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OPINION: The dark side of gift giving

Canva Illustration by Virginia Doherty
Canva Illustration by Virginia Doherty

The most wonderful time of the year: marked by families gathering, twinkling lights, glistening snow and warm fires. Mistletoe, chestnuts roasting, presents neatly stacked beneath the tree—all the classic traditions that make up Christmas. A chance to push aside thoughts of work, school and the stresses of daily life in favor of celebration and time spent with loved ones.

Of course, gifts play a large role too—from the big pile on Christmas morning to small exchanges with friends weeks in advance, thoughtful presents are an essential part of the season.

For the average American, that all comes in at around $1,500. That’s about 2.5% of the average salary in the U.S., the majority of which is being spent on presents for other people, along with the gift wrap, decorations and food that are seemingly a necessity. To put that into perspective, that’s fairly comparable to the percentage of annual income spent on clothes or gas in a year.

Throughout the holiday season, Americans produce about 25% more trash and an additional million tons of waste every week. This staggering increase can be accounted for through food waste, packaging, travel, Christmas cards and the dreaded returns.

As the holiday expanded beyond its religious meaning and became a multitude of cultural traditions in America, the majority of Americans now celebrate Christmas, and it’s the most popular holiday of the year. Gift giving in particular is near and dear to many of our hearts and is a central tenet of the day. 

The U.S. is known for its consumerism, both in terms of the sheer amount of product consumed each year and the American ideology of physical items being essential to a happy life, alongside the need for more, more, more. This mindset tends to only become more ingrained in consumers’ attitudes during the holiday season, and oftentimes, the holiday itself becomes about consuming products.

Even putting finances and the disastrous environmental impact aside, gift giving can very easily become an unhealthy practice, exacerbated and often caused by our consumerist ideals. Anxiety levels rise across the board when it comes to gifts, both in giving and receiving. They’re often used as a calculated tool, whether it’s done with the intention of receiving gifts from certain individuals or injuring others with carefully chosen items.

Although most middle class consumers would agree that spending a couple thousand dollars on the festivities is a lot, there remains an expectation that each item on the list is checked off, from appropriate decorations to a mountain of presents for kids. The act of giving and receiving gifts at such a large scale can often be performative or disingenuous, and it is often based on this fantastical idea of the perfect holiday, the perfect family and the perfect life.

What Christmas really comes down to in modern America is about a century’s worth of excellent marketing.

What we celebrate today is incredibly distanced from Yule, the birth of Jesus, Saturnalia and all the other traditions it originated from. For most people, Christmas doesn’t bring to mind images of the classic Yule log or the nativity scene, but pictures of rosy-cheeked Santa Claus, comically large stockings and sparkling trees.

As we forged new meaning out of ancient traditions, creating a holiday meant for relaxation and nostalgia from formerly rowdy festivals, we also forged a new method of celebration focused around spending money.

All of this isn’t to say that gifts are inherently bad or that Christmas is absolutely nothing more than a chance for corporations to sell more goods; from personal experience, we all know that’s not true. I firmly side with the majority of Americans in my love for Christmas, and gift giving is very important to me. However, like many, I tend to go about it in a way that’s both financially and environmentally irresponsible.

When giving material goods out of a sense of obligation or the mere potential for reciprocation, money and time are being wasted. That’s not to say that you should refuse to get something for that aunt or uncle who you’re still not quite sure how you’re related to but rather to be more mindful about who you’re giving gifts to, why, and what you’re actually giving.

As someone who struggles to stick to a budget, especially at Christmas, it helps to plan in advance, rather than be caught up in the last month of flash sales and incredibly persistent advertisements. This allows for a firm payment schedule of when you will actually purchase the gifts, offer more time to find a gift the receiver will genuinely appreciate, and pull back on the impulse buying.

The key to a holiday season that’s much more friendly to both the environment and your wallet is just mindfulness in your purchases. While the pressure for the “perfect” Christmas will always be there, how you choose to celebrate with friends and family remains an independent decision, and the intentionality in your choices will make a world of difference.

Virginia Doherty is an opinion writer. Contact her at [email protected].

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About the Contributor
Virginia Doherty, Opinion Writer
Virginia is a sophomore majoring in history and art history with minors in marketing and non-profit studies. She enjoys writing about politics, history, religion, and fashion.
Contact her at [email protected]

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