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How to Gently Share a Vision of a Different Kind of Christmas Giving

In our Reader Survey a couple of months back, we received some excellent suggestions about blog posts related to the holidays:

  • Ethical Christmas shopping ideas and gifts. Yep, love it, coming up soon! [update: here it is! 50 Ethical Businesses & Social Enterprises with Gifts that Give Back]
  • Ways to approach Christmas gift-giving when you have children and you want them to be more others-focused. Fantastic question! See here and here for a start...
  • How to graciously tell someone that you want to receive an ethical gift at Christmas instead of something that you don't want or don't have room to store. Or, how to graciously change large family gift giving practices at Christmas/ keep it fun for the kids but avoid excess and unnecessary spending. (Avoid being the Scrooge:))

Tough one! And, what a great question.

Managing expectations with gift-giving & -receiving, limiting “stuff” without raining on the parade, being gracious and thankful… these are all big challenges of the season! 

There are some clear challenges out of the gate:

  • It is (almost always) challenging to have conversations about expectations with family. Period! Whether the topic is gifts, time spent together, traditions, philosophy on child rearing… except in the most thoroughly functional and communicative of families, we can expect a bit of tension going into a conversation like this.
  • It is a fine line to walk when telling someone else what kind of gift to get you! Gifts are, by very nature, an outpouring of the gift-giver’s generosity and desire to share their kindness and love (in theory, at least).
  • Particularly if you are wanting a specifically ethical gift (fair trade, organic, Made in USA, etc.), these items are less widely available, often more pricey, and more work to obtain.

So, with that in mind, and an opportune time approaching, how do you talk about this???

First things first:

Check your History

Have you had a change of heart since last year? Will your comments come as a shock or be consistent with your attitudes of past years and the rest of your life? Of course, our feelings towards life & culture can change and that’s a good thing. Just be mindful that even if you have changed this year, it may take the holiday traditions and family routines longer to catch up.

You may have just finished reading Marie Kondo’s decluttering book and it may have completely transformed your attitude towards stuff, but… late November is a tricky time to declare minimalism henceforth to all of your family members.

Check your Heart

I hate waste, and I am loathe to imagine a lot of extra goods coming our family’s way when we don’t need it, or that money has been spent on stuff for me at the expense of someone else in the world's dignity.

But, I have to be careful about whether my vocal convictions may come at the expense of another person’s dignity: my mom’s! Or that distant uncle, or a friend, or my little niece who wants to pour out her giving heart in the form of a dollar store candle.

Excess “stuff” is not good. Slavery & unethical practices in the supply chain are not good. Joyful giving out of abundance is good! The tensions here are not simple, and Rome wasn’t built in a day. But, before getting into this conversation, check your goals of the conversation: are you trying to prove something to yourself? Gain converts to your way of thinking? Is an unfavourable response going to taint your feelings towards that family member? Take a look in the mirror and be prepare yourself for the conversation and its potential outcomes.

Check your Audience

Who are you talking to? What is their history of gifts? Where do they shop? What is their attitude to giving?

Some people love to give from a list of requests, while others like to surprise and delight. Some people follow a tradition, like annual pajamas or books in a collection. Some are completely unpredictable and will give whatever they want regardless of your direction.

How you approach the conversation (and how you manage your feelings afterwards, based on the response) should very much hinge on who you are talking to and how they might best receive your ideas.

image via Sunday Suppers

The convo itself:

Be Gracious - Don't Bring it Up

Ideally, wait until someone else brings it up. We live in a fairly post-Emily Post kind of world, but I maintain that if nobody asks you what kind of gift you want, it is not polite to proffer what you would like to receive. As they say in my kids’ preschool classroom, “You Get What You Get, and You Don’t Get Upset.”

Speak Starting with Yourself

If there is a natural opening to the conversation, or if someone asks for a gift list, here are some samples of gentle, gracious conversation-starters. Overall, I'd recommend speaking from your own commitments, then inviting others to join in.

“This year, it’s really important to me that our gifts are not made in slavery. I’m going to try my best to look at the ethics of everything I buy, and I would really love us all to try this. What do you think? Do you have any ideas?” 

“In our family this year, we are doing an electronics-free holiday. Does it work for you to stick to that plan, as well? Do you have enough other ideas that this isn’t limiting?”

“This past year, we’ve really been trying to minimize the clutter & excess “stuff” in our life. Would you consider buying us gifts that are really simple or consumable, or maybe an experience like passes to the zoo or a punch-card of dates together?”

The biggest consideration of all, in my opinion is:

Do not expect family members to buy nothing tangible for unwrapping at Christmas. 

You may not want anything! You may want an experience or a donation on your behalf or cash or something else intangible! But, the truth is, that is just not as fun at gift-opening time. Almost everyone with a history of celebrating Christmas has some traditional expectation of gathering around the tree (or Festivus pole) and unwrapping gifts. If you do not offer any ideas for something to unwrap (even something very simple or inexpensive), I can almost guarantee that they will get something anyways, against your advice. An addendum to the last sample above might be,

“I know that it is great to unwrap something under the tree to enjoy right away. Maybe something like markers & a notebook, a novel, a treat, or a fun & simple toy would be great!”

Meet Them Where They Are At

To continue on that topic, be considerate of who it is you’re talking to, and what is reasonable to expect. If you know that your mother-in-law likes to do all of her shopping at the mall, it is unlikely that she will begin shopping online or crossing town to an obscure boutique. You may disdain the mall, but nonetheless, do some research on which stores & items there might be best suited or most appropriate for your vision of gifts.

If Grandma has a history of overwhelming toy overkill, it is unlikely that she will downgrade to only one present under the tree (regardless of what you implore her to do). Offer ideas like the want-need-read-wear concept to funnel & tamper the excess.

Remember, inching towards the good is success. It may feel like small steps in the bigger picture, but nonetheless, don’t be discouraged, and don’t let it spoil your relationships.

Offer Choices

For the greatest chance at "success", offer a lot of ideas and be happy with any of them. You can rank your most ideal vision at the top of your list, but make sure there are other ideas on the list. In a vacuum of information, especially with a concept that is new or foreign, most people will just revert to what they know. The more options & ideas you can offer, the less daunting and limiting it feels to participate.

Lead by Example

As much compromise and flexibility as I've suggested above, you can be as hardline as you want when choosing how you yourself give gifts this Christmas. In the very least, if it does not transform this year's holiday season for everyone, you are setting the stage for the future.

Overall, just let the conversation (and subsequent process) be awash with grace and thanksgiving. Giving & receiving gifts should be just that: a gift! Not a source of resentment or entitlement, not a place for disappointment or discouragement.

Once the holidays pass, if your vision did not play out how you envisioned, I encourage you: don't be annoyed, don't feel guilty (if you are now in possession of "unethical" goods), and don't let it stain your family & friend relationships. Just go forward with care and appreciation, and keep on inching towards the good. You attitude will be a testament to your ideals, and next year you can all give it another try. 



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