The Gift Giving Machine – How Did We Get Here?

Written by Holiday, Life

Tuck in guys! I’m going on a rant!!! But I included educational info for you 😀

I was totally ready to start posting gift guides this week for items you could buy for homebodies, DIY’ers, and home cooks. But then I started hearing the ads for Thanksgiving – spoiler alert: they never mentioned Thanksgiving at all. It is now being called “Black Friday Weekend” all over the place. My heart sank.

The past several years, my mother-in-law has feverishly cooked Thanksgiving dinner, shoved some food in her face for only a few minutes at the table with everyone, and then left for work right after. And each year dinner got moved up because the store opened earlier and earlier each year. She said it wasn’t all bad because the store would cater the “event” in the back room for the employees so it was more like a party… but was it really where she wanted to be? Of course not.

I remember an ad I saw last year. It showed all the women in the ad shoveling food into their mouths, then getting up from the table to put coats on as they told their husbands they needed to get a jump on all the deals. I respectfully have to ask: WTF!?! How has this happened? How have our two biggest holidays in the US, supposed to be about sharing love and joy with the ones closest to us, morph into this shit show? How did we fall into this trap of consumption, myself included?


Quick History Lesson!

The concept of gift giving has been around as long as humans have been on earth. But it functioned very differently for the majority of history. It was to show allegiances, honor leaders and various other survival functions – including to show love, which for most of history was about procreation. It was the Roman era that brought us the first thing resembling Christmas – a winter festival called Saturnalia. It was basically an excuse to get together and have a real good time in the dead of winter and celebrate Saturn, the god of agriculture. With the rise of Christianity, Christmas replaced the winter festival but kept a lot of the same pagan touches to entice more people to convert without putting up a fight.

Fast forward to the founding of America – In the infancy of this country, Christmas was banned because New England’s Puritan leaders considered it a pagan abomination. In the 1680’s Christmas was legal again and gift giving boomed. Of course during those days, people made handmade items with what they had during the agricultural off season. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution that we started to see mass-produced trinkets showing up as gifts. In 1867 Macy’s in New York kept it’s doors open until midnight on Christmas eve for the first time ever. The moment that pushed it over the edge though was just after the Great War, when the US had to essentially replace it’s economy overnight since a large portion had revolved around the war effort. This is when advertising really kicked it up a notch to seduce cheerful citizens to celebrate again and live aplenty.

Then we have the introduction of Black Friday – and sorry to inform you, but it doesn’t have a very rosy past. It’s steeped in racism and was only just marketed as a positive thing to American consumers in the 1980’s. The whole story about Black Friday being when retailers “go into the black” financially… that was a marketing sham. Since then, Black Friday has spawned sister shopping days such as Cyber Monday and Small Business Saturday to celebrate the real American past-time – consumption.


The Reality

Honestly… it’s not just the winter holidays that have turned into a consumer trap. All you have to do is go to the National Retail Federation’s Holiday and Seasonal Trends page to see all their insights on American consumerism broken out by holiday. They say how much the average person will spend for each holiday, even pin pointing the highest spender demographic. This is where retailers go to figure out who to market to, and how much they should be able to make over each holiday. They use this information to sell you things you don’t need and create a false sense of obligation. All the places we love to go online help in this: Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook and all the other places we take in content work with retailers to show you the latest and greatest and other real people buying into the trends to perpetuate the frenzy and keep cash flowing. I should know… I worked at a mobile advertising company who was tasked with figuring out new ways to show ads in places they’d never been before, all so people are bombarded with ads all day that make them believe they are missing out on something.

I think it’s so sad I have talks with friends and coworkers who are stressed during every holiday because of the financial burden and obligation. The expectation ruins all the joy for them and they just can’t wait for it to be over. So how can we begin to curb this consumerism frenzy that we have bought into?


How Can We Do Better?

I believe gift giving in engrained in being human, so that will never change. But we can be more intentional with our gifts. Really think about the person you are giving to and what truly brings them joy. And honestly, to bring down the financial burden on yourself, communicate with some loved ones about a budget or work out a deal about not getting gifts for each other for certain things. All my friends know as soon as they have a kid, they don’t get Christmas gifts anymore! It’s all about the kids at that point. One friend has a huge family that gets together every Christmas. But they only buy one gift each, and then do a big White Elephant Gift Exchange instead! It adds to the fun since you never know what you’ll end up with and the competition can be fierce! She looks forward to it so much every year – more than any of the gifts she ever leaves with.


That should tell you something: What you do together matters more than what you give.


I’m a minimalist at heart as I’ve been working on a smaller wardrobe over time, and continuously get rid of things from our home. Even on our About Us page I wrote a note (to myself really) stating our intention to live, well, intentionally. It reads “keep it small, live below our means, and enjoy life not things. We will always try to choose quality over quantity, not clutter our space and make decisions that are right for our lifestyle.” Trust me, we stumble from time to time, because I DO like to shop, I DO get sucked in by some of the latest things I see on Instagram, and because we are human. But when that happens or I feel myself falling prey to it, I just try to remember my intentions  – even when it comes to giving gifts. I sometimes even feel like maybe I’m not giving enough… but let’s be honest – the recipient NEVER thinks that!

I have always prided myself on being a good gift giver. I always wanted to be the one to give the most thoughtful item and something they would actually LOVE. Slowly, that has evolved into giving experiential gifts. My evolution to this was somewhat forced on me when originally when my parents became full time RVers. It’s kind of hard to buy things for people that don’t have space and just spent over a year getting rid of things. The last thing they want is more things. This year, my Dad actually requested something he does want, so I got that for him! It’s super cheap but functional… and hilarious! A motion sensor LED toilet light. Yup. He requested it! But he usually gets to go to a movie on Christmas day, because as much as he enjoys going to see the occasional movie, he doesn’t go very often (my Mom is NOT the movie going type). This year, my Mom will be getting a really sweet dinner at a nice raw bar in our area for some of the best oysters on the east coast – her favorite!

My first time receiving experience gifts came all in one year. Instead of items, Jordan took me to Harry Potter World for my birthday over a long weekend (I’m a bit of a fan). Then for Christmas he gave me tickets to a Muse concert that would happen in February (one of my all time favorite bands) and it made the holidays feel like were extended! As a spoiled only child, I thought I would be upset not having something to tear open on the day of… but I couldn’t have been more wrong! It was the best ever and I can’t stop talking about either experience!

This year, Jordan and I agreed not to get gifts for each other and go big with a TRIP! I’ve only been dreaming of this for two years. Maybe this makes me crazy, but I’ve been wanting to go to New Mexico for years. I’m obsessed with hot springs (there are tons in New Mexico) and I love getting massages. We will be staying a couple nights at Ojo Caliente Resort & Spa with a private mineral pool just outside our room – like ballers! Then we will continue on and hit up some other hot springs, hiking spots and whatever else peaks our interest along the way. I. CAN’T. WAIT.

Yeah, but what about kids you ask? You don’t want to ruin Christmas for them… but would you be? Are the presents the only thing they enjoy about the holiday? Another friend of mine requests that presents from anyone other than them be a book or a donation for their local women’s shelter. Their kids get one nice new toy from them (santa) to unwrap, some books to enjoy and the experience of giving to others. And I don’t mean to brag… but my god-kids are some of the kindest little souls with so much empathy for others! They don’t miss out on toys at all, because their imaginations are engaged instead. They can make anything into a toy!

Ashley, of Arrows & Bow, is someone I follow on Instagram and she is a huge proponent of living intentionally. They live minimally and have done experience gifts for their kids for the past couple years and they just look so genuinely happy with life. They recently surprised them with a quick trip to Disneyland and I fell so hard for her stories that day! The looks on their faces and high pitched squeals were priceless! She is one to follow for little hits of intention and joy everyday!

Well… sorry for my long novel. But I hope I at least got some of you thinking. Let’s break this cycle of holiday burden and bring back the business of memory making! What’s one small step you are going to take to be more intentional this holiday season?!


Sources for some of the info here: The Week | | National Retail Federation

Last modified: November 28, 2018