Supply chains are all gummed up, leaving some shelves as empty as the toilet paper aisles of March 2020. Prices rose by an alarming 6.8 percent last month, the highest annual inflation rate in almost 40 years. And if you’re anything like me, you go to sleep with visions of Greta Thunberg dancing in your head — protesting, actually — warning you that buying more newly manufactured stuff is a nightmare for the planet.
Given the issues with the supply chain, you might not get your gifts in time to put them under the tree anyway.
This holiday season, it’s natural to feel excited about going back to our familiar patterns of parties and presents, which in the American tradition usually includes finding just the right gift for everyone on your list. But this year is actually the perfect time to rethink the list entirely. We need to question everything from its length to the need for every present to be a new consumer good to the nature of what constitutes a gift at all. Given the issues with the supply chain, you might not get your gifts in time to put them under the tree anyway.
I know, Uncle Sam (and Uncle Joe) wants us to buy, buy, buy at this time of year. But if Covid-19 has taught us anything, it’s that we can make do with a lot less stuff. In a way most of us had never experienced, the constant cycle of acquiring came to a screeching halt soon after a global pandemic was declared in March 2020. Shortages, shutdowns and the “stay home” admonitions meant that right after the novel coronavirus shook the globe, consumer spending took a nosedive in all categories save groceries, household supplies and home entertainment, according to the World Economic Forum.
As we coped with the loss of loved ones and mourned for social gatherings that didn’t involve putting attendees on mute, we came to realize something that gets lost when we talk about gift-giving: What really matters is meaningful experiences with people we love. Giving and receiving presents is one such experience — and this holiday season we have an opportunity to extend that time together beyond watching someone’s face as they tear the wrapping off their booty.
There’s no denying the desire and expectation to give gifts. It is, after all, a sign of a love — what could be a primal human need to give and receive. But that doesn’t mean we have to keep exchanging shiny new mass-produced items that we inevitably shove in our overstuffed closets.
My husband has been battling against the holiday tradition of overconsumption for years. He makes sure to find just the right gift by setting up a registry for our kids on SoKind, which allows them to request used items, experience gifts and charitable donations.
My relatives, I suspect, roll their eyes at it. My parents and my siblings still reflexively bring big, beautifully wrapped things for each kid at the family Hanukkah party. Which — full disclosure — I still do regularly as well, since most of my children’s cousins include these items on their wishlists. I live within two miles of Target, Old Navy, Walmart and Michaels, and it’s almost irresistible to pick up what I need there. I also buy plenty online, like most Americans: 8 out of 10 of us were shopping on the internet even before the pandemic.
What we’re trying to encourage, though, is less physical stuff, and more of the stuff of memories. It’s true that a promise of a special adventure, outing or performance tucked into a card doesn’t “look” as impressive as big wrapped presents under the tree (or in our case, the menorah) — “You can’t walk in empty-handed,” is how my mother puts it. But it’s not empty to offer something intangible. In fact, it’s rare that my kids, age 9 and 11, remember what they received last year or the year before. They do seem to remember, however, every time someone took them out to do something fun.
Just before the pandemic, for example, one of my cousins took us up on this option by taking our son, a budding dancer, to see “The Nutcracker.” My brother took him to a Marlins game, while my sister-in-law took my daughter on a museum date. With this in mind, on the last night of Hanukkah, we gave our kids homemade love vouchers — one-on-one time with each of us to do an outing, experience or project of their choice.
It’s rare that my kids, age 9 and 11, remember what they received last year or the year before. They do seem to remember, however, every time someone took them out to do something fun.
I have to say, they were pretty thrilled. My son wants a trip to Rapids Water Park. My daughter, a writing retreat with me — meaning a night or two in an Airbnb. No one said experience presents are necessarily cheaper! But they do mean resisting the urge to buy more stuff that’s not only less meaningful but also contributes to carbon emissions and thus climate change. Merry Christmas, Greta.
In April, my lifelong mentor and beloved former teacher Sandy died at the age of 74. Sandy was in line for a kidney transplant, but the pandemic slowed the process down and we lost her. Not long before she died, she texted me and recalled that I had taken her to see a Broadway play on that exact day in 1992 in appreciation of all she had done for me, including helping to get me through graduate school. Nearly three decades had passed, and I had given her so many gifts over those years — books, jewelry, scarves — but this was the one that stuck with her. It was the experience that mattered.