When I was five my parents added a second story onto our house in Los Angeles. That Christmas our place was a construction site, but the holidays were still on full-steam.
I remember feeling something new that year: the desire to give gifts. So one morning I crept up the plywood framed stairs to the second floor, where the only roof was a tarp flapping in the Santa Ana winds. There I collected little triangular cast-offs from two-by-fours and the quarter-sized steel punch-outs from electrical outlet boxes, and with Elmer’s glue and a few crayons I transformed these bits of construction trash into sculptural gifts for my family.
A few things stand out for me about this memory. The idea came spontaneously and from a desire, rather than an obligation, to give. The gifts were handmade. They cost me nothing. The experience was in itself a gift: I became aware, at such a young age, of how my body and my heart felt as I made and gave gifts to people I cared about. I felt uplifted. The recipients felt this spirit too—it was a sincere expression of love.
“How to Survive the Holidays”
But somewhere along the way I caught on that the holidays are a time to spend money, stress about lists, and say you’ll get everything done ahead of time but end up wrapping gifts at midnight, all while eating and drinking more than you do any other time of year. Somewhere along the way, the holidays got ugly. Each year the media churns out headlines like “How to Survive the Holidays,” designed to prey on your anxiety about how little you’ve done to get ready for the onslaught of cooking and eating, giving and receiving. As much as you might hear the other holiday theme—Remember The True Meaning Of The Holidays—it’s easy to get wrapped up (pun intended) in shopping, family drama, and having the right sweater for the office party.
On top of the stress and pressure to spend money during the holidays, there’s also the issue of gifts and waste. It should come as no surprise to hear statistics like the EPA’s estimate that between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, household waste in the United States increases by about 1 million tons. The ethical and environmental implications of disposable gifts are tremendous.
Here’s a wild idea: What if you started thinking about the holidays as a time to not only survive, but in which you can thrive?
So, here’s a wild idea: What if you started thinking about the holidays as a time to not only survive, but in which you can thrive? After all, research suggests being generous could support your mental health. A comprehensive 2014 study by sociologists Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson at the University of Notre Dame’s Science of Generosity Initiative found lower depression rates among Americans who are generous with their time and their money.
Consider what makes the holidays special to you, and set an intention early on—“I will give only things that allow me to share time with people.” “I will give from the heart.” “I will give homemade gifts, but I won’t go crazy making them.” “The holidays are an opportunity to connect in a sincere way with the people I love.” Make the reminder physical: as a daily alarm on your smartphone, across the fridge with the kids’ letter magnets, on a post-it note stuck to your dashboard.
This year, give yourself the gift of rethinking gift giving. What do you have inside of you already that you can give? What can you give that genuinely communicates how much you care? It’s a challenge worth taking.
Pause Before You Shop
There’s no getting around it: Whether you’re the giver or receiver, you can feel the difference between a well-made, considered gift and a poorly made one purchased in the panic of the last minute. Sometimes we have no choice but to buy gifts in a hurry, with help from those meticulously curated displays at the front of your run-of-the-mill box store. But, when we can, putting a little extra thought into the gifts we give is more than worth the effort.
Think about some of your favorite gifts, the ones that have lasted years or changed the way you relate to the world, even in small ways. That heart-swelling-in-your-chest feeling you get is the reason we do this crazy holiday thing, isn’t it? Then remember all the gifts you’ve given away almost immediately, or neglected in a dark closet for years, or that fell apart after light use.
4 Ways to Embrace the Gift of Giving
As consumers we have the power to choose gifts that don’t just speak to those we care about, but that have an impact in the world. Here’s a selection of beautiful and thoughtful gifts that are made with love in ethical work environments with quality materials so you can give even more to the people you love.
1) Do A Book Swap
If your family are avid readers, skip the gift-shopping and instead do a book swap. Go to a used bookstore—or take to your shelves—and pick out a book for each person, then exchange in round-robin fashion. Each of you walks away with a stack of goodies for little-to-no cost, and if you give books you’ve read before you’ll have a lot to talk about later.
2) Get Crafty
Give a gift that lasts: Buy someone a few sewing, woodworking, or pottery classes. Or if you have a special skill, offer lessons as a way to carve out some bonding time. And, who knows, maybe you’ll receive a handmade gift next year as a result!
3) Keep the Festivities Alive
The darkest season continues well after the merrymaking fades away. You can keep the warmth and spirit of the holidays alive longer by giving the gift of invitations to a party later in the year. After all, there are few things more generous than playing host, and a gathering with friends and family can give people the strength they need to make it through to springtime.
4) Choose Something Tasteful
Book a tasting at a winery, brewery, or distillery with someone special—it’s a great way to tap into your senses, have a little fun, and make memories together. If you don’t drink alcohol, lots of artisans do tastings—chocolate factories, cheese makers, and olive oil stores, to name a few.
Psychologist and behavioral scientist Dr. Mike Rucker offers tips for giving gifts that are sustainable, meaningful, and more fulfilling.
Want to give the gift of mindfulness this year? Celebrate the season by supporting organizations that bring greater awareness and compassion into the world.
Take 20 minutes to release tension in your body and consider what would serve you and your self-care in the upcoming weeks.