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Are the Holidays Too Materialistic?

Article Translations: (Spanish)

It's the day after Thanksgiving and Emily is in the mall stressing out about finding the perfect gift for her best friend, Sam. She and Sam set aside a day every holiday season to exchange presents. But this year Emily can't find anything affordable that she thinks Sam would like. So this year Emily decides she'll make her own gifts.

Lots of people feel stressed out about buying and giving gifts around the holidays. But have the holidays become too materialistic and more about the gifts than the feelings behind them?

The Tradition of Holiday Gifts

Why do people give gifts in the first place? Throughout the world, many cultures mark special holidays with gifts and food. Holiday traditions bring people together and allow us to feel a part of family and community. The gifts and food that we share are all about expressing a sense of gratitude, joy, and abundance.

The gifts of a few generations ago were probably more humble and homemade. Even the people who could afford extravagant presents probably didn't do as much buying and spending as we do today. Our culture has grown more commercial, and gift giving has become a booming industry. Sometimes the original meaning behind the tradition gets lost, and the gift giving takes on a life of its own.

Not only is the pressure on to spend money on the right present, but many people also find that when gifts become the focal point of a holiday, it puts too much emphasis on receiving, too. It's all too easy to have high expectations of what's in that beautifully wrapped box — and that can set anyone up for disappointment.

When the materialistic aspects of the holiday overshadow its meaning, that can leave people feeling empty and wishing for something more. It's no wonder that we often hear about people having the "holiday blues" — feeling sad or empty instead of happy and fulfilled.

The advertisements we see around the holidays also can help foster unrealistic expectations. With all the pressure to buy the perfect gifts, get the perfect outfit, have the perfect party, and get along perfectly with our perfect families and friends, it's hard for reality to measure up.

Not all people think the holidays are too materialistic, of course. Most appreciate the traditional aspects of the holidays, like getting together and celebrating with friends and family. And some love shopping and are just fine with all the giving and receiving.

But if you're feeling a little hollow about the holidays, what can you do? One way to take back the holiday spirit is to focus on traditions and service — and on putting real meaning into your giving.

The Gift of Holiday Tradition

Many families have traditions they look forward to each year. Katie and her family attend their Christmas Eve church service and then head to her aunt's house to enjoy the rest of the evening with hot chocolate, eggnog, and stories. Katie says they tell stories in the den with the Christmas tree lights twinkling to put them in the cheery Christmas spirit. On Christmas morning, the family gathers at Katie's grandmother's house and opens presents.

"Our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day family tradition is the one thing I can't wait for all year!" Katie says. "I must admit, though, that it's the presents that make me excited." Although Katie loves giving and receiving gifts, the family traditions help her keep a healthy perspective on presents.

Traditions that center on family or friends can be a great way to knock those presents out of their starring role and put meaning back into the holidays. Here are a couple of ideas:

  • Decide which family traditions you love the most. What can you do to put more emphasis on them? If you love the tradition of lighting the menorah, get together as a group to make your own candles. If you enjoy the family trip to pick out a tree, make it an all-day event where you head to a tree farm to choose your own.
  • Find out what the holidays mean to others. Talk to a grandparent, parent, uncle, or aunt about how they spent the holidays growing up. Some holiday traditions that used to be strong — such as neighborhood caroling — are all but lost today. Maybe you'd like to revive some of these as a way to share some holiday spirit with your family, friends, or community.
  • Build some new traditions. If you don't have any family traditions, it's never too late to start. Get together around activities that you all enjoy, such as cooking or ice skating.

Serving Others

For lots of people, the holidays are about helping the less fortunate. Rather than buying presents for each other, a group of friends in a Vermont snowboard squad like to go to their local homeless shelter and give the homeless a day to remember. They begin preparing at the start of the snow season by asking people who come to the mountain to bring old winter gear like jackets, boots, gloves, and hats. Then the group visits the shelter to distribute the gear — along with a little extra. Says Jay, 18, one of the organizers, "We tell them, 'Now you guys are coming with us and we're going to teach you how to ski or snowboard all day for free.' It's awesome to know that we are able to take their minds off the stress in their lives for one day."

For this group, working together to help the homeless makes their bonds stronger. They feel like a part of each other's lives in a meaningful way.

It may sound trite until you try it, but doing something for charity can really help you feel better about the whole experience of giving. That's because it benefits for the giver as well as the recipient: You're left with a feeling of belonging and being connected.

Choose to help an organization or group that fits with your values and the things you believe in. If you love children, buy a present for a child in need. If animals are your thing, talk to your local animal shelter — many distribute staples like pet food to low-income pet owners over the holidays and need volunteers to help. If you miss a grandparent and would like to spend time with the elderly, help out at a nursing home over the holidays. Or share a special skill. If you're good with your hands, you can help build or refurbish housing for people in need.

Gifts With Meaning

Melissa likes to make individual photo albums for each of her friends. "I know this takes a lot of time, but I do it because I love to sit with my friends and watch them smiling and laughing over the fun times we've had together," Melissa says. Amy, one of Melissa's friends, received one of these scrapbooks during the holiday season last year. She says the scrapbook was really touching. "I thought it was so cool how Melissa sat down for hours and put thought into making my present."

Do you feel like the surprise and excitement of gift giving that you remember from childhood is missing now that you're older? If you're among the many people who feel they're buying their holiday spirit, what can you do to take back the real enjoyment of the season?

Here are some ideas for putting meaning back into giving:

  • Get creative. It's a great way to express yourself and feel fulfilled. Design your own holiday cards (or your family's cards), decorate your home, or bake something delicious to share (baked goods make great gifts, too). Make a pact to give homemade gifts and create original presents. Not feeling too creative? These days, a gift of time is often more precious and meaningful than a store-bought item: coupons for babysitting or car washing can be big hits with parents. 
  • Shop at an alternative gift fair. Lots of communities hold fairs where you can buy gifts of a donation to causes your family and friends care about. Others offer gifts that are made by people with special needs.
  • Give gifts that have special significance. Your dad may be thrilled when you present him with a carefully researched and beautifully drawn family tree. Your grandmother may really welcome the gift of your time to help her learn how to use a computer. Or your little sister may really want to learn how to knit. These days, when everyone's so stretched, a gift of time can actually be more meaningful than one that costs big bucks.

Not all store-bought gifts are bad, of course. Shopping can be stressful for some, but for others, it's all about convenience. For Jay, spending money means saving time: "I find it easy buying a gift because once I see something I think the guys will like, I can buy one for each of them," he says. This approach wouldn't work for Melissa, who likes creating unique gifts, but it shows how everyone is different when it comes to gift giving.

One key to a relaxing and meaningful holiday is finding what works best for you, both in terms of gift giving and other holiday traditions. Putting some thought into what the holidays mean to you and then focusing your energies on those aspects that leave you feeling most fulfilled can help you let go of the stuff that may be stressing you out.

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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