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Presents + Presence–The Gift of Simplicity

Unless you’ve been avoiding contemporary culture altogether, you have likely been pondering one of the various and wildly popular strategies for purging some of your possessions. This urge to declutter, simplify, and maybe even reduce our carbon footprint, however, doesn’t comfortably coexist with our desire (and pressure from that same contemporary culture) to indulge our loved ones during the holiday season. What are we to do?

Over the past few decades, my ever-growing extended family has experimented with many alternative gift-giving strategies. We reached a collective tipping point when the top of the Christmas tree was barely visible due to the excessive quantity of lavishly wrapped and beribboned gifts. We agreed that a change in our holiday tradition was necessary.

First, we simplified by drawing names; each adult gives only one gift to one other adult, and every year the pairing of gift-givers and receivers rotates. We also mutually agree on a different gift-giving theme each holiday season.

One of the first themes we adopted was the search for a modest gift under $20. This proved not to be an easy task and, as a result, there was a fair amount of rule-breaking. So we tried another idea; we each selected an item from a thrift store or flea market—in other words, a recycled gift. The results ranged from camping gear to cashmere sweaters. My younger sister scored an excellent pair of mid-century Danish candle holders for me from her local Salvation Army.

We also tried limiting our gifts to books, music, or films (before streaming services became pervasive). The big challenge was selecting subject matter we hoped our family member would enjoy, based on his or her interests. How well do you really know your brother-in-law or your nephew? It was a worthwhile prompt to engage in conversation that might yield helpful clues and perhaps also connect family members on a deeper level.

Other strategies have included writing personal letters, purchasing gift-cards, the classic “White Elephant” approach; we’ve even re-gifted. And on at least two occasions we agreed to make gifts by hand. The matching flannel pajamas and robes our grandmother sewed for all her grandchildren on a 1970s Christmas inspired that approach. A year later, my grandfather built wooden canopy beds for the girls’ beloved Barbie dolls and trucks with pull-behind wagons for the boys (gender-based toys were mostly unquestioned in the 70s). Those well-worn pajamas and trucks are long gone, but my now middle-aged siblings and cousins cherish the photos and the memories.

Although not many of us sew or practice woodworking, we all rose to the occasion and crafted memorable gifts, some of which required real time commitments, instruction manuals, or online tutorials. The beautiful stacking photo blocks my husband made for my father captured a moment in time and are still proudly on display. My 20-something niece was just learning how to knit, so she created a simple winter scarf for me. I think of her every time I wear it.

One of my family’s most memorable giving strategies has been exchanging “experiences.” This is once again the theme for 2019. As per usual, we’ve each drawn another family member’s name out of a hat. The goal is to determine an event or activity we would enjoy doing together. The monetary value of the experience is not important; it really is the thought—and the time in each other’s company—that counts.

I’ve drawn my brother-in-law’s name this year. I’ve known him for over forty years, so I know about his work, his hobbies, his love of the outdoors, his devotion to his grandchildren, and his religious and political beliefs (the exact opposite of mine). There are a hundred directions I could go in for his gift, but I’ve decided on the experience of renting mountain bikes for a ride on the beautiful trails that meander through a nearby state park—for him, me, and his two oldest grandchildren, whom I adore. I’m pretty sure we’re all going to enjoy this. Most important, it will be so much more meaningful and memorable than anything I could possibly purchase from a mail-order catalogue. And it’s almost impossible to argue about politics while riding a bicycle. Or at least I hope so.



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