Important: Christmas Without Presents
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"People who spend less and have less spent on them at Christmas actually
enjoy the season more."
"People who emphasized time spent with families and meaningful religious or
spiritual activities had merrier Christmases."
CHRISTMAS WITH NO PRESENTS?
ONE FAMILY¹S DARING EXPERIMENT: CHRISTMAS WITHOUT ALL THE STUFF.
By Colin Beavan
If Christmas is about presents, then in 2007, my little family and I had no
Christmas. I mean, we had the caroling and the uncle playing the piano and
the cousins running around with my three-year-old, Isabella, and the
grandfather coaxing her to sit on his lap and the good food.
We had, in other words, an amazingly good time.
What we didn¹t have, though, was the average American¹s $800 hole in our
bank accounts, gouged out by Christmas-present spending. Nor did we have the
credit card debt still unpaid by June. Nor the forcing of smiles for gifts
we didn¹t really want. Nor the buying of extra luggage to bring home those
unwanted gifts. Nor the stressful rush of last-minute crowds at the mall.
Without presents, you see, we didn¹t have the sensation that I, at least,
normally associated with Christmas -- the stress. And without stress or
presents, it¹s not Christmas, right? But of course it was. It was the best
of Christmas, the part that, research shows, makes people happiest. It was
all the upside without the downside.
Let me back up.
From November 2006 to November 2007, I and my little family -- one wife, one
toddler, one dog -- embarked on a lifestyle experiment in which we tried to
live with the lowest possible environmental impact (you can read about it on
my blog http://www.noimpactman.com). Among other measures, the experiment
included not making trash, not using any form of carbon-producing
transportation, and not buying anything new.
This may sound like a lot of meaningless self-deprivation, but the question
we wanted to answer was this: Does consuming fewer resources actually feel
like deprivation, or is it possible that consuming less opens up another way
of life that provides more enduring satisfaction? Or put another way, could
we find a win-win way of life that might be happier both for us and for the
Sometimes the answer was no. It may be better for the planet if we all
decided not to buy big hunks of metal otherwise known as washing machines,
but -- believe me -- washing my family¹s clothes by hand did not make me
On the other hand, eating local and riding bikes instead of driving cars
allowed us to lose the spare tires around our guts, cure ourselves of
longstanding skin problems and insomnia and become generally healthier. And
not using electricity to power entertainment devices drew us closer together
as a family and made us spend more time with friends.
Our experiences illustrated that some uses of planetary resources improve
quality of life and some may not. Indeed, we could go a long way toward
dealing with the crisis in our planetary habitat if we found a way to avoid
those uses that don¹t improve our lives -- like the packaging that comprises
40 percent of trash in landfills, for example.
But as Christmas 2007 approached, the more pressing question for us was, did
the season¹s huge consumption of resources add to the Christmas experience
or detract from it? Since one-sixth of all American retail sales (and as a
consequence, a hefty proportion of our national planetary resource use)
occurs during the holiday season, it¹s a question worth asking.
I¹ve already told you enough to let you guess how my little family¹s
experience played out, but you may be surprised to learn that our findings
are backed up by bona fide psychological research: Even though oodles of
presents at Christmas is the dominant American paradigm, it turns out that
people who spend less and have less spent on them at Christmas actually
enjoy the season more.
This, anyway, is the conclusion of a paper published in the Journal of
Happiness Studies by researchers Tim Kasser of Knox College and Kennon M.
Sheldon of the University of Missouri-Columbia. After studying the Christmas
experiences of 117 individuals, they found that people who emphasized time
spent with families and meaningful religious or spiritual activities had
³Despite the fact that people spend relatively large portions of their
income on gifts, as well as time shopping for and wrapping them,² the
researchers said, ³such behavior apparently contributes little to holiday
joy.² In fact, subjects who gave or received presents that represented a
substantial percentage of their income, Kasser and Sheldon found, actually
experienced less Christmas joy.
Of course, this makes perfect sense. We all know in our hearts that
treasuring meaningful experiences and spending time in valued relationships
-- at Christmas or any other part of the year -- make us happier than
getting more stuff.
But try telling that to the grandparents at Christmas time!
Try living out these lofty principles when the rest of your family and
friends are swapping presents at the same rate as ever. You may find ³bah
humbugs² shouted in your direction more than once. That¹s problematic,
particularly if you¹re hoping to inspire more sustainable lifestyle choices
in other people. Nobody will be convinced by dogmatism or Grinch-like
The trick to a happy, sustainable, non-consumptive Christmas was not, we
discovered, to ignore the expectations of the people we celebrated with. We
didn¹t want our loved ones to feel bad. Those who expected presents should
get them, we decided. Gifts, after all, are associated with the exchange of
For us, the answer was to buy presents that did not require the exploitation
of large amounts of planetary resources. My mother was very happy with the
two massages she got. My father and his wife enjoyed the gift certificate to
the fine dining, local-food restaurant in their neighborhood. Friends
appreciated the theater tickets we bought them. And unlike those unwanted
trinkets one sometimes buys for the ³person who has everything,² our
sustainable gifts, we felt, actually improved the recipients¹ lives.
Still, my wife, Michelle, worried very much that it would be hard for
Isabella if all the cousins had presents to open, but she didn¹t. Try
saying, ³The research says you¹ll be happier with less,² to a
three-year-old. So Isabella¹s Aunt Maureen contributed toys that her
children had outgrown, and we wrapped them for Isabella.
When present-opening time came, Isabella didn¹t care whether the present she
was opening was for her or not. She didn¹t even want the presents. She just
wanted to open them. She didn¹t want something to have later. She wanted to
participate now. And when her Uncle Joe started playing the piano and
singing, she got bored with the present opening anyway and went to sit with
him on the piano bench.
Much to our surprise, she didn¹t even want to take her cousins¹ old toys
home when the Christmas vacation was over. She¹d already had her presents.
What was important to her was what turned out to be important to us: the
singing, the charades, the laughter, the time spent with family, and of
course, the celebration.
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Published by David Sunfellow
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