Mid-October this year, as I was enjoying the cooler weather changing leaves, I found myself suddenly hit with an overwhelming dread. I realized winter was coming. Which meant the holidays were coming. Which meant gift-giving season was upon us.
And I realized that once again, I’d have to figure out a holiday budget, and a way to give people decent gifts without spending a small fortune, and that once again, it’s impossible. Resistance is futile.
I’ve been struggling to do this since I was 18. And I’ve done it all: the DIY gifts (candles, frames, magnets), the opulent (to me) gifts that go unused, the cheap Amazon stuff that just looks even cheaper when opened, the hyper-personalized gifts that feel so small when opened, the over-packaging in an effort to make little gifts feel bigger when unwrapped.
And every year it hits me that spending less than $50 on someone looks cheap, and when you have a dozen or more people to buy for, well, you’re looking at $1,000 or more, and that doesn’t even include holiday travel.
One year I bought my aunt and uncle and their kids an $80 ice cream maker on sale, which was a lot for me to spend at the time. They all love ice cream (they’re well-stocked year-round), so I figured it was a neat way to get them something they’d all enjoy. A year later I joked that they never even opened it. “We never did!” realized my aunt.
Another year, in an effort to spend less on gift packaging (another holiday cost, thankyouverymuch), I bought brown paper bags and doodled on them in silver and gold sharpie. I made pretty winter scenes, snowflakes and trees, and I was mildly horrified when my then-boyfriend’s mother immediately crumpled up the bag and threw it in the trash with the rest of the ripped wrapping paper. I’d hoped she’d notice the handmade aspect of it and reuse it.
Every year I spend so much time and money giving people gifts they usually neither want nor need, and this year I realized, WOW, I really just did not want to do it.
Lest you think I’m some kind of Grinch, let me tell you: I truly love giving thoughtful, delightful gifts. I don’t like giving gift cards or generic “she’s a lady, she’ll like smelly lotion” kind of stuff. When my best friend had a baby girl, I researched what parents that year really appreciated, and I sent a Boppe and also a “my first feminist” cardboard book. My friend was delighted by both gifts and sent me a photo of her daughter asleep on the Boppe, and later, asleep on the book when she was six months old, a pic that cracked both of us up.
I got my boyfriend an apron last Christmas. He had made cooking a hobby and was spending a lot of time in the kitchen, and we both realized he was ruining his clothes. I searched Etsy and found someone to embroider “Mighty Good Man” on it; it’s our running joke that whenever he does something handy around the house, he likes to sing “Whatta Man” by Salt-N-Peppa. I made sure it was in the colors of his beloved alma mater (maize and blue, for the University of Michigan) for an extra special touch.
The problem I encounter every Christmas is the sheer volume of gift-giving obligations. It’s impossible to give everyone a thoughtful gift they’ll truly enjoy. I simply can’t afford it.
And then there’s the other obligatory gifting of the season, like the office gift exchange. One year I worked with women I really liked and who also made it clear that we were exchanging gifts AND sponsoring an “Angel Tree” for a family in need. I ended up spending another $100, on my credit card, that I really couldn’t afford. While I did want to help, I was also earning a shitty salary and living in a sketchy, overpriced apartment on my own; I didn’t really have the money to spend. But I went along with it and pretended I could handle it anyway.
Every year I have to go on pretending with my family, too. My aunts and uncles grew up very poor — Irish Catholic, 10-kids, one-bathroom kind of poor — and most of them have become solidly middle class or even upper-middle class. Perhaps as a reflection, or celebration, of that rise in social status, our annual party has become more organized, agenda-ized, and it pretty much revolves around four sets of gift exchanges: there’s the grownup gift exchange for my mom’s siblings, the kid gift exchange between the grandchildren, the “surprise” visit from “Santa” in which all the grandchildren, even the adult ones, get a gift, and then a white elephant gift exchange. I traveled from Southern California to Michigan last year for this party, and honestly, I barely got to catch up with anyone beyond the usual pleasantries. The agenda was full, and then everyone had other parties to get to or a long drive home before it got dark. It felt impersonal, oddly cold. Like a series of checklists. It didn’t feel like the fun, loud, cozy parties of the past.
As Anne Helen Petersen brilliantly explored in her Culture Study Substack recently, the holidays have become increasingly performative, with more and more elaborate and exhausting requirements. (Not only is there Elf on the Shelf, many parents now do some kind of costumed Leprechaun surprise for their kids on St. Patrick’s Day?!) And I realized my October holiday dread was around that performative requirement, the pretending I’m fine, totally fine dumping thousands of dollars on holiday travel and gifts, when in reality, I’m not.
Off the Hook
I was looking for a way out of it all. And like a Christmas miracle, I got one.
A few weeks ago, my boyfriend officially landed a job in another state. He starts in December. So suddenly we’re planning a move, a big one, that will cost us a lot. And there is no way in hell am I doing the annual gift-wrangling while also orchestrating an interstate move. I’ve made it clear that we’re neither giving nor accepting gifts this year. And that is, even to the most fervently festive in my family, understandable.
We’re off the hook.
Planning a move is overwhelming and exhausting, but doing it during the holidays — rather, doing the move instead of the holidays — feels like a huge relief.
We are currently looking for housing and we hope to move in December. And I have a fantasy, of being in a new place this Christmas, with blank walls and unopened boxes, and putting up our little plastic tree and decorating it while my favorite Christmas movies play in the background: Home Alone, The Santa Clause, and yes, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I hope to have long FaceTime conversations with a family while drinking spiked hot cocoa. I hope to send a fat gift card to my younger brother — because he and his family of four will benefit from it — and sneak in a small, thoughtful gift to my boyfriend, if only to mark the occasion of making a move, together, that we’ve wanted to do for a long time.
And I’ll have the time, and the funds, for that. Because this year I get to opt out of Christmas — or at least the over-gifting that has come to stand for it. This year I get to make it my own, and figure out my own way to bring joy to the people I love. And you can bet your ass this will make a great excuse to do Christmas differently next year, and the years after that, too. I’m done with the exhausting, soulless, checking-account emptying over-gifting extravaganza. I’m done.