Thursday, January 27, 2011

Swimming in stuff: regifting and post-Christmas regret syndrome

The dust has settled. Advent is over. Christmastide is over. Gifts have found their place. Debts from spending splurges are (possibly) still being paid off.

The volume of stuff that is passed around at Christmas is staggering. While most (at least much) of it is an expression of love and relationship, nonetheless, large numbers of gifts are unwanted by the recipient and are regifted, donated to a charity shop, lie unused in a cupboard or end up as landfill. What do you do with your unwanted gifts? And do you need to tell the giver about the gift's destination? Have you ever refused a gift?

While retailers and manufacturers love it (the more landfill, the better, from their perspective) and have in many cases become dependent upon it, the Christmas splurge can leave people in debt and can unnecessarily increase the burden we are placing on the planet's resources and living systems. Does it have to be this way?

There are a host of culturally-specific social norms around gift-giving. For instance, is it rude or is it actually obligatory to open a gift in front of the person who gave it? Different cultures give opposing answers. And so I'm aware that even raising the question of how (and whether) to do gifts at Christmas may seem rude to some people. But it is important enough to risk being rude, since it is also inconsiderate to let the annual consumerist orgy continue without thought, protest or comment.

So what can we do to reduce the number of unwanted gifts while still expressing thoughtful care for one another? Perhaps it may help if we make explicit the ultimate goal of giving gifts, which isn't (I presume) to keep retailers in business, or multiply the stuff in the world, but to express our love for, relationship with and delight in another. But gifts aren't the only way of doing that. Gifts are only one love language, and in the consumerist frenzy that passes for Christmas in some places, the language of gifts may sometimes send confusing messages. Perhaps it is time for some creative translation?

Perhaps we could deliberately expand the Christmas tradition from gift-exchange to the giving of blessings. This wouldn't rule out gifts, but it would deliberately open up other forms of blessing as legitimate expressions of Christmas generosity. Many of these are already widely acceptable as gifts or gift alternatives, but it is worth listing a few suggestions (feel free to add more in the comments). Some examples:
  • Sharing a poem (written or found)
  • Sharing a significant piece of scripture and the reasons for its significance
  • Writing a letter.
  • Giving a piece of art fashioned by the giver.
  • Sharing a hug or other physical expression of affection (perhaps a holy kiss!).
  • Bestowing a word of encouragement.
  • Promising an act of service (e.g. lawn-mowing, babysitting, repair work, etc.). Some may be able to be performed immediately.
  • Promising an act of joint service (e.g. an invitation to help out at a soup kitchen together).
  • Promising a shared experience: going out together, making something together.
  • Pronouncing a verbal blessing ("The LORD bless you and keep you"). These can be powerful when both parties take them seriously and look each other in the eye.
  • Singing a song for the recipient.
  • Sending a postcard or letter together to absent members of the group or others who need encouragement.
  • Giving a TEAR gift (or equivalent vicarious gift through some other charity).
  • Loaning (or passing on) something precious (e.g. a favourite book or CD).
  • Sharing a favourite recipe.
  • And, of course, giving a physical gift, which could be secondhand, handmade, fair-trade or sustainably sourced.
I am sure there may be all kinds of practical issues around some of these suggestions, but surely Christmas doesn't have to lead to drowning in stuff.


Jon said...

Drawing a link between this post and your one a few days ago about Queensland floods, we could say that here in Brisbane it was our stuff that was swimming. I had water in the downstairs part of the house (thank Queensland architecture for high set houses), and even though anything of value was either rushed to higher ground or at least moved upstairs we still had a footpath full of ruined stuff, pretty much none of which needs to be replaced.

The footpaths of the flood-affected suburbs were piled high with broken furniture and electrical goods, which were bulldozed into rubbish mountains in the parks and intersections, then gradually loaded into trucks and carted to landfill. How much of it was needed, how much will be replaced?

byron smith said...

Jon - Sorry to hear you were directly affected by the flooding.

And a very interesting observation. It would be fascinating for someone to do a study on the behaviour of households after such disasters and what kinds of things are or are not replaced.

Adrian Wong said...

this sort of stuff should be saved and tagged before the next christmas so that ppl can think about it. most of our reflections happen after the event but it'll be a good tool fro teaching for the future.

byron smith said...

Jarrod McKenna: Get behind me Santa.

byron smith said...

Grist: Please, get my kids nothing for Christmas.

byron smith said...

Grist: A million and one ways to simplify Christmas. Lots of suggestions and links to more.

byron smith said...

Monbiot: The gift of death.

byron smith said...

Grist: Follow-up from previous Grist piece. The "give-me-nothing" dad reports on his experiences.