Frugality and Finance

Celebrate a Buy-Nothing Christmas

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It always surprises me how quickly we are encouraged to move from the attitude of gratitude of Thanksgiving to the hyper-consumerism of Christmas.  Constant media bombardment, as well as the growing wish lists and responsibilities of the season, make it easy to push our values to the backburner and follow the crowd in the celebrations of the season.  Fortunately, it is possible to not only maintain your homesteading values this time of year but actually to strengthen them.  You do not have to hurry through Thanksgiving to get ready for holiday shopping.  Black Friday can be a buy-nothing day and if that feels right, you can celebrate a buy-nothing Christmas.

Giving is a good impulse and an important part of the Christmas story revolves around the three wise men bringing gifts, but giving gifts was not the main event in England and the United States until the 19th century, a relatively short time ago.  In that short time, getting, giving, and out-giving everyone else has detracted from an otherwise meaningful holiday.

The unofficial beginning of buy-nothing day happened in 1968, when one family decided to take a stand and refuse to participate in the Black Friday hype.  The fact that just one family standing on their principles started a movement is very encouraging – we do have the power to change the things we do not like!  In 2001, a group of Mennonites from Canada picked up the buy-nothing mantle and expanded it to buy-nothing Christmas.  Although buying nothing for the holidays may seem strange, it really fits into common homesteading values.  The manufacturing and transporting of inexpensive toys and trinkets unnecessarily wear on the environment, and in the month of December, Americans throw away approximately 25 tons of extra garbage.  The average American spends $1000 on gifts for Christmas every year, oftentimes going into debt to buy the presents they think they need to purchase.   It allows us to live a little lighter, create less waste, prioritize relationships over material possessions, and make responsible and sustainable financial decisions.

But what can we do if we choose to not do presents?  There are as many options as there are families, and if you try something new each year your holiday will soon be filled with rituals and traditions that are specific to your family.

You do not have to start with a complete ban on gift giving.  If this is a new idea for you and your family, make a commitment to buy gifts and decorations from a local and independent shop.  Make sure it is an independent shop – Walmart may be in your locality, but it is not an independent retailer.  Other than the obvious value to members of your community, a gift that is not mass produced is going to be more meaningful to the recipient.

Another way to keep the gift exchange is to have everyone give a gift of something they already own which holds sentimental value.  Part of the gift can be an explanation of the value of the item to the giver and why it was specifically chosen for the recipient.

A gift that is pulled out and read over and over again is a love journal.  After Thanksgiving dinner, give everyone a small journal and let them draw a name of a family member from a basket.  From Thanksgiving through Christmas Eve, they write something they love and appreciate about the person their journal is for.  Young children can dictate their ideas to a parent.  We tend to think our family knows how we feel about them, but sometimes they don’t know how much they mean.  Sometimes we don’t even know how much they mean to us until we write it down.

If you have ever received a handmade gift from a child, you know how meaningful those are.  While scented candles and knick-knacks come and go, these handmade items are treasured forever.  In addition to encouraging your children to make handmade presents, you, too, can make personalized presents for friends and family.  Are you a great cook?  Make a themed food basket based on the recipient’s favorite food.  Love to bake?  Cookie boxes or miniature pies are always loved.  Do you weave, work with wood, have a green thumb?  All of these lend themselves to thoughtful presents.

In the spirit of renewing and strengthening relationships with those most important to us, don’t shy away from hosting a get-together.  Family parties are most fun and relaxed when there is a common purpose, so consider turning your party into a holiday workshop of some kind.  This could be a cookie bake, an ornament make and swap, go on a winter hike, have a Christmas bonfire, or organize a progressive dinner.  You don’t have to make ugly sweaters a requirement – but you could!

One appreciated type of the homemade gift is the gift of time and talents.  Coupons for babysitting, snow shoveling, or housecleaning are appreciated by new parents and older family members.  This is an idea that allows you to use your talents to help someone for the rest of the year.  Coupons for a dinner once a month, a monthly delivery of baked goods, produce delivered from your garden – not only are gifts like these useful, but they develop relationships throughout the year instead of just one month.  A monthly gift is especially good for those experiencing grief through the holidays.  Christmas day may be a time of joy, but for those experiencing loss there is often a big letdown once the day has passed and the rest of the season is difficult to manage.

Christmas can also be a good time to volunteer at a local charity as a family.  Aside from the good you do for others, volunteering increases the feelings of gratitude and wellness and has been proven to have actual health benefits.  Children who watch their parents give to others become givers as well.  If you cannot find a local charity, your family can organize a food, diaper, or coat drive.  If you enjoy your time volunteering during the holiday season, it may be something your family chooses to do year-round.

Homesteaders have generally made a conscious decision to downshift, opting for a simpler life based on the things that are most important to them.  In a society that values possessions over personal values, this is already quite subversive.  While we are usually very good at recognizing when consumer demand is being manipulated through mass-marketing, the Christmas gift frenzy can be difficult to resist. With some time and attention, however, the new traditions, rituals, and gifts you choose will make an impact that is felt throughout your circle of friends and family, and Christmas will become a relaxed and joyful time rather than the exhausting and anxiety-producing event so many people find themselves struggling with.

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  • We take care of abandoned dogs at our rescue center in Mexico. After saving them from illness and starvation in the streets, they live with us in "dog paradise," and every day thereafter is "dog Christmas." We make music for TheSound.com, and the royalties we earn from streaming the music help us pay for the dog food and vet bills. We give and receive love with this music, and that makes every day Christmas.

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