is subjected to continual electronic brainwashing to love things. Since humans first learned speech, every culture has conveyed their values and history with stories. Storytelling is the oldest and strongest way of conditioning members of a group to conform to the groups traditions, values and ethics. Very soon after birth, baby is sat down in front of a screen to watch stories from TV and videos that convey the deepest American ideals and beliefs. And the one things he sees in all of them is that happy and loved people have stuff and lots of it. And if they don’t have stuff, they are consumed with the effort to get it. Some work hard and devise schemes to get more stuff, others lie, steal and cheat; some even kill to get more stuff. Baby learns that stuff is all important.
Then, during the morality plays on the importance of stuff, commercials come on and they show baby all the happy people with all their happy stuff and every single one of them makes it clear that without stuff, you can’t be happy but with it, life is wonderful!Just like it has for the last million years, the stories work, baby believes that stuff equals love and happiness. Of course before the rise of civilization the message was just the opposite, that things are not important and that people and the tribe is all-important. But stories work just as well for a terrible message as a good one.
Alternatives to Gifts at Christmas:
After a life-time of these powerful brainwashing techniques it’s no surprise that you and your family struggle with being addicted to stuff.When you say to them, “Let’s not give Christmas gifts anymore.” What they hear is “I don’t love you.” They are going to resist giving up gifts because being loved is the most important thing in our lives. It’s worth trying, but if it doesn’t work you can try to slowly wean them away from gifts by offering other alternatives. If you do, hopefully they’ll hear, “I love you, but I want a better way to show it to you.”
- Give to charity instead of each other. Most Christmas traditions have nothing at all to do with being Christian, so offer to get back to the true meaning of the holiday and say instead of giving gifts to each other, you’ll spend the same amount of money but it will go to people in true need to meet basic necessities and not luxuries.
- Set dollar limits on gift spending. In these bad economic times, most people are open to reducing Christmas spending. Negotiate the amount as low as you can and next year try to reduce it even further.
- Get rid of stocking stuffers. Many stocking stuffers are cheap junk that are going straight into the landfill. Try hard to put your foot down and eliminate that very bad habit.
- Homemade gifts. One way to give gifts and still minimize the harmful effects of consumerism is to make it a rule that you only give gifts that each person has made himself. One objection will be that a person isn’t creative and can’t make a gift. For those people you can suggest they give homemade gift cards with services you will render like give a back-rub or do the dishes.
- Buy from a local craftsman. Another way to give gifts and still be green is to make it a rule that every gift must be made by-hand locally. This is a win-win situation for everybody: your friends and family get unique and wonderful gifts, the local economy is enhanced and a local artist is blessed. Eliminating mass-production and transportation makes it much greener.
- Insist on One Quality gift. All too often we get fixated on the number of gifts under the tree and end up buying many cheap gifts that will soon break or wear out. Everybody losses when that happens. Instead, insist on one high quality gift that is going to last for many years. In the long run, everybody wins.
- Make it a “Green” Christmas. Tell everyone that each gift must be green and do the minimum harm to the earth. If they aren’t open to that, take responsibility for yourself and think green before every purchase. Consider all the factors (packaging, transport, durability, recycle ability, etc.) and make the greenest, most environmentally friendly purchase possible.
- Make a list and stick to it. Just going to a store and buying on impulse is a sure way to buy too much and probably something without any emotional impact. Instead, give careful thought to the person you are buying for and give a gift from the heart that will truly express your love for them. Once you’ve figured out what to give to who, make a list and stick to it. Go to the store, buy from that list, and nothing else.
- Restrict gifts to gift cards. If the cards are to practical places that someone was going to shop at anyway (Walmart for example) chances are some of the money will be spent on practical items (like groceries) that the person would have bought anyway. There are numerous advantages to this. First, in these bad economic times, the person might be very grateful for a practical gift. Second, there will be less frivolous luxuries produced, reducing the harm done to the Earth. Third, shopping is a whole lot easier and maybe you can actually enjoy Christmas.
- Buy gifts that are good for the Earth in the long run. For example, if you give a Kindle E-book reader, there will be many less trees cut down to make paper books. Or, give a gift of rechargeable batteries and charger, and many less batteries will end up in the landfill.
- Give used items as gifts. Many products like books, clothes, electronics and furniture hold their value extremely well even when used and could make good gifts. Some of your friends and family may resist this, but try hard to convince them that there is nothing wrong with used gifts, that it’s good for the Earth and does not express less love than a new gift. It’ll help if you use terms like “antique” or “vintage”. This may take some time (maybe even years) so be patient and persistent in explaining it to them.
- Start an alternative tradition. For example, if your family is religious suggest they each volunteer to work for charity instead of giving gifts. Maybe you could say that you will volunteer once a week at your churches soup kitchen for the entire year as a Christmas gift to Jesus. If they aren’t religious suggest they celebrate the Solstice instead. December 21st is Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. For many thousands of years native/aboriginal peoples have celebrated the solstice as a magical time of year. Unfortunately, modern people have become so isolated from nature, and our true selves, that we have lost touch with the magic that exists all around us. If need be you can make it clear this is not a religious thing, it’s strictly for the mental and physical health benefits of connecting to nature. Strike a bargain with your family that if you give gifts at Christmas, they should get back to nature with you on the Solstice. That day take time out from the terrible busy-ness of the season and go outside. Find a quiet place in nature, and try to reconnect with it, yourself and your family. Make a commitment to pursue a life filled with nature.
You may want to let your family read this post so that they can see that they have been the victims of brainwashing, and much of what they’ve been doing is not of their free-will. Perhaps then you can all begin to make change at Christmas, and the rest of the year, that will improve every aspect of your lives.
Agree with you completely and you have some good ideas for people who can’t break the habit. We quit gift giving six years ago when we became fulltime RVers. Christmas was always such a stressful time with the pressure to come up with an appropriate gift, and then the packing and mailing to out-of-town relatives. The family understood when we told them we were no longer doing gifts, and they were probably happy as well to at least cross a couple people off their list.
Enjoy the quiet beauty of the season. It beats a tacky gift any day.
Thanks Gayle, it sounds like you’ve got it figured out! You’re lucky to have such an understanding family.
I just buy everyone in my family a gift cert. to the same restaurant and we go there sometime in late Jan. after all the holiday parties are over. It started because I was trying to get my total Christmas shopping down to 5 min. and now it’s sort of a tradition for me. They know I’m a minimalist so I get socks, batteries and guitar strings and it’s all good.
That’s a good plan Openspaceman.
Super rich people create these traditional Cultures of Gift Changes to profit from the poor people so the riches can slave them with more junks. I don’t fall for their dirty tricks therefore I don’t buy Christmas gifts for anyone include my wife. Instead I take her to beautiful places to celebrate our love. Say NO To All traditional cultures.
I’m afraid I have to agree with you Patrick. It’s time to rebel against the machine.
Great job of putting things in perspective, Bob.
I especially liked your suggestions that we give gifts that are green, homemade or made by local craftsmen.
I was not surprised to learn in my freshman psychology class that Christmas ranks just as high on the anxiety scale as divorce. By then, I’d already realized the effects that it had on people near and dear to me. I’d seen them turn into raging monsters because of this obsession with buying presents and otherwise preparing for the holidays.
Irv, it’s really sad how we’ve taken something that should be deeply meaningful for human relations and turned it into a monstrosity that ravages the earth and makes us very unhappy. Very sad.
All great suggestions! Don’t underestimate the idea of giving a handmade card with a note or “coupon” saying you’ll do a service. I recall one man who gave his wife the gift of him repainting the interior of the house (something she dearly wanted). It was a great gift of his time and definitely said “I love you” to her. Another family I know each gave the other things like “One family picnic at the park” or “One family game night” and that sort of thing instead of presents. They all emphasized the importance of spending quality time together instead of each getting a thing of some sort. They were a very close-knit family and even the teenagers were well-behaved, polite and considerate to everyone.
That’s a very good idea Lightfoot!!
You have lots of great suggestions here, Bob. If I give gifts for occasions (which I don’t always do…it depends on my finances at the time), they’re almost always made by myself or by a craftsperson I know. Having said that though, my husband has given me a few gifts that have been invaluable, such as my laptop, a camera, and a lens…these are things that I use pretty much on a daily basis and are like investments in my businesses. Come to think of it, they would fit in with your sixth tip.
I really like the idea of celebrating the solstice. It’s a pretty big deal here on the west coast. They have a lantern festival on the mainland that I haven’t been to in many years but is completely magical. Just getting outside and connecting with the earth is an excellent suggestion. Maybe we could all think of a way to start our own traditions or rituals that would have meaning specific to us and our families.
Peggy, I think the idea of starting your own tradations that have real meaning to you are so much better than just following old traditions just out of habit. And I don’t mean that as pro or anti Christian. The new traditions can be getting back to the true meaning of the season, or they can be another religion altogether.
Google the documentary THE CENTURY OF THE SELF. The nephew of Sigmund Freud took his uncle’s ideas to the government and corporations and taught them how to control and influence the masses AND get them to buy things they didn’t need or want. Those reading this blog probably know of this notion, but interesting to see how it was actually put into practice a century ago.
I’ve been regifting, knitting, making body butters……..for years, as well as giving practical items to my grown kids, but I also stress not using wrapping paper. I reuse old calendars, paper bags and this year am even wrapping things with sycamore bark that I hole punch and tie together with japanese honeysuckle: finding a use for an invasive species and ripping it out of the ground. Two birds with one stone. I have to admit, I do love chopping down a Charlie Brown tree from our woods and decorating it. Smells good!
Elizabeth, I’ll have to look for that documentary. I was aware of the history of Propaganda/Public Relations. Very few know that unintentionally Freud was he founding father of it. You could say that he set in motion a chain of events that allowed Hitler to use propaganda to rule Germany and start WW II.
Those are very good tips at Christmas time, thanks!
I sit here appreciating again some facets of my childhood poverty. I missed most of the indoctrination you described, and I know enough to agree that it’s a good picture of most Americans. I tell people that I can “think outside the box” because I was not invited into the box in the first place. The lack of consumerism in my youth is an important part of that. I learned instead that the best thing a person can give someone else is their time, especially in parenting.
I have taken college classes in marketing. The events and attitudes you describe are in no way accidental or historical. They are brought about by experts whose goal is to part ordinary people from their money for the financial benefit of their corporate clients. They succeed, which is tragic. The specific consumer traditions we call Christmas are not even Christian. They come from pagan traditions.
People do not expect me to celebrate Christmas. I gave that up when I was 15 years old and have enforced it ever since. I have, however, found my way to a religion that celebrates the Solstice. It’s nothing like the commercial chaos of a US Christmas, though.
I celebrate personal occasions (mine and others’) as well as I can. I particularly appreciate the gift card idea. All one needs to know is that someone shops in a particular place often, or that they do not object to Walmart. I have an e-ink Kindle, which came with the charger. I’m good with that. However, an Amazon gift card would allow me to buy books. I have between 300 and 400 books on mine, but almost all of them are free books. There are books and music I would like to buy, and I could help my friend Bob a little at the same time.
Calvin, you probably didn’t think at the time that being poor was a secret blessing in disguise, but it turns out that it was. That just goes to show that minimalism is ultimately a blessing even if sometimes feels like deprivation.
I really like Openspaceman’s practice of “total Christmas shopping down to 5 minutes”! That should be a movement.
Ahhh…laziness the mother of invention. I’ll admit it, but it works for me.
I nominate you two President and Vice President!
Bob – Thank you so much for taking time to write that article.!! It’s a great reinforcement. I made ornaments out of leather that I had lying around. (I make leather purses) When I sent them, I said, Hang these on your Christmas tree, and every time you look at them – you will think of me.” I hope they realize that all the time I made them – they were in my thoughts. I hate to spend money on things that will be disregarded, forgotten and not useful. My mother had us look in the catalog and put our initial by the things we wanted, we pretty much got most of them and she took all year to pay for Christmas.!! That kinda’ gave me bad spending habits, I’m sure.!! Thanks again – see you in Quartzsite.!!! Ruby
Ruby, we have to remember that our parents were raised with the same brainwashing we were so they are products of their programming just like we are, they did their best. It’s up to us to break free and make changes.
It sounds like you are doing a good job of that!
This year I think I’ll be giving myself the gift of a new windshield. Or maybe it can wait for my birthday.
But, besides the usual negative stuff associated with gift giving, my ex considered it a test of how much I loved her. The more unique, the more trouble and effort I put into acquiring it/making it/having it hand crafted, the more I read her mind (even to the point of divining what she didn’t even know she wanted) the more points I’d win. Just buying something in a store—something anyone could buy—no matter how perfect I knew it was, would get me in a deep hole. Never mind that her gifts for me didn’t follow the same standards. So glad all that is over. Merry Christmas.
Al, lot’s of people are like you and gift-giving makes the holidays a total misery!Like you, I’m glad that’s all over too!
I stopped giving gifts before full timing about 10 years ago. I put my foot down with family and friends and that was that. I had been sick and tired of the holiday insanity for years and I had simply had enough. It was in my early 30’s and I had already begun making some other serious life changes, like eating “whole foods” and adopting a healthier lifestyle. That was deemed as “weird” to some family and friends too.
The decision to no longer give gifts really made me stand out as the “black sheep”, but I’m so different in so many areas, I just didn’t care anymore. I didn’t and still don’t want gifts from family and friends: neither birthday, Christmas etc. but, I’m thankful when I do receive anything, which is usually a little bit of money from my dad, which is always useful.
It’s so very nice to be free from the ridiculous consumerism facade of love. I hadn’t realized until now, that our society believes, “gifts = love”. Huh. But, it totally makes sense.
Thanks Gloria, you are very wise for such a young person. Much more than me when I was your age!
Gloria, you are one smart young lady. I have thought exactly as you since my early 30’s but I was met with incredible resistance from my former wife and friends. Now in my 50’s I no longer fall into that trap. My present wife and I agree to send out cards. We usually get nothing for each other unless it’s something we may both need, use and agree on such as a new TV, recliner etc. We do love the meaning of Christmas, the social and family gatherings, the music, decorations and treats. We feel the same about Birthdays. We do not get gifts. We eat out out the birthday persons choice of restaurant and see a movie. We are perfectly happy with this!
Very wise Gary, thanks for sharing that.
My wife and I were just talking about this yesterday and decided that next year we are rejecting the consumerism and giving/getting no gifts. The season has gotten completely out of control.
Great thoughts and ideas Bob.
Thanks Pete! The Holidays have become so extreme and out of control that many people are waking up and opting out. You’re very wise to do so!
I completely agree Christmas gift spending is way out of line. About ten years ago my teenage daughter and I were very short of funds.However we had one of the best Christmas ever. We lived near a dollar store. We each went in with ten dollars to spend. We then used leftover wrapping paper and covered a box. Wrapped twenty dollar items (many were food or just plain silly) and tied a string on each. Took turns pulling each package out of the box.I still have the rubber nose my daughter bought!
The following year our finances were better. We agreed to limit any birthday/holiday presents to three a person. Usually that means one book, a special treat (candy that is shared) and one nice item you would not usually buy for yourself. Dinner is either a meal we would not normally have or go out to lunch. One homemade dessert.
As a result of that financially challenged year I now have a grown daughter who understands the value of a dollar.And refuses to pay full price for anything.
Patricia, it’s amazing how the hardest times in our lives are the ones we look back on the most fondly, and yet we resist them with every fiber of our being.
Your daughter was very lucky to have such a wise and loving mother!
K-i-s-s and live a happy life the happiest people I ever knew had very little and didn’t want anymore the less you want the richer you are because the world doesn’t have a death grip on you making you fell bad your not keeping up with everyone else great post as always mr Bob
I have been wanting to find a place to go off to where there is no xmas at all. I would like to leave here and go to that place this week and not return home until Jan 5 or 6 just to make sure that all the residual holiday bs has subsided. Anyone know of such a place? And I am serious about this. I am not trying to be cute or make a joke.
Steve, I live in the middle of nowhere in the desert and unless you go into town for something or listen to the radio or watch TV, you would have no idea it’s Christmas. The local small town has decorations out and the stores do too, but I only go into town once a week or less and then I’m not there for long, so it’s not an issue to me.
Well if you are the Steve that cook them great looking deep fried turkeys at Mr Bob’s thinksgiving tribe get together you should be able to slide over or down to mexico depending on where you are I’m not sure but maybe you can find a place that there’s no Christmas there
I’m not the same Steve. I wanted to try to stay within a few hundred miles of where I am now, around Winter Haven Florida. Thanks Jim for your suggestion. I am still looking and if I find that place I will post it here. Keep thinking.
I have nearly stopped giving gifts and anything I do give is practical. I told my wife that if she gets me anything it has to be practical. For example, things to help maintain my truck and trailer as well as helping others to maintain theirs. This way the gift keeps on giving, both to others and my family.
Very good idea Douglas! That’s the gift that keeps on giving!
I love to give my loved ones experiences not things. I like to get them annual passes to either their closest National Park, or to the entire park system if they’re travelers. The annual local park passes are usually only $25 to $50 a pop and give someone the opportunity to find joy, balance, and exercise in their big backyard, plus a plan to spend some time there with the giver (me!) It’s a win-win, and it supports the parks and our precious public lands 🙂
Leigh, that’s a brilliant idea I’d never thought of before, thank you!
I just checked out your blog and I must say I am very impressed with you guys; I wish I was as brave and wise as you are when I was your age. But no, I had to wait until I was much older to truly live. You have my full admiration!
Fighting the MUST BUY MORE impulse is so hard! I love buying presents for my family and friends but I don’t like buying things that they don’t want or need. I purchased a set of candles made here in Ridgway for my cousin as part of our family’s gift exchange. They’re not cheap but they support a local business. I briefly felt like I needed to buy “something else” to go with it and then had to restrain myself with a perfectly lovely gift.
You’re setting a great example Beth! There’s nothing wrong with giving gifts, it’s what we do naturally and from our heart. It’s all the other stuff that’s been added to it we need to try to break free from.
Giving a gift from the heart that’s locally crafted is a wonderful thing!
I give my friends and family invoices to pay me back for what i’ve done for them. It’s the opposite of spending and it’s good for the environment.
Jeremy, that’s very interesting and different!
I think you are over the top on this issue. The problem is “lack of/ refusal to” communicate and lack of discipline and control. I don’t buy or write cards. I do write original poetry and send them as a holiday greeting or as a gift card. I have told the people who might buy me a gift – I don’t want things. Look around my apartment, I don’t collect or have much. I encourage these people to plan a day’s outing or some new experience as a gift. Cook something difficult or time consuming that I wouldn’t ordinarily get to have. Openly discuss limits or draw family members name out of a hat and your job is to only buy a gift for that 1 person. While I am non-religious I think that a meal should be proceeded by some statement of thanks for life and the opportunity to share the day together. I would encourage Christians to go to Midnight Mass and talk about the symbolism with little children in a fun sort of way.
If nothing else, Christmas is a reason to get together with loved ones. Don’t get caught up in the trappings. Make your own rules. Used the excuse to enhance your life. Let’s not turn it into some national tragedy or day of shame.
Gary, I’m afraid I have to disagree, I do consider it to be both a national tragedy and day of shame. If you look beyond the surface to the ripple affect that this horror of a freak show has on people all over the world and to the environment I just have no choice but totally condemn it.
In 50 years when the environment is crashing we will be universally cursed for our behavior.
Great post; I give few gifts any more and it is usually money. My adult children appreciate that. I always ask for a thoughtful card, just write something. If someone insists on giving me someTHING I ask for something I can consumer: a good cigar, or alcohol. At least that way I don’t accumulate clutter.
Mitch, that’s a very good idea! Thanks for sharing it.
Instead of gift certificates to big box stores which are full of cheap items made in sweat shops, consider gift certificates to non-profit organizations that feature hand made items by crafters all over the world. These organizations pre-pay the crafters a fair price, and any profits above that go into social justice programs.
SERRV and Ten Thousand Villages are two examples. There are many more on the web
Thanks Terri, that’s a great idea!
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