In a small attempt to stem the consumer tide of the holidays, my husband and I decided to opt out of the traditional Christmas gift exchange last year.
Our children have more than enough "stuff," so in lieu of a wrapped present, we got each of them an experience that reflected their interests: concert tickets for my teenage daughter, a yoga course and hockey tickets for my 10- and 12-year-old stepsons.
We've always tried to weigh the holiday equation more heavily on the "giving" side. At the food bank, the kids sort donations and pack boxes, leaving tired, dirty and sore but feeling great.
They get a kick out of flipping through the World Vision and Plan International catalogues, deciding whether to buy a goat for a family, send warm blankets to children in a refugee camp or plant a fruit tree for a community. It's a different kind of excitement than the thrill of a new video game or an iPod. It gives them a sense that they can understand, interact with and perhaps change their world rather than insulating themselves from it in a technology bubble.
We had thought our no-Christmas-gifts plan was inoffensive. But the subtle and not-so-subtle reactions from friends and family ranged from snide references to Scrooge or the Grinch to assumptions about the assuagement of white middle-class guilt or insinuations that we must be hippie tree-hugging anarchists.
I will admit it: I don't like shopping for other people. I find it presumptuous, time-consuming and usually motivated by something other than goodwill. I'm certain the ninth concentric circle of hell contains a crowded shopping mall full of plastic fir trees, cranky children and bad holiday tunes piped through a tinny sound system for all eternity.
Beyond this, I quite enjoy Christmas. I like putting a wreath on the door and untangling my mom's old Christmas lights - the ones I remember lit up at various childhood homes. They are older than me, garish and energy-sucking. My eco-husband hates them, but I prevail.
I like holiday parties, open houses, eggnog, mulled wine and the new dress I get each year. I look forward to Christmas cards from faraway places and the afternoon the kids and I spend baking cookies for friends, family, teachers, sports coaches and neighbours. And I even like it when we trim the tree on Christmas Eve while the kids squabble about who gets to put the star on top.
Once upon a time holidays meant something more than buying the latest electronic accessory destined to be obsolete by next Christmas. We're trying to get back to that something else as much as practically possible.
When we told our families we did not want to receive gifts, we got no argument from my father and his wife, who have been working with NGOs in developing countries for years. A package of school supplies sent to a child in Zimbabwe is a pretty cool gift, and the kids receive a note from grandpa telling the story of what life is like for children their age in Africa.
My husband's family viewed our request as an abdication of our parental obligation to bestow as much stuff as possible on our offspring. There was actually a temporary family rift over our decision to opt out of the annual two- to three-hour present-opening orgy.
We found no joy in other quarters, either. Some of the children's friends thought our idea "sucked" or constituted a "rip-off." The boys' mother cranked up the pace of her shopping to save her kids from a Dickensian Christmas. Even a social worker we know expressed concern that limiting presents may be perceived as "controlling" by our kids (parental control and guidance being a bad thing?).
Surprisingly, our children were our staunchest allies. When friends and family did not respect our wishes and bought the children presents, they donated them to the fire hall's toy drive.
When one of my daughter's friends rattled off a list of all the things she had received for Christmas, I winced and watched my daughter's face for her reaction. But my daughter smiled, admired her friend's iPod and cellphone, then matter-of-factly told her about how our family spent the holidays, without a whiff of proselytizing or embarrassment.
This year has been easier. Whether reacting to the economic climate or reaching their own consumer watermark, people are simply inviting us for a meal, getting together for something free and fun like a skating party, or making charitable or RESP donations in lieu of wrapped gifts. My husband's family chose to sponsor his recent aid trip to Ghana as their Christmas gift to him.
I swear I feel lighter - a nice counterpoint to all that comestible consumption - having shed the obligation to buy and exchange all kinds of cool stuff we don't need and, if we are honest with ourselves, we don't really want.
Martha Héder lives in Toronto.