Gift Unwrapped: Your Guide to Conscious Giving (and Receiving)
What if Christmas, he thought,
Doesn’t come from a store,
What if Christmas, perhaps,
Means a little bit more.
-Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas
It was the overwhelming sense of unfairness that was causing big tears to roll down my cheeks. I was standing in my grade one classroom holding a gingerbread man on a bed of recycled paper wrapping. The day before, my mom and I had carefully folded a white beaded bracelet into a purple velvet pouch for me to bring as my secret Santa gift. It was the most beautiful thing my seven-year-old eyes had ever seen and I wanted to keep it so badly, but my mom convinced me “Santa” would have something just as beautiful for me.
In East Germany everyone was poor, but Monika and her twin sister were poorer than poor. I didn’t understand this then, hence the big tears of anger and jealousy as she slipped on her new bracelet while I consoled myself by eating the head of the gingerbread man. Poor guy.
The holidays mean something different to everyone. We carry forward memories from when we were children, and create new memories as we raise our own families. The magic of this time of year for me is in the serenity, its peak being Christmas Day when the world (finally) goes quiet. No errands to run or shopping to do, just peace.
Last Christmas I escaped the hustle and bustle of noticeably louder commercials, and the high volume cries of frustrated children and moody husbands by doing most of my holiday shopping online and ahead of time.
Did you know that malls are actually designed to be irritating? Yeap, when your kid goes crazy and your husband can’t wait to get out of there, it’s because they don’t enjoy shopping enough to put up with the irritators carefully designed into the retail experience to make you buy more impulsively.
I know that for many people Christmas can be a source of anxiety and even bitterness. Exchanging gifts, when it lacks meaning, can feel a lot like exchanging money for money. Joining everyone else in the overflow parking lot at the mall the weekend before Christmas is a chore, a last-minute cursory effort.
In this blog, I want to paint a picture of the true spirit of Christmas, and specifically gift-giving. It doesn’t have to be a stressful experience this year or ever again once you have my tools in your back pocket! Reignite your holiday spirit and spread the warmth of joy, love, and generosity.
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Where did the tradition of exchanging gifts begin?
Gift exchange began as a Pagan tradition. Romans paid tribute to the God Saturn in the Saturnalia festival between Dec 17-24th. This meant a week-long celebration of drinking, feasting, and exchanging candles, pottery figurines, and edible treats. These festivals were an important part of spiritual health during the cold, dark winter months (something we can relate to in Canada!) Bright colours, bright spirits, and abundance all around reminded people of what they had to be grateful for.
Bestowing the ones we love with the gesture of gratitude and appreciation is as old as it is widespread. Every culture and religion uses a form of gift giving. The Three Magi after all, brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to baby Jesus.
In a word: Commercialization. The anxiety in the pit of your stomach this time of year comes in large part from a pressure to spend a lot of money on a lot of people. Your shopping list only grows longer as you discover that Great Aunt Mildred is buying something special for you. Well, now I have to buy for her, you think. The importance of equal monetary value between two exchanged gifts comes into play, just as it did when I was seven.
It’s in the interest of big business to keep everyone stressed out, and the industry works this subliminally into their advertising. Anxious shoppers without a clue what to buy spend more money, and are more willing to tack on more. A 2018 survey done by Leger for the Retail Council of Canada (RCC) revealed that Canadians spend on average $675 on this holiday.
How Can we improve our relationship with giving?
Gift-giving is a sacred act, from the heart. As Charles Eisenstein writes in Sacred Economics: Money, Gift & Society in the Age of Transition, “Gratitude is so primal, so elemental to us, that the exchange of gifts was the most important mode of economic exchange pre-money.”
Pre-money. Gifts are not about the money after all. Have you ever received a gift you could never repay, simply because of it’s deep value to you (not necessarily in dollar signs)? When something truly cannot be paid back, it feels like someone has found their way into your heart, read it like a book, and produced this gift to reflect your innermost desires.
This is beautifully illustrated in “The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis” episode of The Big Bang Theory, when Penny gives Sheldon (who rejects Christmas as a Pagan ritual) a napkin used and autographed by his ultimate hero, Leonard Nimoy. It costs nothing for Penny to give– Leonard Nimoy dined at the restaurant where she worked one night, which was how she got the napkin.
The value to Sheldon is so overwhelming that he doesn’t know how to repay her. He frantically buys her several baskets of bath items, which he presents in an awkward jumble, but he knows nothing will ever be enough. So he bestows on her an extremely rare hug (Sheldon does not like physical contact and often comes off as cold and calculating), which means more to Penny than anything he could give her– and is also, in the dollar sense, free.
The Nature of Gratitude
Why do we feel we must exchange equal value for equal value? This quote by Charles Eisenstein blew my mind: “Our lives are given us; therefore, our default state is gratitude.”
The most ultimate gift is life itself. We didn’t have to do anything to deserve it– it was simply given to us without any expectation of reciprocation. It is human nature to be indebted, to live in a state of gratitude. This gives the idea of indebtedness a softer edge, a sweetness that cuts through the anxiety and the stress.
What is love, what is friendship, if it’s not someone driving to your house to be with you during a difficult night? Someone speaking such sweet words at your wedding that you’re left with a warmth that burns eternally? Your parents raising you, feeding you, caring for you when you were unable to survive on your own? Being in debt in this way connects us deeply with others, it is meant to be sustained for life. What we can do in turn is hold love and gratitude for others’ generosity as they have for us.
Remembering Monika opening my bracelet, I realize now that it meant so much more to her than it ever could have meant to me. I am happy that my family was able to provide her with such joy.
Transform your Christmas
Give consciously and without an expectation of receiving a gift back. Your gift for another is just that: a token of gratitude for all they mean to you.
I have created a fillable Wish List to help you get organized this year in terms of who you want to show your love and gratitude for and how. . Keep it accessible so you can fill in your ideas as they come to you. If you start now, your Christmas season will be more joyful, on budget and stress-free.
My last note is about conscious giving. In the age of Amazon, I have fallen in love with the exact opposite. B Corps are businesses that meet the highest standard of practice (socially and environmentally). Their products are gorgeous, made to last, are environmentally sustainable, and their employees are paid fairly. For me, conscious gift-giving is looking closer and why we buy gifts and what that means to us, and using this moment as an opportunity to show love and gratitude.
THIS YEAR, I WONDER IF WE CAN BE MORE? MORE PRESENT, MINDFUL, AND GRACIOUS WITH OUR LOVE. AND AT THE SAME TIME, PERHAPS WE CAN DO LESS– HAVE LESS STRESS, PRACTICE LESS MINDLESS CONSUMPTION, AND CREATE LESS WASTE.
Hi I'm Yvonne
I work with entrepreneurial women just like you who feel a deeper calling to explore the meaning in their lives.