Opting Out

Usually by this time of year, I have a carefully planned list of family and friends I need to buy Christmas presents for, and some rough ideas about what I will buy.  In fact, I often have some of those gifts purchased already.  People seem angry and resentful that I do this, as if they are incapable of not waiting to the last minute and that I am somehow blessed with some magic talent for shopping early.  I simply say that I like to have the gift shopping out of the way by December so that when the holiday season is in full force, I can sit back, relax, and enjoy the festivities without the gift-buying panic hanging over my head.

There is more than one way to enjoy a holiday season free of the stress of having all of your gifts purchased on time.  How about not buying gifts at all?

I found myself reading the archives of my favorite fitness website Stumptuous and saw this rant about not Christmas shopping.  The author talks about enjoying the season eating good food and enjoying the company of family without participating in the mass consumer culture.  She also goes on to say that she made a bigger effort to take care of herself and her own health and fitness.

It seems I spend a lot of time these days with my mouth agape, staring at my medical bills.  When I began having pain in my hip, I went to the same orthopedist - one of the best in the area- who looked after my knee several years ago.  I never bothered to check if she was in network for my current insurance plan.  Because she is out of network, my co-payments are huge.  I have paid, or need to be paying, hundreds in medical bills when all is said and done.  There have been doctor visits and multiple MRIs and physical therapy that we had hoped would prevent a need for surgery.  My most recent bill costs nearly the amount contained in one of my paychecks.  This is scary stuff. I'm trying to work out a budget so I can pay for this stuff.  I'm looking at ways I can save money.  I can stop shopping at high-end grocery stores like Whole Foods and DeCicco's and do my shopping at A&P and Shop Rite.  I can stop drinking lattes on cold mornings.  I can cancel the order for those backordered boots and stop buying any other new clothes.  I can brown bag my lunch.

I can also not buy Christmas presents for everyone this year.

I do want to celebrate Christmas with my family.  I would like to get together for nice dinners with rich desserts and good wine.  I would like to experience the fun of having my whole family together in the same way I do for Thanksgiving and birthdays and whatever other dinner parties we all attend.  I don't need presents to enjoy that, do I?  Christmas cheer isn't only about presents, is it?

Holidays are often a mess in my family.  Finding time to spend with everyone isn't easy.  Like all children of divorced parents, I have two sets of parents to visit.  I'm lucky that Kevin doesn't have much family so I can just include his mother in celebrations with my family.  My brother isn't so lucky.  He is married to someone from a very large family and his wife also has a married son and granddaughter living in another state. Their availability for holidays is always In question.  Kevin and I have been spending Thanksgiving in recent years with his brother in Chicago, but this year we can't, which means we had to find local family willing to take us in.  Finding time to get together with family for holidays is a very complex process.

Last year was total chaos.  I had a Christmas Eve dinner with Dad, which my brother was unable to attend because he was spending it with his wife's family.  Both of us had brunch the next morning with Mom, and then he  had dinner that night with Dad.  There is always a shuffle and always multiple relatives and multiple sets of in-laws to visit.  I have no idea what this year's holiday season will bring.  Mom says she doesn't want to host Christmas and Thanksgiving plans were filled with miscommunications and changed plans. Dad has nothing planned yet.  I am thinking of hosting a dinner at my place for those people who have no other place to go as long as my health cooperates.  Maybe I'll even buy a tree (and hope it doesn't try to kill me).  Given the unpredictability of holiday planning, do we really need to add gifts into the mix?  Half of these celebrations end up as just excuses for gift exchange. Maybe having some place to go and something good to eat will be more important than having gifts.

One thing I have noticed in recent years is that Christmas shopping is much harder than it used to be.  I used to be quite good at scoping out people's needs.  At the very least, most of my family members had Amazon wish lists, which made shopping a breeze.  I notice hardly anyone updates their lists anymore, and when they do, it's often with "fantasy" items - expensive stuff they dream about, but not anything that's practical for friends and family to buy.  One of the drawbacks of adulthood is that you have to prioritize your needs, and figure out exactly how much space you have in your home for possessions.  I am very cognizant about giving useless tchotchkes these days, even expensive ones, because we all only have so much shelf space. (I admit I occasionally see something small and cute that I think a relative might like, but I try to limit that.)  I try to avoid giving gifts people can't actively use, wear, or eat. Even stuff you can wear can be tricky as accessories can feel like an easy gift for women, and women may have limited space for scarves, purses, and jewelry.  It just seems that these days people needs less.  Home offices, kitchens, closets, and backyards can be stocked with all necessities and the garages, basements, closets, and cupboards simply can't hold anything more. I ask people what they want, and half the time they can't give me any answers.

I don't even know what I want, if anything. I have limited space and most areas of my life that require equipment are stocked with what I need. In the past I always kept several small cheap, but necessary items like socks or small kitchen items so no one would have to spend much money to know that they were buying something I need.  I just don't need that much.  My closet is nearly at capacity.  Certainly between now and Christmas I may need something, but I don't know what that might be.  For my birthday this year when Kevin asked me what I wanted, I ended up just telling him to get me a gift certificate to one of my favorite clothing stores.  That sounded like a great plan, except when I received the gift, I found that there was nothing at the designated website I really wanted at the time.  I forgot about that gift for three months before finally finding it and spending it a few days ago when I saw the website had added some cool new merchandise.  I'm not in a hurry to buy things or acquire more stuff.

If trying to find the right gift, something my family will actually want and use, is part of the problem, why not just buy everyone gift cards?  I can buy them for certain stores, or I can just buy them generic Visa gift cards.  I can write checks or give cash.  Wouldn't that solve the problem?

My first issue is it feels like a copout.  I can't be bothered to really take some time and attention to find out what a loved one really needs, so I just give money, or some kind of equivalent.  My second issue is that you never know how much is enough.  I don't want to look cheap, but it can be really expensive to give significant, generous amounts to everyone on the holiday shopping list,which brings me back to my original point of not having much money this year.

Christmas is about the joy of giving, right?  We're not supposed to expect stuff, but we are supposed to give of ourselves.  In that spirit, I will be making charitable donations.  I buy an animal for the Heifer Project every December.  This year I will throw another charity in there as well.  I don't need more stuff.  My friends and family don't need more stuff.  There are however, many people, and animals, that need the basic necessities of life.  This year I would like to concentrate more on them.  Being temporarily immobilized by my surgery gives me a great appreciation for my own physical health and well-being.  Medical bills or not, I am very fortunate and I need to spread around what fortune I do have.

My only concern this year is for the children in my family.  I remember what it was like to be a child at Christmas.  Most kids aren't monsters and neither was I.  I believe most kids (and I was no exception) fundamentally know it's not good to be selfish or make presents the point of Christmas, but let's face it, for most of our formative years, those Christmas presents mean a lot.  They are what children wait for.  It's why they tolerate time with their boring relatives.  I don't think giving kids gifts equates teaching them materialism and consumerist values.  I believe that a child who is raised with any sort of conscience will figure out the lessons eventually.  I don't want to force those lessons on them.  If they come over my house for Christmas, will they hate me for not having gifts for them when they are there?  I have always loved lavishing them with gifts.  I hope to only have to disappoint them for one Christmas.  My niece's and nephew's birthdays bookend Christmas and I do intend to give them gifts for that - even if I likely won't see them for their birthdays. 

I hope to make this year's no-gifts Christmas a temporary situation.  Looking forward, I wonder if I should.  There are plenty of reasons to give up the habit entirely. 

I don't know what decisions I will make in the future, but this Christmas, if you need a place to go, you're welcome to come to my place.


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