Call me the Grinch, but Christmas fills me with dread. Don’t get me wrong, it is lovely to be together as a family (for the day, at least). It’s the presents I hate – the throwaway gimmicks, the plastic tat, the non-recyclable packaging, the probability of unwanted items, and the likelihood of them ending up in landfill. Honestly, the whole charade gives me anxiety.
This year, it’s supposed to be even more problematic, with reports of lorry-driver shortages, cargo ships being turned away, and warnings to start buying presents even earlier. Frankly, when I see those images of container pile-ups in our ports, I find myself screaming inside, ‘Stop! Enough stuff already!’ Instead of joining the frenzy of Black Friday, I’ll be celebrating the now-global Buy Nothing Day, which is also on 26 November. Even Buy Nothing Christmas has become something of a movement, so I’m not alone.
My extended family – about 20 of us – have been grappling with the stress of tit-for-tat gifting for years (I mean, haven’t we all?). We already operate a rather perfunctory present exchange, whereby everyone says exactly what they want, and that’s what they receive. I always ask for mind-numbingly dull necessities in order to avoid receiving more ‘stuff’; last year hitting peak mundanity by asking for a corded hand blender. It’s an arrangement that feels kind of cold – we may as well just pass cash back and forth. And it doesn’t eliminate the sweatshop hoodies, the environmentally dubious slime kits and the cheap candyfloss makers that end up at the back of a cupboard or in the bin, because those are the things the kids want.
Except half the time, my family ignore the list or don’t bother to supply one (actually, maybe none of us really wants anything), and then we’re all in the dangerous territory of giving something neither needed nor wanted. Throughout this year, I’ve been haunted by the painful memory of giving my sister a virtual fitness-studio membership, not realising that she’d just bought a Peloton bike (£72 down the drain on my part).
And somehow, without discussion, the stakes rise every year: one family member always throws cash at the problem, so it’s impossible not to feel bad about not matching their spend and, of course, we all make a mental note to splash out a bit more the next year. After all, we’re British – it somehow feels easier to raise our budgets than raise the issue.
The wrapping-ripping fest itself on Christmas Day is a conflicted occasion. Of course, with kids in the mix, it’s the climax of the day. My phone is full of videos of jackpot-hitting presents being opened by ecstatic children. But it’s also when we all find out how wrong we’ve gone. I usually find myself see-sawing between feigned delight (spangly mittens, anyone?) and embarrassment when I suspect family members are feigning their delight, too. If we’re all just faking it – one study estimates that 71 per cent of Brits receive unwanted Christmas presents, at an estimated total spend of nearly £1 billion – isn’t it time to rethink it all?
But then who wants to be the Scrooge who cancels Christmas? In previous years, I’ve ducked out of addressing the issue, resuming our buying-for-the-sake-of-buying business as usual. Last year, against my better judgment but according to their heartbreakingly sweet letters to Santa, I bought Lego sets for my kids. Elation was followed by construction, then lost pieces, neglect and, finally, disinterest.
This year, though, I’m ready: things are going to be different. I’ve told my family I’m not buying new stuff. My gifts to everyone will be handmade, experiential, second-hand or digital – and my children and I will be very happy to receive the same (however, in the interests of supporting small businesses, I’m happy to make exceptions for thoughtfully made gifts from independent companies).
For my kids, I’ll give in-charge days, where they get to rule the roost for a day. I’ll take my sisters’ families for memorable days out. My mum will receive a monthly home-made cake in the post. And it isn’t Christmas without a delivery from Santa, so the presents round the tree will be charity-shop sweatshirts upcycled with tie-dye (teenage catnip), terrariums made from old jars, and family photos in second-hand frames. It’s going to be hard work: unlike the click-to-buy route, these alternatives take thought and time. Oh, wait – wasn’t that the point?