Gift giving has always been a tricky business. In the 1930s, when future Hollywood star David Niven was an impoverished young actor, he spent the holidays merrily regifting stuff he’d received — until one day he accidentally sent someone back the leather wallet that he’d sent to Niven … engraved with Niven’s initials. Oops! A few years later, when Niven was involved in the early stages of a romance, he presented the lady with a set of beautifully embroidered handkerchiefs, and she gave him a car. Awkward!
The equation gets considerably more complicated these days, when many of us are attempting to be more careful and conscious consumers. I’m in total agreement with the principle, but let’s face it, finding nothing under the tree but long-lasting lightbulbs and biodegradable composting bags isn’t going to make the day feel very jolly. So how do we shop responsibly and festively?
Many years ago Rich and I realized that while we love the tradition of opening packages on December 25th, the presents themselves didn’t need to be fancy or expensive. So we agreed that when buying for each other, we’d stick to a modest fixed budget, and buy or make seven small gifts to put under the tree. I can’t tell you what a relief it was to lower the bar on gift-giving and just settle in for a little silly fun.
Like what? Well, last year I gave Rich a singing flamingo I found a discount store. (In the video below, it’s shown with a couple of flamingo hats left over from a previous holiday season. They seemed to enjoy the singing, too.)
When friends arrived for our holiday feast, everyone fell in love with that singing flamingo. All afternoon I kept noticing various guests wandering about with it tucked under one arm, sitting with it in their laps, or nestling cozily with it on the sofa, as if it was pet, or an honored guest. As I suppose it was.
Rich’s best ever gift to me was a couple of snails. It all started six years ago, when I was walking past an old woman selling wild asparagus and live snails, one of which had managed to escape. It was proceeding down the sidewalk with all the determination and speed of which a small gastropod is capable. I mentally cheered it on, and barely remembered to mention the incident to Rich. A month later I found a small package under the tree labeled, “What do we want? Freedom! When do we want it? Now!” Utterly mystified, I opened the box to find a pair of confused snails staring up at me.
“You can release them back into the wild,” Rich explained. “It’s like the pardoning of the turkeys at Thanksgiving. How many people get to save a life at the holidays?”
Word of this unique gift got around, and pretty soon some friends gave us a family of snails made by their kids from play-dough, launching a tradition of snail-themed gifts that eventually led me to establish my Snail Museum (the only one like it in the world!). Each year Rich crafts something new for the collection.
Perhaps a true minimalist would object to my snail collection as not having any practical value. But I say bringing a little more joy and laughter into the world is always worthy of us.
In addition to buying less, I try to buy smarter. I cast a suspicious eye on all products, including — perhaps especially — those that claim to be “ecofriendly.” Take the ad I just saw for a bamboo toothbrush subscription that involves sending you a new bamboo toothbrush every month. The manufacturer encourages you to toss the bamboo handle into the compost, advising you not to worry about the non-biodegradable nylon bristles because you simply pull them out with pliers. Like that’s going to happen. Show of hands: how many of you out there actively compost your waste? That would be 16% of you. How many of you would take time to find the pliers and extract the bristles every month? Anyone?
Actually, it’s the “every month” part that really bothers me. We don’t need new toothbrushes every 30 days. The American Dental Association and manufacturers such as Oral-B, who desperately want you to buy more of their products, only recommend replacing toothbrushes every three to four months, and I suspect it’s a lot longer than that for many of us. There’s nothing wrong with a bamboo toothbrush; clearly it’s better for the planet than a plastic one. But these so-called “ecofriendly” manufacturers are trying to convince us to look at toothbrushes as disposable items to be tossed out while they’re still perfectly serviceable, only a quarter of the way to retirement age.
No doubt they got the idea from the clothing industry. As you may have heard, there’s such a glut of cheap clothing around the world that 85% of all unwanted garments end up in a landfill — yes, including most of those you donate to charity and many new items that have been returned unworn.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy reasonably priced clothes; on my holiday budget, it’s all I can afford for Rich, who luckily likes anything made from plaid flannel and never looks at labels. But if your family has a tradition, say, of giving each other joke gifts of hideous holiday sweaters every year, with the virtuous intention of donating them to charities afterwards, it might be time to come up with an alternative. For instance, you could circulate photos of the most ghastly holiday clothes online and make snarky remarks about them. Here are a few of my faves. You can provide your own snarky remarks in the comments section below this post.
I’ve read the tradition of gift giving at the winter holidays didn’t reach the USA until the nineteenth century, and that in those days, the gifts tended to be gimcrack — cheap and cheerful little knickknacks. I say let’s bring back gimcrack! We can stop filling corporate coffers and municipal landfills — and still have the fun of pardoning snails, singing along with flamingos, and spending more time and less money celebrating with people we love. And I believe our lives will be the richer for it.
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I'm an American travel writer currently living in California.
My weekly updates contain tips for keeping our mental equilibrium and living more authentically during these turbulent times.