Each year, hundreds of online and print publications come out with alternative gift lists that steer readers away from overpriced big-box baubles and toward eco-friendly, fair trade, handmade, creative and, hopefully, more meaningful gift options. Projects geared toward the reclamation of Christmas shopping money further encourage participants to simplify celebrations and reject excess in consideration of global need. But is it possible for followers of such movements to miss the point, and actually make themselves feel guilty?
At their best, intentional, simplified celebrations can reinforce, rather than distract from, the full meaning of the incarnation we celebrate at Christmas time. Advent, historically a time of waiting and reflection within the seasons of the Church, often gets trampled like a lone, silent protester at a 5 a.m. door buster sale. We get so wrapped up in tracking down the most perfect ideas and the best deals that we’re more like savage beasts on the hunt than humble midwives keeping vigil for a birth. Traffic, stress, debt, moodiness—these are aggravating symptoms of the consumerist malaise generated by gift-giving that’s detached from any deeper purpose.
Alternative gift movements represent a refreshing change of pace for those who seek to watch and wait for signs of the Christ child, rather than signs of sales and stuff, during Advent. Many families and faith communities have learned important lessons by participating together in studies and practices of Christmas simplicity. At the heart of such efforts is a common question: how can we give good gifts that truly celebrate the incarnation?
The answer to this question is easier to approach when we’re talking about giving rather than receiving. We have agency over the gifts we give and can model appropriate giving according to our own sensibilities. By choosing handmade, fairly made, environmentally sensitive and other meaningful options we can affirm our deepest values of love and justice while offering a tangible gift to someone we love. We can also make choices that resist the competitive temptation to buy gifts outside of our means and values just to match dollar-for-dollar what others are giving to us.
However, I think alternative gift movements run certain risks of their own. In addition to giving tangible gifts that bear greater meaning, a popular option is giving “in honor of … ” gifts like a well or a hive of bees. Even though my husband and I have done this ourselves before, I think a symbolic charitable donation in lieu of a gift somehow misses the point of giving a gift to someone. Even when we have the best intentions, symbolic gifts make a choice for the recipient that we should probably trust him or her to make. Organizations like Heifer International, the flagship of in-kind donations, are doing wonderful work and we should support them throughout the year, and encourage those around us to do so. That said, giving a thoughtful, tangible gift—or even a gift of time like a night out at the movies—that those on our gift lists can enjoy in person shouldn’t make us feel guilty, but glad that we can celebrate our relationships in such concrete ways.
Additionally, symbolic gifts can undermine the good ritual of gift giving by making it a self-righteous show of our own ideals rather than a celebration of our love for other people. Guilt about giving “things” might indicate an anti-matter tendency that ironically devalues the incarnation we’re attempting to celebrate. One of the lessons of God taking on human form is that matter—what we can touch, see, hear, taste, smell—can be a very good thing. We were created by an extravagant God as sensual beings who rightfully enjoy the flavor of homemade jam or the feel of a soft alpaca wool scarf. Uncritical asceticism as a response to consumerist excesses can be a denial of who we are as human beings. Rather, we should seek to rediscover how giving meaningful, tangible gifts can serve as small symbols of God’s great, incomprehensible gift—a tiny baby who cried, laughed and pooped in a smelly stable—to people who were less than deserving. If you’re committed to giving in-kind gifts, consider giving the recipient a jar of local honey to go with that donated hive of bees so she can literally taste the sweetness of a gift to someone in need.
In addition to affecting our giving, the desire for alternative celebrations can also impair our ability to receive graciously when others don’t approach Christmas in the way we’d like. While we can model our deepest values through our own giving choices, receiving in a way that affirms those values is more difficult, usually because changing a family’s traditions is like changing the direction of a hundred-car freight train—it can be done, but not without great effort and grating protest.
To learn how to receive gratefully, we can again look to the nature of God’s giving as a model. Our task is not to argue with God about the extravagance of the choice to send Jesus into the world, but to figure out what to do with the reality of that gift. Likewise, my task is not to argue with a Christmas gift I consider superfluous, but to accept it humbly and graciously and then figure out what to do with it once it’s in my care. In the case of Christmas gifts, I can choose to hold loosely to the things around me, while appropriately enjoying their scents, sounds, smells, flavors and textures when they give me delight. I can also choose to pass on what could give more joy to someone else through re-gifting, Freecycling, thrift store donation, consignment, garage sales and other means. I can’t impose the burden of giving fewer or better or cheaper gifts on a giver, but I can maintain an appropriate response of love and gratitude while discerning in my own home how to faithfully keep or redistribute my possessions.
The struggle against the shop-shop-shop mentality of consumerist Christmas celebrations is a good and important fight. My primary concern is that our efforts toward deeper meaning, however genuine they may be, can become just as soul-sucking and distracting as the glittering false promises of excess stuff, especially when we’re trying to force those efforts on those around us who aren’t ready to change. Clutter is clutter and whether it collects from excessive gift-giving or excessive "alternative" practices, there’s pressure to overcompensate for year-round busy-ness, stress and distraction by heaping imposed meaning on this one celebration. Unfortunately, love too often becomes replaced by guilt as a primary motivation.
For those who hope to reclaim Christmas as a celebration of the incarnation of Christ, a better approach might be to consider how we can change our everyday practices in other months of the year. How might daily disciplines of simplicity, generosity and awareness help renew Christmas as a special time of joyful remembering, storytelling, giving and receiving? If we’re already visiting our local fair trade store for coffee each week, chances are we’ll head into Advent with some ideas for good global gifts that tell important stories. If we’re already in the habit of giving away what we don’t find useful or life-giving anymore, another candleholder from Aunt Louise can have a temporary home on an empty shelf until the time comes for it to move on to another caretaker. And if we’re already mindful each day of the ongoing gift of incarnation we live out as embodied people in God’s world, Christmas might just be a welcome occasion to express our love and gratitude in the rituals of wrapping and unwrapping presents with people we love.