Essay: A family forgoes gifts to focus on time together

Illustration by Bart Browne

Illustration by Bart Browne

The Heart of the Holidays

by Emily Livingston

Last year walking my elderly, mixed-breed dog through the streets of Center City on a chilly morning following the holiday season, I noted a lot of holiday-related detritus all over the sidewalks. For blocks and blocks, the curbs were lined with broken and unwanted items, tons of ripped wrapping paper, packaging and single-use decorations.

My dog and I passed the same discarded, dying Christmas tree on our route for several days. Seeing these items destined for the landfill strewn over the sidewalks made me incredibly sad: about the waste of the holiday season, about consumerism, about the state of the world.

In my life, I have been drawn to simple living for environmental, ethical and financial reasons—as well as for increased mental clarity. Living with less creates less waste to harm the environment, less exploitation of human and animal resources in the creation and distribution of material goods, and less monetary waste on items that do not bring meaning to my daily life.  
In recent years, my family and I have been attempting to give more meaningful gifts, such as time spent together on experiences or practical items. Gifts exchanged last year included my mom and I attending a yoga class together and a gift card to the grocery store from my brother. 

But the exposure to the rampant holiday-related waste noted during that routine walk with my dog last year encouraged me and my family to simplify our holiday even further—we have decided to do away with most gift giving for 2016. 

There were many conversations that led to our decision. I shared my observations from the walk with my mom, dad and brother, who in turn told me about observations of waste they had experienced during the holiday season. We talked about our holiday experiences—both past and present—to determine what we most value about the season and how gift giving and receiving makes us feel.  

After many thoughtful conversations, we all determined that gift giving stresses us out and even depresses us: Knowing what we know, when we think about gifts, we think about human and animal rights, and environmental degradation. The social pressure of gift giving and the lack of sustainability related to consumerism aren’t fun for us—and we realized it was well within our power to not only eliminate that stress, but to turn it into something joyful.

I personally realized my best memories of the holiday season growing up are drinking apple cider out of my grandmother’s crystal glasses during a candlelight dinner with my immediate family on Christmas Eve. I do not remember much or attribute meaning to the gift giving and receiving that occurred during my childhood. 

So, this holiday season, I do not plan to give or receive any gifts, except to make a contribution to my newborn nephew’s college fund. 

My family’s decision to have a simple holiday season has been a long time coming, and I’m looking forward to celebrating the holidays with them, cooking together, sitting by the fire and having apple cider out of my grandmother’s
special glasses.

Emily Livingston lives in Philadelphia.