To Give or Not to Give? Minimalism and Gifts

Christmas berries_FotorNow that I’m a minimalist, the best part of childhood Christmases has become a balancing act: the giving and receiving of gifts. It is a way we express our affections –I wouldn’t be surprised if that was part of human nature, not just how we are socialized in a world of conspicuous consumption. Giving something we treasure means “I treasure you, too.” But this act has been greatly exaggerated as holiday traditions evolved. It seems we hardly know how to express love using currencies other than those available at the bank.

It has become less about “treasure” and more about “something.” I need to find something for Uncle Bob. Anything. Even though I only see him once a year, I need a gift, taking a wild guess at what he might like, to show him I care. Otherwise, how would he know? I forgot to call him on his birthday, after all.

Now add the negativity caused by comparison: Why did Uncle Bob give Cousin Sue a bigger gift than me? Did she call him on his birthday? How can Cousin Sue afford such expensive gifts? We’re the same age – do I need to find a new job to keep up? Why is my pile of gifts smaller than last year? Does my family finally understand minimalism or do they love me less?

I still like to receive gifts, but now it can be bittersweet. My new default is “I don’t need this.” But that is not the reaction givers are looking for. My solution is asking for specific things I actually need. It takes away the surprise, but with my default, surprises are usually of the bad variety. But since I don’t casually talk about the exact shirt I want (or my measurements), the odds of someone else finding the perfect fit are slim. Hence, the Christmas list.

There are so many things I only kept because they were gifts. They are weighing me down and I have the hardest time removing them. Despite knowing that the giver probably no longer remembers the gift and that passing it along does not mean that I don’t love and cherish whoever gave it to me. Whenever I do part with a gift, I feel lighter, and able to give better love. A win-win – but one I can’t share with the other winning party. However, it’s a long struggle for every gift, and while in the midst of it, I wish I had never received it – also not what the giver was going for.

Experiences or giving to charities are great and often suggested substitutes, since you still spend money, but add value without adding stuff. Unfortunately, not everyone can be convinced that physical items are not necessary: My mom needs the floor under the tree to be covered with gifts to feel like she is giving her (grown) children a proper Christmas (yes, we’re spoiled). She realizes that that is not how we measure her capabilities as a mother, but somehow she can’t help herself. She has given me experiences, but only in addition to things. Maybe there will be more gaps under the tree this year. Here’s hoping.

If someone asks you not to give them a gift, listen. Not using money to express love may feel insufficient at first. But respect their wishes, let them explain their version of minimalism – Minimalists love preaching talking about why we should all declutter stat. That is the best gift you can give to someone who knows they have more than they need.

11 thoughts on “To Give or Not to Give? Minimalism and Gifts

  1. Really nicely written. I’ve finally (I think) gotten to the point where my loving and feeling loved doesn’t depend on giving gifts. I appreciate the giver when they do, and sometimes I see something that prompts my heart to get it for someone. My relationships aren’t conditioned on that though. 🙂

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  2. I’ve reached the point where gifts we can eat, drink, or wear are the best because we know they’ll get used. Providing the ‘wear’ one isn’t a bright orange sweater with a poodle on it. 😉 We’re trying to cut down on our accumulations, but it isn’t always so easy. Things tend to find a way into the house, especially with kids.

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  3. I’m really embracing this concept this year. Last year, my brother gave me a deep fryer (?) and I felt too guilty to ask him if I could return it for something else (like a bread maker or a mini stepper or something). It’s sat, unused, in my kitchen for a year now. I wish I had spoken up and said something then.

    Times are tough for me financially this year so most of my Christmas gifts are handmade from yarn I more or less already had on hand. I made my mom a shawl, a hat and scarf set for her boyfriend, am making an afghan for my boyfriend and a pair of slippers for my brother. Honestly, it’s kind of nice not to go crazy buying all sorts of things this year. I think I’m enjoying the gift giving a bit more because it’s so exciting to see my projects materialize 🙂


  4. So much of this post resonates with me. Too often, the gifts we receive aren’t free and come with a hefty price tag of you say, from finding the “perfect” gift, to acting happy to receive something you really didn’t want, to feeling you have to keep a gift for the sake of the giver. It’s funny how problematic gift-giving can be when in theory it should be a joyful thing!


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