It’s peak Christmas shopping time, with the less organised among us scrambling to order gifts for loved ones online – in the hope that they’ll be delivered before the 25th – or braving the crowds on the British high street despite Covid-19. But what if we just didn’t bother with presents at all? One writer makes the case for a no-gift Christmas.
Answer me honestly: have you ever received a Christmas gift that stayed in the box, was quickly resigned to the recycling bin or was regifted? Of course you have. Everyone has. Because crap presents are as much a part of Christmas as tinsel and turkey.
And guess what? If you’ve been given a below par gift I will bet my last buck that you’ve given one too – yes, sorry to burst your bubble but mum didn’t love that scarf like she said she did, dad doesn’t want more socks and your beloved was underwhelmed by thoughtful annual membership to the V&A.
Look, I know there are lovely gifts too (the ones you tell people to buy for you) but most of them are things we don’t want and certainly don’t need.
I know I sound like Ebenezer Scrooge but let’s just take the rose-tinted specs off for a second and look at the consumerist nightmare Christmas has become. No sooner has the horror that is Black Friday been and gone each year, than we’re bombarded with ads to buy, buy, buy.
And it’s easy to get swept up in it, but in truth, how much joy really comes from the gift giving part of Christmas? For many it has become about buying under obligation ‘just to have something’ to give someone on Christmas Day.
And there are a myriad of other reasons we should question our festive spending spree – we might talk a good game about living sustainably, recycling and trying to consume less all year around but what about a more sustainable Christmas?
The oceans are full of plastic, our planet is being turned into a landfill, the conditions for workers in the factories that churn out £5 Christmas jumpers are criminal, so while a cheap and cheerful Christmas present might be a five-minute distraction, actually, are they really worth it? And after a punishing financial year for many, can we actually afford it either?
I know lots of families, friends and colleagues have switched to Secret Santa-style present-swapping ceremonies to cut down on the exorbitant cost and faff of Christmas, but still, how many times have you found yourself running around like a person possessed in Oliver Bonas at 5pm on the night before the Christmas party because you don’t know what the lady in accounting would like more – dangly earrings or a pair of socks and keyring?
So I say why not scrap the one most stressful, unsatisfying (to me) and unsustainable part of Christmas and allow yourself lots more time for actual rest and time with family instead? You don’t even have to do it every year, you could just try it once and see how you feel. You can always revert to ‘normal’ the following year if you feel deprived, but I don’t think you will. Because I didn’t.
All it requires is a straight conversation with people, many of whom will be equally relieved to be free from the annual financial burden. Maybe just offer a simple suggestion: “Here’s an idea! Why don’t we all axe the presents for one year?” Or, before the hat with names written on little scraps of paper comes around the office, suggest to the boss that you all play a game this year instead.
If no gift giving would leave a hole in your life on Christmas morning, go for an extra walk, check on your neighbours or start a new tradition instead. I always loved the idea of giving people ‘vouchers’ at Christmas – little promissory notes to help them with something during the year which they can redeem when they like. It might be helping with a task, offering a lift, volunteering to clean out the shed for your relatives or baking something yummy for a friend when they are feeling down.
For those who still can’t fathom it, it’s really much easier than you think and you don’t have to do it every year. A few years back, when I was struggling with money I simply told friends: “I’m not getting you a thing this year, and I don’t want anything either”. I’m not committing to a lifetime of misery, I’m just saying let’s have a lovely time minus the pressies.
Instead I suggested we go for drinks or dinner together when and if we can, or ice skating, or for a walk – who cares, just as long as it doesn’t involve a half mile queue for a gift basket full of bath bombs that smell like cinnamon and disappointment at 9pm on Christmas Eve.
I’m not a Christian, so this is not meant to be a pious pontification to remember the ‘real meaning of Christmas’. It’s just a plea to stop and think, do we really need all this stuff? Or would a lovely lazy day and a cracking dinner with the people we love be just as welcome without all the endless wrapping paper? I’ve been doing this for years and it works a dream. And maybe, just maybe this idea is starting to catch on.
Hannah Shewan Stevens is 26 and lives in Birmingham. Like me, she is over Christmas gifts.
“I stopped giving presents to family about seven years ago”, she says. “It was a gradual process. My immediate family started doing Secret Santa and then eliminated presents all together a few years later. The first year we did it because we were all on tight budgets but had the best stress-free festive season as a result, so we phased them out completely. I stopped doing friend Christmas presents a few years later.”
How did they react? Absolutely fine. “My friends were all absolutely fine after they got their Grinch jokes in! I sometimes still give Christmas cards and I did exchange gifts with an ex for a couple of years, but I prefer a Christmas without any presents under the tree.”
For Hannah, it’s all about the freedom of obligation and stress at the end of the year. She says: “The best thing about giving up presents at Christmas was the removal of pressure for the whole of December, not just Christmas Day. I find it helps me have more fun during winter because I’m not worried about scraping money together for presents or finding a last-minute present for someone who I didn’t expect to buy me a present. The only thing I worry about now is whether I can claim the good bedroom before my siblings get to my mum’s house.”
For people who have been giving and getting gifts every Christmas for years, I know it might seem mean, or even radical to eliminate gifts entirely, but I honestly can’t recommend it enough.
If it seems too big a leap, maybe try it for one year, you can always go back. Because however lovely it is to unwrap something on Christmas Day, the moment is fleeting – the financial stress, the pressure to get the ‘perfect’ gift, and the debt that so often follows Christmas lasts much longer. And if there is something you really truly can’t live without, it’ll probably be 50% off in the sale a few days later.
Image: Getty/Tim Grist Photography
This story was originally published in December 2020 and has been updated.