couple skating experience gift

The holidays are again upon us! Though it looks like we won’t be as dependent on Zoom to see family this year, the Pandemic is still leaving its mark on the season. News headlines have been filled with predictions of empty shelves as holiday shoppers experience the effects of the global supply chain disruption. Media stories have played up the Grinch-like implications for gift giving, but this is actually a good opportunity to take a deep breath and consider our priorities. Is there another way to experience the holidays that doesn’t involve the stress of packing into shopping malls and dreading the January credit card statement?

The “Stuff”

Let’s be honest, for those over the age 15 the “joy” of holiday gift giving is often an experience of diminishing returns. What in previous generations was a thoughtful exchange that strengthened our bond to family and friends, increasingly feels like a crowd sourced effort to help retail companies meet year-end sales targets. The gratification of finding the perfect item for someone is frequently overshadowed by the pressure to get something, and in the desperate last days, anything. We end up spending a lot of money on stuff we instinctively know has, at best, a 50/50 chance of being truly appreciated.

There’s a deficit of joy on the receiving side, as well. We’ve all learned how to put on a game face reacting to a gift destined to resurface at next year’s office Secret Santa exchange. The flood of advertisements for electronics, jewelry and clothing show lots of smiling faces and emotional family reunions. But like car advertisements that conjure visions of an empty road across a beautiful landscape, the reality is a little different. Receiving consumer items you have no obvious need for is more akin to being stuck in rush hour traffic. We may get a little burst of excitement opening certain gifts, but for many people this feeling is overshadowed by the emotional weight of living with the clutter these items eventually become.

If you’ve ever experienced the cathartic feeling of purging junk from an attic or storage locker, you know by contrast what I’m referring to. I helped my mom clear out her garage at one point, and among the items going to the thrift store was a bread maker I’d gotten her a few years earlier. It was unmistakable from her tone of voice that she’d never used it (or remembered who gave it her), and was relieved to see it go. It was hard not to think – how else could I have spent that $150?

Consider the Alternatives  

Stepping back from the “stuff”-centered approach doesn’t mean abandoning gifts. Rather, it means refocusing on the core purpose of gift giving, to celebrate and build relationships. That might, in fact, still mean getting them a physical gift, but only because you know that item will have meaning to them.  But with a little creativity, there are a lot of other options that can add to the joy of the holidays instead of the stress.

A good first place to start is with Simplify the Holidays, a project of the Center for Biological Diversity. In addition to making a compelling case for how a less-materialistic holiday can be a more meaningful and happy experience, the site is a wealth of ideas for gifting alternatives and activities to do with others. It includes sections grouped around DIY / handmade items, quality time / skill sharing, food, donation, and experiential gifts.  Some of these will appeal to a wider audience than others. It’s worth acknowledging the strong social expectations many of us face to gift consumer items, and offering cookie mix in a jar might feel like poor substitute. But many of the ideas, from making bath salts to creating a scrap book of photos, deliver something of genuine value with the added bonus of the recipient knowing you made them. We have a lemon tree that produces a bumper crop of fruit each fall. My wife uses these to produce jars of lemon curd to give hand out at holiday parties. Gifting your time to help someone with a carpentry project, babysitting, or other tasks is another idea to consider. Especially for the person who “has it all” – simply sharing your knowledge or skills will be appreciated by many.

Another website to check out is Also maintained by the Center for Biological Diversity, this applies the same principle of a wedding registry to non-material or second-hand gifts. Anyone can create a free account and set up a list of activities, skill shares, charity donations, and yes, even items they’re interested in receiving. Registries can be set up for weddings, birthdays, holidays, or standing requests. The site even allows you to set up a ‘GiveList’, which is a sort of reverse registry where you can list things available for others to request.

Gifting Experiences

My favorite alternative is to gift experiences. Even for the die-hard consumer-minded person, you can find opportunities that align with their interests and will be perceived as a “real”, substantive gift. To any of my family or friends reading this, think concert tickets.  Is someone planning a vacation?  Do some research about their destination and look for tours, museums or even restaurants they’ll be interested in. I wouldn’t go so far as to book reservations without consulting first. But you can purchase flexible gift vouchers or simply print out a screen shot of their website to include with a card pledging to pay for the activity / timing of their choice. Taking it another direction, I recently bought a set of piano lessons for my wife for her birthday. She’s talked about the desire to learn for years, but the lessons provided the structure and motivation to actually follow through. She now has Mary Had a Little Lamb under her belt and Scott Joplin in her sights (long view).

Gifting an experience carries the most meaning when it involves yourself or other loved ones. My mother grew up in Chicago and hadn’t been back to visit in 25 years. She could obviously have planned a trip at any point, but it took the prompt and offer to join her to make it happen. The highlight of the trip was standing in the ballroom of the hotel where she had celebrated her high school prom some 60 years earlier. For a gift that truly brought joy and a sense of connection, no bread maker or other item I could get her remotely compares to the happiness she experienced sharing those memories and making new ones. And isn’t that the point of holidays?