Presence Over Presents

Posted on December 24th, 2013 by in Conscious Living

presenceIn recent years, I’ve become a bit of a Scrooge when it comes to holiday gifts. It’s not that I don’t want to give to the people I love, I just dislike the whole shopping scene and the enforced buying of things that I’m not sure they’ll even like.

Lately, I’ve been trying something else: If I don’t find a truly meaningful present for someone, I give them my presence. I’m offering brunch, lunch, movie, and other kinds of dates to family members and friends at birthdays and holidays, inviting them to cash in when it suits them. So far, it’s a lot more fun and memorable.

A plan like this might fail when it comes to kids, who look forward to unwrapping packages and creating passionate wish lists every December. But I can only remember a handful of the gifts that I received as a child, and one of my best holiday memories has nothing to do with presents.

When I was eight years old, my father moved our family from New Jersey to Cape Cod, to start his own business in the place where he’d grown up. Initially, my brothers and I were unhappy about the move because it meant tearing us away from our friends and schools. The relocation was especially hard on my mom, as it placed her hours away from her mother and sisters for the first time in her life, during a difficult time in her marriage.

Once landed, my brothers and I occupied ourselves with new friends, schoolwork, and cousins that we’d never met. Mom had a harder time, having no school or neighborhood games to facilitate social connection. On top of that, we were short on funds while my dad worked to launch his business. As fall approached winter and money remained elusive, gifts were not in the budget and Mom’s spirits grew as grey as the skies. Not helping much was the fact that nearly all of our Christmas tree ornaments had broken during the move.

One mild day in early December, I came home from school to find my mother in the backyard, assembling an impromptu crafts station on the picnic table. “We lost our Christmas ornaments,” she proclaimed, “so we’re going to make our own this year.” Mom had spray paint, sequins, and glitter all ready to adorn the unlikeliest of decorations: soup can lids. She’d spent the morning removing the lids, and waited for us kids to arrive before cutting them with tin snips into stars, bells, angels, and trees.

My brothers and I got to choose our shapes and decorate them as we laughed, sang carols, told tales about our teachers and classmates, and basked in Mom’s renewed cheer. That December afternoon at the picnic table was more memorable than most Christmas mornings.

To this day, my brothers and I speak fondly of our “tin can Christmas” as we point out the few surviving ornaments on our parents’ tree. Primitive, yet crafted with love and hope, they are more precious than some of the shiny new ones.

I recall that ornament-making party as a glowing example of my mother’s creativity, resilience, and ability to bring love and light to our days no matter how dark her own were. Struggling with three kids, persistent migraines, various part-time jobs, and a business to co-manage, Mom didn’t have space to explore her passions during my childhood. But she was usually up for fun, and she could turn soup cans into angels and stars.

As a student of Positive Psychology, I’ve learned that money spent on experiences tends to make people happier than money spent on things. That’s because trips and adventures create memories that last a lot longer than the thrill of items found at the mall. Special times, especially when shared with people we love, can yield a lot more of what my teacher, Tal Ben-Shahar, calls “the ultimate currency”—namely, happiness.

That’s why I choose presence over presents whenever I get the chance. It’s much more fun than shopping, it removes a layer of “to dos” and it leaves me less stressed and more fun to be around. And isn’t that really what the holidays are all about?

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About Kim Childs

Kim Childs is a Boston-area writer, Certified Positive Psychology Coach, Kripalu Yoga teacher and facilitator of workshops based on The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, by Julia Cameron. She incorporates the teachings and practices of Positive Psychology, yoga and creative living in her coaching, writing, and workshops. Kim spent ten years working as a public radio reporter, newscaster and producer in New York and New Jersey before life called her in a new direction. In fact, it sent her to live, train and work at Kripalu for two years and she's very glad that it did.
  • Portland

    Love this post. :-)

    • Kim Childs

      Thanks for that appreciation, Portland! Merry and happy to you, always…
      Kim

  • http://rebuildlifenow.com/ Harriet Cabelly

    Grrrreat post! So important. Too bad this isn’t the prevalent theme of most people’s Christmas’s. It’s way too commercial and based on consumerism. Looses a lot of the special meaning which you have beautifully captured.

    • Kim Childs

      Thanks, Harriet – the good news is, we can take back the holidays anytime! Many blessings to you and yours, Kim

  • MaryAnn Donahue

    Beautiful essay. Truly touching.

    • Kim Childs

      Thank you MaryAnn – blessings to you and yours…Kim

  • angelicmadrigal

    Honestly, I think there are a lot of people who are moving away from the consumerism of Christmas, because in a lot of cases it’s become a stressor, and rampant consumerism isn’t generating the positive feelings the holidays are supposed to evoke. For some people the solution is to change their gift giving practices, shopping habits, etc…After reading your newletter here I would hesitate to call you a Scrooge. You see Scrooge was stingy, and not just from a monetary perspective, he was stingy with his time and with giving of himself to others. Wanting to spend time with family and friends and create positive memories in lieu of physical presents is not by any means stingy or Scroogelike behavior, in fact I would say it is part of what makes holidays special for others.

    I tend to enjoy the search for the perfect gift, and in general I tend to give small, but nice gifts to my friends and family. One of my favorite things is WRAPPING presents, I enjoy spending several hours intricately wrapping and boxing presents. I also tend to shop at places that make me feel happy and relaxed, instead of at the mall or a big box store. But every person is different in what they enjoy. :)

    The important thing is to do what you enjoy during the holidays and makes others around you happy.

    Also, I think you should post some pictures of your handmade ornaments on your parent’s tree, I think people would love to see them.

    • Kim Childs

      Wonderful to hear about your joy in finding and wrapping gifts that you are delighted to give! And you are right here: “The important thing is to do what you enjoy during the holidays and makes others around you happy.” May your New Year be full of happy moments for you and those you love! All good wishes, Kim

  • Benita

    Thank you for sharing this. I’ve also moved away from “the retail holiday”; but it hasn’t been a completely smooth transition….change is rarely comfortable. My family, friends, & co-workers are slowing catching on. I love the gift of presence….will surely incorporate that into 2014. Thanks for the encouraging post.

    • Kim Childs

      Thanks and well done, Benita! Here’s to more presence in the New Year!
      All good wishes, Kim

  • Jeff Sullivan

    Hey Kim, I really enjoyed your article. I think I’ve become the first in my family to convert to a post-consumer Christmas. I told my brother and parents and anyone else to give a donation on my behalf, it didn’t take. But I’ll be at it again next year. I don’t really need more stuff, especially stuff that I’m likely to forget about.

    I’d rather see the stuff or the money go to those who really need it or value it in a way that I no longer can. Your article left me thinking about how I’ve had my own problematic relationship with the holiday at times, wondering in the past why the day didn’t have the same wonder it did when I was a child..

    Many of my best Christmas memories are those of singing Christmas carols while in our high school choir and sipping hot cider in between sets. Of course I probably wouldn’t have said it back then when all that was on my mind was what I’d get.. Perhaps the best Christmas memories are like a fine wine, they need to age a bit before we can really appreciate them. Today I’ve learned that Christmas is not in what I get but what I give and in the relationships and memories I create in the process. Jeff .

    • Kim

      Wholeheartedly agree, Jeff! Thanks for adding to the discussion with your stories and reflections. Here’s to more happy memories and everyone getting what they truly need!