Unwanted Holiday Gifts and How to Start Dealing With Them

Enjoy this excerpt of my book, A MINIMALIST HOLIDAY.

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Let gratitude be your trademark.

Maybe you think minimalism requires an offensive strategy that shouts "Don't you dare give me anything that's going to clutter up my life!"  That's not a great attitude if you want to preserve a relationship you cherish.  But never fear – nastiness isn't necessary.

Gift-giving is historically significant.

In fact, giving a gift to show honor or appreciation, or to cement social or economic bonds, is an ancient practice.  So is giving gifts to a newly-married couple or a newborn baby.

But in spite of these age-old traditions, we don't seem to do it very well.

Maybe that's because our culture expects us to do it so often.  Gone are the days when a child might get one present on his birthday and a handful at Christmas.  Now we give gifts because it's the first day of school, or the first day of summer.  Or because we went through a fast food drive-thru.  Or because she asked for it in the store.

We give gifts at Easter and Valentine's Day.  We give gifts for Mother's Day, Father's Day, Grandparents' Day, Administrative Assistants' Day, and more.  We give gifts to teachers, coaches, and pastors.  We give gifts to say "Get well" or "I'm thinking of you!"  We give gifts for housewarmings and retirements, engagements and graduations.

And then there's the holiday season, which is a gift-giving marathon.

Gifts are supposed to be about thoughtfulness and love, but Americans spend over $15 billion on unwanted Christmas presents every year, and about 61% of people surveyed expect to get at least one gift they won't like.  Of those, most will add to people's clutter.  Some will be returned or exchanged, and a certain amount wind up in the garbage.

Most people give presents they hope their recipients will like.  They'd be dismayed to know that you're among the 62% of people who admit to lying about how much they like and use a gift.

Why are we so bad at this, even when we try to give something that won't wind up in the back of a closet or buried in a landfill?  Possibilities include:

  • The giver and the recipient don't know each other well.
  • The recipient doesn't need or want anything.
  • The recipient has very high expectations or very specific tastes.
  • The gift-giving is impersonal and obligatory; for example, a Secret Santa exchange, classmate's (not friend's) birthday party, milestone anniversary, etc.

There's a lot of room for error, and since we don't want to offend anyone, these gifts take up space, gather dust, and remind you that so-and-so doesn't really know you.

5 ways to receive with gratitude

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," so let's start with strategies to reduce the number of unwanted presents you give and receive.

1.  Have a conversation.

Don't wait to have a conversation about Christmas gifts at the Thanksgiving dinner table.  Bring the subject up much earlier, and do it by talking about some of the changes you're making in your life as a minimalist.  Comments like the following could start some interesting discussions.

  • "I just decluttered my garage, and I can't believe how many things I donated!"
  • "We've implemented a one-in, one-out strategy with the kids' toys, and it's had so many positive results."
  • "I watched a documentary about minimalism, and it really changed my thinking."

By opening a conversation, you'll hopefully spark some curiosity and a thoughtful exchange.

It's especially important to share your resolutions with your loved ones when you're new to minimalism.  Your desire to live with more lightness and freedom may look quite different to your previous lifestyle.  Be patient, because the idea of wanting less rather than more is startling to some people, and can be a difficult concept to accept.  As time goes on, and friends see that your choices are permanent, they'll adjust.

That's what happened for me.  Now my family and close friends know I'm not interested in acquiring a lot of things I don't need, so they try to choose gifts they think I'll use and enjoy.

That said, some people may never understand your chosen way of life.  They may not be willing or able to accommodate you, so you'll need to accommodate them.  Be the example of loving acceptance, and continue to practice the following tips.

Interested in what comes next?

There are four more useful tips for reducing the number of unwanted gifts in your life, but to read them you'll have to get the book.

I've completely revised A MINIMALIST HOLIDAY: Simplify Your Celebration for More Meaning and Joy and added tons of additional content (the word count is almost 50% greater than the 2nd edition).  It's a bigger and better guide to a more joyful holiday.


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