To Give …

Rethinking Gift Giving: Ideas from our Readers

One of the articles in Generation NExT (IC#43)
Originally published in Winter 1995/96 on page 5
Copyright (c)1995, 1997 by Context Institute

In the last issue of IC, two participants in our on-line voluntary simplicity study circle asked for advice on how to handle the apparent conflict between sustainable living and gift giving.

Adam Londre asked, "I wonder if anyone else feels the amount of gift buying practiced today is solely to support this culture’s consumerism and to keep the retail stores a-ringing?" and Wanda Ballentine wrote, "We are pummeled with the cultural mandate to buy, buy, buy … Not spending big at Christmas makes one not only a Scrooge, but anti-American."

How do we celebrate the spirit of the holiday season in a sustainable way? Here is a sampling of responses from the on-line group and from readers who wrote to us directly.

I took a year of college in environmental studies around the world, carrying my basic needs in a backpack and living in many third world villages. Culture shock struck hard when I returned to this throw-away society with stores full of both beautiful and junky things, created to satisfy our advertising-created wants, not our natural needs. I thought of Peace Pilgrim’s words, "I shall not accept more than I need, when others in the world have less than they need," and knew that I could no longer be a part of this earth-destroying ethic.

This throw-away society did not just happen; it was carefully planned. After World War II, retailing analyst, Victor Lebow, declared: "Our enormously productive economy … demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual and ego satisfaction in consumption … We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever-increasing rate."

Hopefully, with the growing interest in voluntary simplicity, more people are choosing to ignore the commercial clamor of the media and are opting out of this lifestyle. They have discovered not only financial relief, but a sense of freedom, joy, and harmony with the earth, with others, and within themselves.

So you’ve courageously made the decision to change, but how do you deal with the gift list and the feelings of friends and relatives? First, remember that some of them may feel as trapped as you. For those with whom you really don’t wish to exchange gifts, you could write a caring letter, explaining what you know and feel and wishing them a joyous holiday.

For those who already have too much, but for whom you still want to do something, you could give special foods or simple and useful handcrafted things to give, or offer a skill you have (carpentry, or gardening, for example). Invite them to a museum, or a place that’s special to you, or a concert. You could buy memberships for them in organizations you strongly believe in.

I keep peeling off the "layers of the onion" and discovering more ways I can live in harmony with the earth and my inner self, thereby creating a life of peace and joy. Good luck, and may you really enjoy the holidays this year!

– Sharron Cordaro
Riverside, CA

Several years ago, I sent a letter to all the people who were giving me presents for my birthday and Christmas/Hanukkah. I said that from now on, I did not want any "thing" for a gift. I agreed that the spirit of giving and expression of love and appreciation were wonderful. So I suggested alternatives to giving physical gifts.

These alternatives included a heartfelt letter expressing love, truth; a donation to an organization which is near and dear to my heart, (I provided a list of names and addresses); a service of some kind; planting a tree in my name; or (last on my priority list) a check, the funds from which I would put to responsible use. I also invited any one of them to join me in this idea, i.e. I would be happy to reciprocate in kind toward any of them.

In spite of the fact that I was embracing the idea of giving and expressing love and appreciation, this letter was met with considerable upset. My relatives couldn’t accept the idea that they could give to me and express love and appreciation without giving me a physical thing like a shirt or a sweater or whatever. In the six or seven years since I wrote that letter, my relatives have gradually gotten used to this idea but I still hear grumbles about it.

I have stuck this out, weathered the grumbles, and I think it’s been worth it.

– Michael Fogler
Lexington, KY

It’s good to hear it worked for you, Michael. My concern is always that people would fail to see that I am still interested in giving as an expression of love, that they would see the person writing the letter as snobbish. I’m sure that’s not the intent of such a letter, but I can see how others might feel you were saying "I don’t need your stuff," "I don’t need anything from you," "you guys don’t pick the right things for me," or "you don’t have the excellent taste I do."

I know that’s what my mother would think if I asked her not to give me things. She would really feel that by rejecting stuff from her I was rejecting her, her love and wisdom – as a lot of her wisdom, or at least "smarts," is tied up in being a good consumer and finding really good, valuable, useful things she thinks help make her life easier and better. In giving me these things, she is expressing her love for me. She wants to make my life easier, better, and more like hers, because she loves me and really feels that living like she does is the best possible thing for me.

In some ways, I think the real gift I give her on these occasions is accepting the thing she gives me with as good a spirit as I can muster and even trying to find a use for it.

Is this true for anyone else?

– Robyn Andersen


I agree that learning how to make positive use of presents is a valuable gift to the giver. But I also think that our society as a whole would benefit from more discussion of the nature of Christmas and giving, because the current tradition doesn’t seem suited to our current situation (excessive affluence and mass-produced presents). The children I know seem to be suffering from too many toys. The adults suffer from too many clothes, too many generic objects flooding basements and drawers and shelves and cabinets.

So I’m looking for ideas. Some of my relatives and friends and I give each other theater tickets. This year I’m thinking of giving the children I know memberships to the Gorilla Institute, which is developing a gorilla refuge in Hawaii.

– Phoebe

We started out giving large and numerous Christmas gifts to most of our family members and soon realized that this only satisfies corporate shareholders. We have scaled our gift-giving way back to only the closest family and friends. We usually try to give homemade items, like home brew, bread and things we’ve sewn. My wife and I only give each other one small gift, usually opened on winter solstice. We have been giving our children a Christmas stocking filled mostly with handmade items and one other gift. They receive quite a few gifts from distant family, which they open as they receive them. We try to reuse Christmas cards that we have received, or use paper that we make. I also try to give away the books I have read during the past year as gifts.

Christmas has also been difficult because it is not a particularly spiritual holiday for either my wife or myself. Even so, it’s hard not to conform to the Christian and materialistic domination of the winter holiday. Instead we find the winter solstice to be a more spiritually important and meaningful event.

– Marshall Deacon
Anchorage, AK

Gift giving has been a problem for my wife and I in the past. I think we have been guilty of using holiday gifts as a substitute for the time and devotion we should have been providing our loved ones the rest of the year. I also think it’s been a way for us to show people how affluent we are.

I have come to the conclusion, however, that not all gift giving is bad for the planet. Here are some ideas for earth-friendly gift giving:

Arts and crafts. We go to craft fairs, craft shops, and farmers’ markets with gift giving in mind. Look for items made by local crafts people and artists.

Environmentally sound gifts. Many local shops and mail order catalogues sell things like glassware made from recycled bottles, shoes made from tires. These items may not be totally benign, but they help create a market for recycled materials, and move the economy in a more sustainable direction.

Organic foods. The local whole foods co-op usually has gift baskets available for the holidays, or you can make your own.

The important thing is to stay away from the mass merchandisers. That way, jobs and income stay in the community.

– Tom Fugate
Frederick, MD

I love giving gifts, and I also love receiving little gifts that truly show that the gift giver has considered me when selecting or making the gift. I live far away from all my relatives, and it is always a treat to receive a little something in the mail.

Send books or other gifts at some time other than the commercial holiday time. Last year, I gave subscriptions to IN CONTEXT, after the holiday rush. Also, calendars that support worthy causes such as endangered wildlife, etc. We try not to fall prey to all the usual holidays, but give gifts throughout the year, when the gift-giving spirit strikes.

– Jenny Acquina Kendall
Earlham, IA

Some thoughtful consideration as to what’s really important for each person on the gift list is a good place to start. A gardener might enjoy a plant, some seeds, or a garden tool paired with a donation to a nature or wilderness organization. A fix-it type might appreciate a tool, sandpaper, or nails, and a donation to Habitat for Humanity. There are many organizations that respond to human needs world-wide. A donation to one of them could be represented under the tree by a hand-crafted object.

None of this is easy or quick. It takes time to make conscious choices based on our own values rather than on those of our consumer culture. Children especially need help in resisting the media’s "hard sell."

St. Paul cautioned the Christians in Rome, "Don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold." The squeeze is on! Resisting that pressure and acting on self-chosen values is rewarding and fulfilling. Surely, that too is a gift.

– Jody Bryan
Weaverville, NC

I would like to offer two ideas: first, give the gift of time. One of the beauties of voluntary simplicity is that we regain our time. Some of that recovered time can then be offered to our loved ones as gifts on typical gift-giving occasions. For the last few years I’ve given one or two days a month doing maintenance chores around my elderly parents’ home. Like many elderly people, they have all the material "things" they could ever use (and then some!). What they don’t have is the good health and energy they once had to maintain the family home. My gift of time is appreciated more than any "thing" could ever be.

Second, give a gift from the heart. Something made with your own hands is almost always appreciated more than some mass-produced "thing" purchased at a store. Handing down a family heirloom to the next generation is an excellent choice. I cherish my great-grandfather’s pocket watch that was given to me as a gift by my father many years ago. This Christmas I will pass along my grandfather’s clarinet to a young nephew who is a fine musician who will appreciate the instrument.

Use whatever talent you have to create the gift from the heart. In recent years I have written poems to both my mother and father trying to capture the essence of their lives – their contributions to family, friends and community. Tell your loved ones how you really feel about them – what makes them special – in words or music, pictures or paintings, whatever skills you have. You will feel the difference – and so will they.

– David Heitmiller
Seattle, WA

I was reading Don Aslett’s book, The Secret of How to Win Freedom From Clutter, last night. It is very amusing, and a great incentive to simplify your life and wean yourself off possessions. In passing, Aslett quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson’s thoughts on gift giving:

"The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me. Therefore the poet brings his poem; the shepherd, his lamb; the farmer, corn; the miner, a gem; the sailor, coral and shells; the painter, his picture; the girl, a handkerchief of her own sewing. This is right and pleasing, for it restores society in so far to its primary basis, when a man’s biography is conveyed in his gift, and every man’s wealth is an index of his merit. But it is a cold, lifeless business when you go to the shops to buy me something which does not represent your life and talent, but a goldsmith’s."

Nicely put, I thought.

– Toni Scott
Buckinghamshire, England

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