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The power of gift-giving without the waste

  • 21 November 2019


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?

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