Animated illustration of Christmas tree made from green hands holding twinkling hearts

Illustrations by Julia Breckenreid

Why cutting back on presents may make your holidays happier

Three families share their minimalist approach to gift giving—and how they learned less truly is more

What is the “true meaning” of the holidays, exactly? If the most beloved stories are to be believed, it vacillates between generosity and peace and love. But even before the first snowflake has fallen, stores across Canada tell a less enlightened tale—one of rampant consumerism and of people electively herniating discs in the inevitable gift-buying stampedes that ensue.

In a 2018 report that echoes pretty much every consumer report from years past, economists at PwC Canada revealed that, despite Canadians’ crushing collective credit card debt, our holiday spending is set to reach a record high this year: $1,563 (up 3.7 per cent from last year). It’s clear that, despite our best intentions to keep the holidays merry, bright and minimally cluttered, we feel pressured to stay on the spending track rather than being the one parent who didn’t snag their kid a Hairdorable doll.

And it’s not just Christmas-specific spending that’s up. Holiday presents for people of all traditions have become increasingly popular. North Americans, whether they celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah or another December holiday (or no specific holiday at all), feel the bite of the consumer bug, starting with those first nerve-jangling ads the day after Halloween. Kids see their peers in school getting their toy fix, adults make small talk about their arm-long gift lists, and we sometimes feel like the only rational response is, well, more stuff for everyone.

Yet, in the midst of the unremitting gift-giving crunch, there are families across the GTA who have decided to write their own holiday narratives—ones that are more aligned with what we all like to believe is the season’s true spirit. Here are their stories.

Illustration of a large red mittened hand holding a smaller green mittened hand

The case for making a donation instead

Coming from a large Irish Catholic family, Colleen Bulger—a grandmother of two based in Port Hope—had more or less accepted the immensity of her annual to-buy list. For years, she and her six siblings would purchase gifts for one another and their parents, though they later downsized to a Secret Santa–style format full of gag gifts, which, she admits, was a riot. It wasn’t until almost a decade after the switch that her mother, Ruth, “put the peace back in Christmas” with a new suggestion: Her kids were to redirect their gift budgets (or time) to a charitable cause of their choice—and write her a letter explaining why they had selected it.

“Honestly, you get to the point where you don’t need another candle holder,” says Bulger. “The outcome of this approach shows thought, and the outcome is good for more than just the receiver.” Plus, when Ruth read her children’s letters to the family, “there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.”

Bulger’s mom passed away in 2013, but the tradition lives on: In the intervening years, Bulger has maintained her charity-only gift policy, bringing pet food to animal shelters, volunteering with Big Brothers Big Sisters and wrapping gifts at the mall on Christmas Eve, where, in a sea of panicked people, she says she was the only one who didn’t look pained.

While many of her friends have adopted her approach—one of her favourite “gifts” was from her friend Debbie, who donated new jeans to a men’s shelter on her behalf—Bulger admits there’s a small amount of bravery required in refusing to gift. “A lot of these things are tradition-bound, so it can be hard,” she says, adding that she still sends cards emblazoned with her dog’s face to her elderly aunts, who would “die without” the joy of their yuletide mail haul. But, in the mass of compulsive shoppers, Bulger is happy to be the person to step up and blaze a different trail.

Illustration of red mitten with hearts and teal and blue mittens making a snow heart

The case for scaling way back—and making it thoughtful

Growing up, Denise Handlarski’s family didn’t do a lot of gift giving for Hanukkah: maybe the odd book or practical item, but not the deluge of presents many of her non-Jewish classmates experienced. “As a child, I had that Christmas jealousy that a lot of people who don’t celebrate the holiday have,” she says. “I always felt like I was missing out a little bit.”

Handlarski, a rabbi at Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in Toronto and the online community Secular Synagogue, feels differently now that she’s an adult with two young children of her own. “I appreciate that giving wasn’t central to my family’s holiday celebrations,” she says. In fact, historically, it wasn’t part of the festivities at all. “Hanukkah gifts in North America have become such a big thing because—there’s no other explanation for it—it’s a sort of competition with Christmas,” she says. “I don’t think it has much to do with which religion or culture you come from. It’s the way North American society is. It’s acquisitive, and people compare themselves in terms of their stuff. And for that reason, the pressure is on.”

To combat that, Handlarski and her partner (who grew up celebrating Christmas) have come up with a family plan for scaling back. Instead of eight nights of gifts on one side and a full day of Santa overload on the other, their two children will each get one meaningful gift from each set of grandparents. “I want my kids to feel gratitude when they get something,” she says. “I really don’t want them to feel like it’s all about having more.” The couple hope this emphasis on family time and thoughtfulness will shift the focus of the holidays back to their roots: as celebrations of hope and light.

“As a spiritual leader, I hope that, regardless of what holiday we’re celebrating, there’s beautiful meaning to be found, such as being grateful for what we have and spending time with family,” says Handlarski. “When we put the focus on the real meaning of giving, it brings a deeper sense of joy for the holidays.”

The case for having experiences over things

Michelle Lucas-Larving of Dundas, Ont., has also applied a more global focus to her young family’s gifting decisions. She makes a point of spending time outdoors in the weeks leading up to the holidays, taking her toddlers to see festive lights and collecting dogwood and pine cones to make real (not plastic) garlands. She chuckles that it’s “such a hippie answer,” but this creative impulse centres on “making the holiday about more than one morning of gifts.” She’s also mindful of the realities of climate change facing her kids, who, she says, “won’t be able to live lives of frivolous abundance like ’90s kids did.”

Lucas-Larving wants her children to know the magic of Santa, but is confident they’ll derive the same amount of joy from a single, meaningful gift as from a whole pile. (Fortunately, she hasn’t yet had to face down the tradition of stockings, which she says people fill mindlessly with stuff—just because. She says her two-and-a-half-year-old son would be just as happy with an orange.) “My kids will grow up with people who have different incomes and lifestyles,” she says. “Not every kid can have an extravagant Christmas, and we plan on explaining why.”

Of course, there will always be families who find meaning in painstakingly hand-picking presents they know a recipient will love. And that’s fine. But, ultimately, family holidays aren’t one-size-fits-all. “You need to do what’s best for you; what you feel is right,” says Lucas-Larving. She pauses. “But you only have your childhood once.”

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