A home-raised chicken to break the year-long vegetarian diet, making chapati if we got enough cooking oil, (chapati is a fried flat bread) candy and biscuits at Sunday school, and a new dress if funds permitted were village rituals that made Christmas special.
Being as it is that Christmas was the only time we got a new garment each (barring for school uniform,) I gleefully looked forward to wearing my new dress and reveling in its stiffness and scent of newness. It would not be washed for days to preserve that celebratory feel that spelled Christmas.
We children were also wise enough to commiserate with friends who hadn’t received any new clothes, knowing that such a misfortune might befall us the following year. Still, there was the special expensive Christmas food guaranteed to dissipate all of a child's forlornness in a moment.
For this reason, Christmas presents were always meaningful, well used, and needed.
Not so my current scenario.
When I was grafted into an Australian family that enjoys giving gifts 10 years ago, I was no longer the little girl anticipating her annual Christmas dress. I had everything I needed and could even make my own chapati and dresses if need be. In short, I appreciated gifts only if they served a purpose, but the stream of Christmas gifts in my new home did not seem very purposeful.
Instead of the excited anticipation of growing up years, I began to approach Christmas with dread. The dread of being obligated to buy presents for others, nice stuff they didn’t need but must be given in honor of family tradition. (a job that is now permanently delegated to my husband). The dread of receiving presents I didn’t need, but that still called for thankfulness because they’d come from a place of love. The dread of witnessing such waste in unnecessary reciprocal gifting when the world I know hungered and hurt and the environment bore the brunt of the excesses of the festive season.
For a glimpse into Christmas waste, besides the gifts, the festive season hurts the environment significantly with its wrapping boxes, bubble wrap, wrapping paper, ribbons, bows, name tags, cookie tins, plastic packaging, party crackers, Christmas trees, leftover food and drink, and much more. To make matters worse, the environment is already reeling from all the medical and hygiene-related waste created by Coronavirus management response this year.
Since I received many presents I didn’t need, Christmas on this side of the big blue pond seemed to be about stuff, and stuff stresses me out. My Christmas presents became a burden for which I’d struggle to find value, use, and space in my home. This struggle siphoned out the joy which the gifts were intended to impart in the first place.
Although I was granted the freedom to re-gift what I couldn’t use, everyone in my circles is already drowning in stuff, and it would be a double standard to gift another with an item for which you have little value. This Christmas stress intensified as I got children who would receive presents from various friends and family members, and my uneasiness around Christmas gifting intensified.
Here's how my family does presents: you receive your present in a circle, everyone watches as you open it and waits for your excitement in acknowledgment of your present. It’s a tidy endearing Christmas tradition that has survived into the siblings' adulthood. It is now being passed on to our children and infuses present giving with nostalgia, camaraderie, and childlike delight.
But here’s the thing about me: I don’t know how to pretend and couldn't summon enough excitement for something devoid of tangible value no matter how much love oozes out of it. Perhaps gifts are only my love language if they serve a felt need.
On the advent of Christmas about six years ago, I really needed a solution to my dilemma concerning Christmas presents. I wanted to honor the Christmas culture of my new family without denouncing my own or appearing ungrateful. I thus decided to ask my ‘kris-kringle’ (secret Santa) buyer to donate the value of my gift to a needy family in my village in lieu of my Christmas present. This would buy a Christmas meal, school supplies, and meet some miscellaneous needs of two families. It was simply a gift to give us a good cheer by putting a smile in the recipient’s heart while erasing my discomfort and dread at the same time. It worked, and it set me free to enjoy Christmas!
I also invited my family to consider donating their gifts to a charity of their choice.
I had expected this proposition to be met with resistance because Christmas family traditions are embedded deep in a family’s identity and are hard to shift. But my family welcomed my idea and, for accountability, donated their Christmas gifts to Meaningful Gifts.
Through meaningful gifts, over the years, we have gifted goats, chickens, and seeds for planting to families in South East Asia and parts of Africa to promote nutrition and economic empowerment. Our Christmas presents have kickstarted businesses, contributed to the building of toilet facilities, and the drilling of wells to promote sanitation, health, and wellbeing, among other community benefits.
Empowering others with our Christmas presents has expanded our awareness and compassion towards the needs in our world and equipped recipient families with skills to care for the environment through the training on sustainable farming and living that accompanies Meaningful Gifts.
My family members still have the freedom to order a Christmas present if they prefer, and some still do, but it has been a great encouragement to see my white family, wholly unaware of the economic disadvantages of most people in the world, give up something dear to them to give others a better Christmas.
For my children, I have received in kind gifts instead of more plastic toys whose short lifetime confirms them as trash long before children’s hopeful fingers frantically tear off the wrappings.
Some gifts we have received include Zoo memberships where children have learned about animals, species by regions, vulnerability indices, and efforts to fight extinction. They are too young to comprehend but still delight in what they can grasp.
Tickets to the Aquarium where marine species and conservation programs would intrigue and entertain curious minds, and Toy library membership for 12-month access to a wide variety of shared toys have been other sustainable gift options. Besides saving the planet from more waste, these gifts immerse us in our communities to engage with our world. They teach the children to belong with others beyond owning stuff, and to contribute to and care for the spaces in which they belong.
I have not done away with presents entirely. I believe there is room for that, especially for children. What I am trying to do is create an avenue for more meaningful gifts that involve less eventual rubbish while still preserving the freedom to purchase or receive what will serve a useful purpose.
Further, instead of dreading Christmas, I look forward to it as a time to create a little change, impact others, and invite my family to do the same.
Since charity begins at home, and World Pulse is my home online, this year, I shared a story by a World Pulse sister that resonated with my childhood Christmas needs with some family members. On reading it, they chose to donate their Christmas gifts to the sister’s initiative instead of their usual charity. This means that World Pulse is doing important work that others are ready to support as we create more awareness.
Perhaps with time, World Pulse could set up a ‘Christmas gift depository’ in the future where members who wish to donate their Christmas presents to a grassroots initiative can do so. These would be presents to meet an immediate felt need, put a smile on another’s face, and give a good cheer all around. It would be an avenue for those of us who are thus minded to create a resounding impact around Christmas time, instead of, well, acquiring more stuff .
Moreover, it would be a small way to preserve the environment from getting hurt by what we don’t need. You see, to care for mother earth, we must first be content with what she has already given us so that, in humility and gratitude, we refrain from asking anything of her that hints on entitlement or callousness.
As for me, a marginalized girl I’ve met only through a single photograph, who has as many hopes and dreams as I ever nurtured at her age, will be smiling this Christmas in place of another handbag to grace my bathtub. I have found another perfect Christmas present for myself through World Pulse, and my ‘Christmas stuff’ just got injected with a little more life!