In 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?