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Melissa’s 2021 No-Gift Guide Part 1

  • November 8, 2021
Melissa in a desert scene, with XO,MU overlaid in text

‘Tis the season… of relentless online gift-guides, wondering what you get the people in your life who already have everything they need, and pressure from the media to “buy early” because “something something supply chain.” In the early 2000’s, I decided the commercialism of the holiday season wasn’t serving me, so I told everyone quite matter-of-factly that I would no longer be giving or receiving gifts at Christmas.

Remember, I’m an Enneagram 8. I didn’t finesse it, I just dropped it on their lap after Thanksgiving dinner. You can imagine how well it went over.

My parents were confused, my sister was miffed, and everyone thought I was just being Grinch-y or selfish. You know what? It was selfish. Every holiday season, I spent my precious free time running all over town (or the internet) trying to find something to buy people, knowing there was a 50/50 chance it would end up shoved in a drawer or collecting dust on a tabletop. It felt wasteful, and there was certainly an implied sense of pressure. Was I spending as much as they were? Was my gift as “meaningful” as theirs would be for me? Could I somehow top last year’s present?

It was stressful, and time-consuming, and energetically expensive, not to mention the financial hit my bank account took each year. And in exchange, I also ended up with a pile of gifts (that cost other people time, money, and stress) that I didn’t need either.

Wait… NO gifts?

So, I dropped the hammer one year at Thanksgiving. “This year, I’m not exchanging gifts at Christmas. I’m not buying anyone gifts, and please don’t buy me anything either. Spending time with you is more than enough.” I explained why, and fielded questions like “Won’t you feel left out on Christmas morning?” and “But what if I want to get you something?” (Not even a little; you’re an adult and I can’t stop you, but I’d really rather you didn’t.) I closed with restating my request plainly.

Then, I held my boundary.

That first year was rough. Most people showed up with a gift for me anyway (probably because there is a terribly damaging story told by the patriarchy that a woman often means something different than she says). I was graceful in acceptance, but didn’t have anything for them, and didn’t apologize for it. I did my best not to make it awkward, but frankly, it was awkward, and we just had to sit with that. A few people didn’t give me anything, but made a point of it, like, “Here you go—Christmas with no presents, just like you asked.” Perhaps they were expecting disappointment in the moment, but I just gleefully thanked them for honoring my request.

Just two short years later, no-gifts-with-Melissa was easy-breezy par for the course. Family still felt weird opening all of their presents in front of me, but I made sure they knew how happy it made me to watch them give and receive of their own choosing, and that I didn’t feel left out in the least. (And I didn’t! I loved having zero anxiety around “will I have to pretend to like their gift?” and “are they pretending to like what I gave them?”) Christmas day had SO much chill now—just me, a mug of tea, and my mom’s famous Hermit cookies, sitting on the couch listening to Christmas music and taking in all the wrapping paper madness.

Also, it’s not like I went full-Scrooge. I made the effort around the holidays to share a meal, plan a girls’ night out, or engage in some other way that let me spend quality time with people I love. One year I actually made my family a Christmas morning mix CD, which tells you how long ago I began this tradition

The gift that keeps on giving

Without the pressure of purchasing gifts, not only was Christmas morning more relaxed, but I was able to fully enjoy all the trappings of the season—the parties, decorating the tree, and using my free time not to run errands or shop, but to play outside, travel, and see friends. More than anything, however, this practice reminded me of what was really important during the holiday season; spending time with loved ones, creating new memories and traditions, and being grateful for all of the blessings in my life.

Now that I have an 8-year-old, I do allow the family to buy gifts for him. (I wasn’t going to win that battle with the grandparents, and I didn’t try, harking back to my childhood Christmases and the excitement of presents.) Still, I have boundaries. They can get him two or three presents at most, and they’re carefully coordinated—nothing random that he may end up not wearing or using. (LEGO sets, puzzles, books, Apple gift cards for Minecraft worlds, and fleece pajamas usually rule the day.) I get him one thing we can do together, like a board game or new snowshoes. And we make the day about way more than just gifts. In fact, at our house presents are an afterthought, opened after we spend the day tubing in Park City or hiking in southern Utah.

If you want off the gift train

If the no-gift approach is like Christmas carols to your ears, here’s how you can have the conversation with family and friends.

Give yourself plenty of time. People start shopping early, especially so have the conversation now. Pick a time when people are relaxed and feeling conversational, or schedule a special FaceTime to talk about your holiday plans.

Remember, with any boundary, clear is kind. “I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and I’ve decided I don’t want to exchange any gifts this year. I won’t be buying presents, and I’m asking you not to buy me anything either.” Then, share your deeply personal reasons behind the decision. “This year has been stressful for me. I need this holiday season to feel more relaxed, and I want to focus more on the time we spend together and the experiences we share. I want to do that by not exchanging gifts this year.” (This is similar to my “not drinking right now” approach—soften the blow by talking about just this year, if it helps.)

Don’t cite specific financial concerns, even if that is a factor. That just presents a problem for people to solve, like, “Oh, we’ll just institute a $10 gift limit, then.” This is about so much more than just your wallet, so keep it big-picture.

If people call you Grinch or Scrooge, reply with vulnerability. “Not even a little. I’m fully investing my heart and energy into the holidays, and you’ll get to watch me show up far more present and relaxed because I’ve taken gifts out of the equation.”

Boundary language

If they say, “You don’t have to get me anything, but I’ll still buy something for you,” start holding your boundary with a green level response (the most gentle): “I don’t need anything, and I’m trying to be more conscientious about the things I do have in my space. I’m truly asking that you don’t get me anything.”

If people insist they’re going to buy you something anyway, hold your boundary but stay in the green: “If you really want to give me something I’ll love, then honor this request. No gift is my gift this year, and it will mean a lot if you respect that. Trust me, it’s what I really want.”

If you still get a gift on Christmas morning, you’ve got to escalate your response to yellow: “I told you I didn’t want a gift, and I meant that.” Then set it aside, open it at home, and do with it whatever you want—re-gift it, donate it, or keep it. It’s no longer their business once it’s in your hands. This is a pretty bold statement, but if you open it and thank them, you’re abandoning your boundary (and yourself) just to make someone else more comfortable. Just be prepared to double-down on your request next year.

Want a red response? This is serious business, but it may be called for if you’re into Year Three of no gifts and they’re still not honoring your boundary. First, restate your boundary: “I’m not exchanging gifts this year.” Then, hand the gift back to them. Yeah, it’ll be awkward, and you’ll probably be blamed, but someone’s got to be the one to change your family dynamics around boundaries.

That first year was rough. Most people showed up with a gift for me anyway (probably because there is a terribly damaging story told by the patriarchy that a woman often means something different than she says). I was graceful in acceptance, but didn’t have anything for them, and didn’t apologize for it. I did my best not to make it awkward, but frankly, it was awkward, and we just had to sit with that. A few people didn’t give me anything, but made a point of it, like, “Here you go—Christmas with no presents, just like you asked.” Perhaps they were expecting disappointment in the moment, but I just gleefully thanked them for honoring my request.

Just two short years later, no-gifts-with-Melissa was easy-breezy par for the course. Family still felt weird opening all of their presents in front of me, but I made sure they knew how happy it made me to watch them give and receive of their own choosing, and that I didn’t feel left out in the least. (And I didn’t! I loved having zero anxiety around “will I have to pretend to like their gift?” and “are they pretending to like what I gave them?”) Christmas day had SO much chill now—just me, a mug of tea, and my mom’s famous Hermit cookies, sitting on the couch listening to Christmas music and taking in all the wrapping paper madness.

Also, it’s not like I went full-Scrooge. I made the effort around the holidays to share a meal, plan a girls’ night out, or engage in some other way that let me spend quality time with people I love. One year I actually made my family a Christmas morning mix CD, which tells you how long ago I began this tradition.

The gift that keeps on giving

Without the pressure of purchasing gifts, not only was Christmas morning more relaxed, but I was able to fully enjoy all the trappings of the season—the parties, decorating the tree, and using my free time not to run errands or shop, but to play outside, travel, and see friends. More than anything, however, this practice reminded me of what was really important during the holiday season; spending time with loved ones, creating new memories and traditions, and being grateful for all of the blessings in my life.

Now that I have an 8-year-old, I do allow the family to buy gifts for him. (I wasn’t going to win that battle with the grandparents, and I didn’t try, harking back to my childhood Christmases and the excitement of presents.) Still, I have boundaries. They can get him two or three presents at most, and they’re carefully coordinated—nothing random that he may end up not wearing or using. (LEGO sets, puzzles, books, Apple gift cards for Minecraft worlds, and fleece pajamas usually rule the day.) I get him one thing we can do together, like a board game or new snowshoes. And we make the day about way more than just gifts. In fact, at our house presents are an afterthought, opened after we spend the day tubing in Park City or hiking in southern Utah.

If you want off the gift train

If the no-gift approach is like Christmas carols to your ears, here’s how you can have the conversation with family and friends.

Give yourself plenty of time. People start shopping early, especially so have the conversation now. Pick a time when people are relaxed and feeling conversational, or schedule a special FaceTime to talk about your holiday plans.

Remember, with any boundary, clear is kind. “I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and I’ve decided I don’t want to exchange any gifts this year. I won’t be buying presents, and I’m asking you not to buy me anything either.” Then, share your deeply personal reasons behind the decision. “This year has been stressful for me. I need this holiday season to feel more relaxed, and I want to focus more on the time we spend together and the experiences we share. I want to do that by not exchanging gifts this year.” (This is similar to my “not drinking right now” approach—soften the blow by talking about just this year, if it helps.)

Don’t cite specific financial concerns, even if that is a factor. That just presents a problem for people to solve, like, “Oh, we’ll just institute a $10 gift limit, then.” This is about so much more than just your wallet, so keep it big-picture.

If people call you Grinch or Scrooge, reply with vulnerability. “Not even a little. I’m fully investing my heart and energy into the holidays, and you’ll get to watch me show up far more present and relaxed because I’ve taken gifts out of the equation.”

Boundary language

If they say, “You don’t have to get me anything, but I’ll still buy something for you,” start holding your boundary with a green level response (the most gentle): “I don’t need anything, and I’m trying to be more conscientious about the things I do have in my space. I’m truly asking that you don’t get me anything.”

If people insist they’re going to buy you something anyway, hold your boundary but stay in the green: “If you really want to give me something I’ll love, then honor this request. No gift is my gift this year, and it will mean a lot if you respect that. Trust me, it’s what I really want.”

If you still get a gift on Christmas morning, you’ve got to escalate your response to yellow: “I told you I didn’t want a gift, and I meant that.” Then set it aside, open it at home, and do with it whatever you want—re-gift it, donate it, or keep it. It’s no longer their business once it’s in your hands. This is a pretty bold statement, but if you open it and thank them, you’re abandoning your boundary (and yourself) just to make someone else more comfortable. Just be prepared to double-down on your request next year.

Want a red response? This is serious business, but it may be called for if you’re into Year Three of no gifts and they’re still not honoring your boundary. First, restate your boundary: “I’m not exchanging gifts this year.” Then, hand the gift back to them. Yeah, it’ll be awkward, and you’ll probably be blamed, but someone’s got to be the one to change your family dynamics around boundaries.

On that note, NEVER show up with gifts “just in case.” Mean what you say, or don’t say it at all. Show up with a variety of tea bags, a plate of homemade cookies, or a Christmas mix CD, but no individualized gifts. This is your self-care and your boundary, and you deserve it.

But I want to gift…. reasonably

If you’ve been eyeing my no-gift holiday guide for a few years now, COVID is the perfect excuse to pull the trigger. I hope these ideas around communication and boundary-holding help you make this year the most special (and relaxed, and inexpensive) holiday to date.

And also, I recognize that this approach isn’t for everyone. Maybe you take great pleasure in finding something special for the people you love, and seeing the expression of joy in their eyes when they open it. Or maybe you just can’t handle the added stress of your family freaking out when you go straight to “no gifts.” Or maybe like my mom, you just know your mom is going to insist on getting you something, and you’d rather have a say in what that something is in a way that aligns with your values.

If you want to continue to participate in some sort of gift exchange this year, but are feeling stressed about the time, money, and energy that goes into gift-giving, head on over to melissau.com, where I share Part Two of this guide, including suggestions for lightening your load (and Santa’s) this holiday season.

XO Melissa