Conscious gift-giving — not just for tiny house people

I love this time of year – the music, the decorations (the lights!), the movies (White Christmas, Elf, Home Alone, Love Actually, etc), the cookies, family, friends, get-togethers, tradition-keeping, the warmth.

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But what I don’t love is the over-commercialization of the holidays. I worry about America in general this time of year. I know that may sound dramatic, but I really long for a return to what Christmas and the holidays are supposed to be about  – for everyone, not just for myself. I am genuinely worried that we’re forgetting the meaning entirely.

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Recently I was listening – I mean, really listening – to the advertisements in advance of Black Friday. We’re being told we’re not cool/successful/attractive/happy/etcetera if we don’t own this latest whatever is being peddled. Oh, and you’re not a good parent if you don’t buy your child the latest hot toy.  We’re bombarded with these ads, and they’re nearly inescapable. Even if you don’t watch TV, ads come up on social media feeds, online, and on the radio. And instead of the “holiday season”, it’s now, sadly, the “holiday shopping season”. Maybe this isn’t new, but it certainly feels like it’s getting worse.

And though this is coming from someone who works in social media, and also loves her Instagram, social media isn’t helping.  With so much over-sharing of photos that showcase the bounty of presents under the Christmas tree on Facebook and Instagram, there may also be some pressure to keep up with the Joneses.

“Comparison is the thief of joy,” said Teddy Roosevelt, and maybe those photos posted around the holidays make us think we’re not doing the holidays right, that our pile of presents isn’t big enough.

The true meaning of the holiday season is being marred by the huge emphasis we Americans place on buying, buying, buying. Consumerism is out of control, and rather than focus on what this time of year is truly about – giving to those in need, connectedness, family, tradition, gratefulness for the abundance around us, charity, spending time with those we love – many of us stress out, spend too much time in malls, and buy presents frantically, missing the season entirely.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Below I share a few ideas that maintain the spirit of giving, but with an emphasis on experiences and time together with those we love.

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A caveat – we don’t have kids so this is purely a recap of my own experiences, and I’d never dare suggest depriving little ones from the joys of unwrapping gifts on Christmas morning. But I don’t personally think people should go into debt just for that “wow factor” on Christmas morning. I think it’s a healthy thing to teach children about mindful gift-giving even at a young age. Not to mention, all the stuff we collect over our lifetimes will still be here on this planet long after we’re gone… but I digress…

I hope these ideas may spark an idea or two for whoever is reading, and inspire more conscious gift-giving this season.

  1. Many years ago, when the kids of the family were no longer kids, my extended family decided that instead of more gifts, we’d instead play the Left-Right Game. The entire family sits in a big circle in the living room, and a designated family member, usually my cousin Kathy who is great with words and presentation, was responsible for writing a story with the words “left” and “right” throughout, and then reading it and acting it out. Each player contributed a $20 bill to a basket and that basket was passed around the circle, changing directions and hands each time the word “left” or “right” was said. At the end of the game, whoever was left holding the basket contributed the collected money to the charity of his or her choice. This game was great fun, and gave us lots of laughs and wonderful memories – and importantly, since we all had everything we needed, we loved giving to a worthy charity each year. (Google left-right game if my description isn’t clear!) You can alter this game to your liking, and get creative.

Screen Shot 2018-12-06 at 1.07.54 PMMy sister and cousin after one year of playing the Left Right Game and face-timing with another sister who was in France for the holidays

2. A few years before Todd and I even considered downsizing, we knew we just didn’t need more stuff, and had a hard time coming up with gift ideas for each other. Every holiday season, I racked my brain but couldn’t think of anything I really needed or wanted. So we decided on a new idea. We both love a good cocktail. So, each of us decided to find a recipe for a new cocktail we’d never had and purchase the ingredients for said cocktail and give them to each other on Christmas – and then quickly whip them up to sample! This was a fun one, and can be done with food, coffee, other warm drinks – doesn’t have to be cocktails. It’s a way to get a little more creative and not fill your home with things you won’t use or don’t want.

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3. Experiences are key. I think what many of us are longing for isn’t more in terms of material belongings, but more human connection. My sister Sarah has given some great experiential gifts in past years, such as Moroccan/African cooking classes for the two of us. One year she also bought the ingredients and the cookie mold for Lebanese cookies called Mamoul, and we used my grandmother’s old recipe to make them together for the first time. Trust me – these are gifts that don’t fill your house up with stuff, but fill your life with memories and experiences that you’ll cherish even more.

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4. For a few years we played another game with my immediate family where each of four households (Jess/Todd, Sarah/JP, Becca/Jamie, and my mom and dad) would secretly pick a name of another household and we’d each be responsible for giving a gift to just that couple. A lot of the time, we aimed to get creative and make all or part of the gift – there were things like indoor herb gardens, booze-infused fruit, gardening gifts, homemade soaps and lotions, sleeping bags, camping gear, and other memorable handmade gifts. We also “adopted a family” at Christmastime, which I know many other family members and friends do, and I believe giving to those in need is truly one of the best ways to celebrate the season.

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5. Todd and I don’t really do many tangible gifts anymore, opting to purchase airfare around the holidays so we can travel together somewhere new in the New Year. Screen Shot 2018-12-06 at 1.01.11 PM

There are incredible deals on international airfare around Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Travel Deal Tuesday, as well as into the holiday season, and since we both place a huge premium on travel, this is our gift to each other.

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6. But when we do buy tangible gifts, it’s often things like our kayaks which we got for our first wedding anniversary, camping supplies like a solar shower, and sleeping pads, and a recent bike purchase as our old bikes were totaled in a car accident last year – so we opt for things we can use in experiences together which make our life together fuller.

7. I mentioned it above a few times, but giving to those in need, either through adopting a family, volunteering at a homeless shelter, or collecting for a charity, is really one of the most gratifying ways to celebrate this season, and is what Christmas is truly about.

8. A few more ways to celebrate the season that we need more of: carol singing, cookie baking, Christmas cocktail parties, sleigh rides, ghost stories by the fire. Any I missed? Please do share!

I hope some of these ideas have been helpful, and please feel free to leave ideas or thoughts in the comments, or by emailing me and if there are a bunch of other good ones, we can do a follow up post.

Enjoy the holidays. They’re over in the blink of an eye. I hope you have meaningful time with family and friends, and I wish you love, peace, and warmth this season and into the New Year.

PS – Just because I love seeing how other countries do it, here is one of my favorite Rick Steves episodes on Christmas traditions in Europe!

A photo collection of some of my favorite Christmas memories


Join the Conversation


  1. You know, it’s funny, Jess – “A Charlie Brown Christmas” first aired 52 years ago (can’t you believe it?!?), and as we all know, its prevailing theme was that the holiday was becoming over-commercialized and we were losing sight of the “true meaning” of Christmas. We now remind ourselves of this with the more modern phrase “Remember the reason for the season”.


    1. This problem of commercialization is certainly not new, but I feel like it’s getting more intense (and is a yearlong problem, not just a holiday problem). I love the message in Charlie Brown Christmas. Thanks for sharing the clip, it’s a good reminder I need to watch the whole thing sometime very soon! 🙂


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