Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

The power of gift-giving without the waste



Christmas and similar significant festivals are a fraught time for many people. Who do you spend the day with? What food should you bring to share, and does it have to be gluten-free, paleo, vegan, or keto-friendly? What do you do if Uncle Clive starts talking about politics, or Aunty Edith wants to debate the science behind immunisations?

Hands presenting a wrapped gift. (Credit: Kseniya Ovchinnikova / Getty Images)And then there is the issue of gifts.

In the 1970s, sociologists in the United States found that gift giving at Christmas time was subject to strict unwritten rules that determined everything from who gives what to whom to how presents are wrapped. They even determined the symbolic meaning behind different kinds of gifts — signifying things such the status of your relationship or whether you were alienated from your spouse.

When I consider my own childhood, the existence of these implicit rules also rings true in the Australian context. But recently I've observed that traditions around Christmas gift giving have begun to fundamentally change due to a combination of increased environmental consciousness and a general desire to reduce the inundation of stuff into our lives. Many have reported a deliberate decision to reject the excesses of the past and the related pressure to purchase stuff 'for the sake of it'.

My family has certainly been paring back on our gift giving for a while now. As a result, we now give far less and we have changed the nature of the presents that we buy. And, I have to admit that I have relished these changes to our Christmas traditions. I don't enjoy shopping, and used to find the pressure to buy something for everyone incredibly stressful. More significantly, I found it distressing to see the huge piles of waste that we would create on the day — particularly when you include not only the wrapping paper and plastic packaging, but the gifts that were clearly destined for landfill in the not-too-distant future.

However, as we pare back more and more, I have started to realise that there is a risk in taking things too far. The consumer orgy of the past may have been unsightly, but gift giving itself also serves a valuable social function, and we may be at risk of throwing out the baby with the bath water.

When I was a kid, it didn't occur to me that gift giving could be complicated. I used to jump out of bed ridiculously early on Christmas morning and open my Christmas stocking with a thrill of excitement. My mum always included fresh cherries, because these had been part of her childhood Christmas tradition, and I would start eating these almost immediately. (I now shudder to think about the potential for stains on bed linen, but apparently this never came up.)


"Gift giving builds social relationships, signifies social acceptance, and demonstrates mutual obligations of reciprocity. "


Throughout the day, everyone in my family would exchange gifts with everyone else. A mountain of ripped wrapping paper would float around the floor and people would build small piles of newly acquired goods — serving platters, recipe books, novels, aftershave, toiletry bags, soap, hankies, toys, knick-knacks, new clothes, and beach towels.

One year, when my younger cousin was two years old, he received a six-pack of sticky tape, because he loved it so much. He also received a large toy truck and promptly wrapped the whole thing in tape. The look of sheer pleasure on his face as he wound the sticky tape round and round his truck was priceless.

Another year, another cousin received a pack of Alf themed underwear that were several sizes too small. (My grandma had a tendency to stock up early on Christmas gifts and these had apparently been retrieved from the back of the 'present cupboard' a little later than intended.) He accepted the gift with characteristic good humour and posed for several photographs while holding his newly acquired attire. It's now one of our favourite family Christmas stories.

While I'm not advocating that we all go out and buy joke presents for each other, I think it's worth reflecting on what we want to preserve from our old traditions, even as we embrace the need to reduce our ecological footprint and avoid meaningless consumption.

In his seminal book, The Gift: The form and reason for exchange in archaic societies, French anthropologist Marcel Mauss highlighted the significant symbolic role that gift giving plays in society. Gift giving builds social relationships, signifies social acceptance, and demonstrates mutual obligations of reciprocity.

So how do we hold on to the symbolic function of gift giving while remaining conscious of our impact on the environment? It seems the key is to consider the nature of the gifts that we give to each other.

When I asked friends and colleagues about their plans for presents this Christmas, many people highlighted the joy of sharing experiences with their family and friends by purchasing tickets to the theatre, movie money, or massage vouchers. One friend described this as a way of spreading the fun through the year, which is a charming concept. Other people said they had started buying second hand goods, delicious local food products, or making things for the special people in their lives. Many report to having done away with wrapping paper by creating new family traditions around handmade fabric gift bags.

The lovely thing about these new traditions is that they enable us to maintain the ritualist aspect of gift giving, with all its symbolic social power, while building in new values of sustainability and conscious consumption. And the best thing is: you can often buy experiences without ever having to enter a mall. What's not to love?



Cristy ClarkDr Cristy Clark is a lecturer at the Southern Cross University School of Law and Justice. Her research focuses on the intersection of human rights, neoliberalism, activism and the environment, and particularly on the human right to water. Main image credit: Kseniya Ovchinnikova / Getty Images

Topic tags: Cristy Clark, Christmas, consumption, waste



submit a comment

Existing comments

I have to agree; gift-giving is complicated. Myself leans a little towards extravagance. If it is costly it seems to have more importance! Of course, God's costly, extravagant gift to us should never be forgotten at this sustainable time of year. A thought for me (and others at the mall) to remember.

Pam | 21 November 2019  

So many charities have gifts for (usually) third world families or villages. No clutter, no waste and you don't have to wrap or shop for the pig/goat/chickens. Gifts that really reflect God's generosity to us.

mary ellen | 23 November 2019  

“It seems the key is to consider the nature of the gifts that we give to each other.”….. Dear Penguin with head bowed low / Sat upon cold ice flow / I have gifts for you but they have no price / Only the power to melt ice / As Swan in gentle silence moves along / I felt the ripple of its song / Reflected by the silvery moon / Upon the heart of placid lagoon,,,/ The smile you gave, came from within / You gave a precious part / A piece of your heart…/ I have a broach for you to wear / But only you will know it’s there / The snowdrop first flower in bud / Ever to remind you, that you gave love / A princess of the spring, sat in ermine bed / Ice droplets adorn its head…./ In this cold place I have forged a ring / Attached the brightest gem, that I can give / A warm tear, brighter than the morning dew / This gift of tenderness I give to you / And when each Spring, comes anew / And popping heads come pushing through / Let the movement of your heart anew / Touch again the morning dew.

Kevin Walters | 27 November 2019  

A sane, mature and considered article. Christmas is about 'something else': a free gift given to us. The simpler Christmases of yesteryear mirror this more than current consumerism. Saying that, a small, useful present - a gift voucher to be spent as the recipient wishes - can cheer the tired and jaded.

Edward Fido | 22 December 2019  

Similar Articles

Farmers and Traditional Owners decry SA nuclear vote

  • Michele Madigan
  • 20 November 2019

The Minister was delighted to announce that in Kimba the long awaited vote to host a permanent facility for national low level radiactive waste and storage for intermediate level radioactive waste had concluded. The result: 61.17 per cent voted in favour. Unsurprisingly, he failed to mention that voting rights in the poll were severely restricted.


A mystical intrusion in nature

  • Francine Crimmins
  • 20 November 2019

Johnson describes this encounter as one of grandeur, the same feeling some adherents of religion experience when they visit a sacred site or enter a holy place of worship. In this way, nature is a mystical experience. It's the closest feeling I get to an overwhelming presence that is all encompassing and all forgiving at the same time.