Gift Trapped?
If You're Feeling the Weight of Obligatory Presents, It May Be Time to Reconsider Your Gift-Giving Ways

By Hannah Schardt
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 23, 2008

Most of us love to give and receive, at least in principle. So where did this whole holiday gift thing go wrong? In a poll taken early this year, half the respondents said they would carry last year's holiday credit card debt into spring -- and that was long before the credit crisis and economic downturn.

It's not just debt that has Americans feeling not so merry; a 2005 survey found that three-quarters of us think the holidays have become too materialistic. And even the convenience of online shopping has not changed one sad reality: Most of us end up buying some gifts -- usually at the last minute -- out of desperation.

That is all wrong, says Lisa Wise, executive director of the Center for a New American Dream, a Takoma Park-based nonprofit group that encourages consumers to be environmentally and socially responsible. She says gift-giving should be thoughtful, not forced.

"We ought to be thinking more about what that person really wants and needs, rather than just giving for the sake of giving," Wise says. Case in point: those stocking stuffers stacked next to every cash register at the mall. People don't buy those trinkets because someone they love really needs a tube of peppermint lip balm, a box of tiny soaps or a tartan plaid headband. They buy them, Wise says, because they have a set amount of money they think they ought to spend, or a set number of presents they think the giftee will expect.

There is another way. Wise calls it being a "conscious consumer," and this might be just the year it finally catches on in a big way. The basic premise: Keep it simple, keep it thoughtful, keep it heartfelt. And don't go into debt in the name of keeping the holidays jolly.

Of course, there is a right way and a wrong way to change holiday traditions. Olivia Doherty of Upper Marlboro discovered the wrong way nearly 20 years ago. "My worst Christmas memory as a young kid is when I was about 7. My mother had the brilliant idea of telling all of our relatives to get me and my younger brother gift certificates for Christmas," Doherty says. "There were no presents to open. I never even saw the gift certificates, much less used them, and I can still feel that sinking sadness deep in the gut that I felt that Christmas."

Doherty's experience underlines the most important rule for changing your family's approach to the holidays: Giving and receiving gifts ought to be meaningful and fun.

That said, getting others on board with your plan can be tough. The decision to change the gift-giving traditions of your inner circle is not, unfortunately, one that can be made unilaterally. It's great that you want to knit everyone a tea cozy this year, but what if Grandma is still expecting the annual bottle of eau de toilette? A discussion is in order, and you should be prepared to make your case without coming across like the Grinch.

"Try to personalize the conversation," Wise advises. "Tell them 'We're low on time and financially maxed out,' if that's the case. And try to draw the environmental connection. Ask that we not fill up our households with things we know aren't going to be useful."

It's important, though, not to sound like a know-it-all. One tactic to try: "Ask for their ideas first. They may offer suggestions you wouldn't have thought of," Wise says. And be willing to take it slow. Maybe your family can't go from piles of presents to charitable donations in one holiday season, but that's no reason to give up. "New traditions don't happen overnight," Wise says.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company