Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Inspired Gift Giving

This time of year, most of us get caught up stressing about finding the perfect gift for our loved ones, festive ways to make centerpieces out of pinecones, or where to sleep the hoards of relatives who will soon be congregating in our homes. For many of us, the holidays end up being anything but a relaxing, spiritual time; instead, they’re often a whirlwind of commercialism, planning, cleaning, and trying to find that perfect gift for the kids, while ignoring the nagging thought they probably won’t play with it for more than a week or two this year, either.

According to a recent survey, three in four Americans wish the holidays were less materialistic, and nine in ten wished the holidays were more about spending time with family and friends, and less about giving and receiving gifts (Center for the New American dream). That sentiment is probably shared by many of our friends and family members, especially in the midst of financial and environmental crises, combined with the knowledge that many of our favorite toys and brands were manufactured by exploited workers in poor countries. A cultural shift regarding the meaning of the holidays would be beneficial to the world we live in and our personal wellbeing, but breaking the societal cycle of consumerism can be difficult, especially when your kids really need this new toy to be cool, happy, or whatever. And nobody wants to be the first vocal Grinch who admits that she currently dreads the holidays, more than looks forward to them.

But there are practical solutions that can help alleviate stress, reduce consumerism, and create new traditions, which encourage and nourish quality family time. What if instead of spending lots of time and money searching for the perfect toy, necklace, or home mani-pedi kit, we instead spent our gift money on fun, non-material things which friends and families can enjoy together—tickets to go see a great band, gift vouchers for a favorite restaurant or brewery, ski passes or Nuggets tickets. There are all sorts of fun things we can give as gifts which honor the giving season while allowing us to share experiences and spend time together. I’m talking about things that will still elicit that thrilling, Christmas morning grin, but that won’t end up in a landfill in two months, weren’t manufactured by exploited laborers, and don’t send our kids the message that material items are synonymous with happiness.

For our grownup friends, what if we hosted a holiday dinner and suggested that instead of gifts, everyone bring $10 to contribute to a charity of the host’s choice, and spend the dinner having spirited, soul-satisfying conversations about the issues facing our world today? Be creative! There are tons of ways to use our collective political and financial power for good instead of mass consumption, and it will probably be received as a refreshing break from typical holiday pressures to buy hostess gifts and gather to discuss the latest fad diets and SAT prep courses for two hours. Your creative ideas can generate real power, especially when your neighbors catch on and the tradition begins to spread.

For those of us unable or unwilling to give up traditional gift giving, fair trade is a great option which ensures that the workers were fairly paid for their labor and the working conditions are safe, healthy, and do not promote environmental degradation. There are a number of ways to find fair trade stores and products in your area—but checking out Global Exchange may be a good place to start: www.globalexchange.org.

Once the gifts are purchased, we can even exercise our power to positively impact our world by being conscious of how we wrap our gifts—why waste money and trees on wrapping paper when you can be creative and environmentally conscious by wrapping in the colorful Sunday comics page? People will appreciate these personal touches and efforts to be conscious, and you will be saving money and stress in the process—not to mention setting a great example for your kids!

Speaking of kids, are you still worried about what to tell your kid when she looks at you with those big brown doe eyes and explains, didactically and heart-wrenchingly, exactly why she needs the newest, latest gizmo-gadget to be happy? After all, what parent doesn’t want to give their child whatever it is their child most desires, especially in the age of “everybody else’s parent is getting it?” But if you, the parent, can’t stand up against what “everybody else’s parent” is doing, how is your child ever going to learn to stand up to what “everybody else is doing?” And isn’t that precisely what we try to teach them about drugs, alcohol, sex, etc—to be their own person, no matter what “everybody else” happens to be doing? (And speaking from personal experience, the “everybody else is getting it” is usually just a line anyway … )

A holiday blog by the wonderful MAU maven and intern, Hanna Johnson. Visit the MAU site for more on creating new traditions and inspired giving.

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