Holiday Gift Giving – Changing My Ways to Conscious Shopping

November 29, 2008 at 11:47 pm 2 comments

[This is a long, entertaining entry, but if you’re short on time, skip to the bottom for TIPS on how to be Conscious with your Holiday Shopping]

For years, my family has been playing a game called the White Elephant gift.


We each go purchase an item that would be desirable by either a man or a woman around a set amount (this year, $20).  Then each person places the item in the center of the circle and we all draw numbers to determine who goes first, second, third…, last.  Each person who goes, can either pick a gift from the center, or steal a gift that has already been opened by another person.  Each gift can only be stolen twice, so the second person to steal it is the permanent owner of the gift.  Couples can team up to strategize which gifts to steal and how to ensure they keep the one they want.  Whoever goes first has a distinct advantage, because they can see all the gifts be opened and they can perform the final steal… however, they can’t take anything that’s already been stolen twice.  Tricks people play to keep their item is to tuck it out of view if they really like it and hope no one remembers it later.  If a person doesn’t like their gift, they’re likely to have it on display hoping others will take it.  This can be funny if the gift is clearly for a woman and it lands in the hands of a single guy… but it can also be sort of sad if it’s just a bad gift and the person who brought it is realizing no one appreciates what they thought would be valuable.  This can happen often when there are multiple generations playing.  For instance when my husband (then boyfriend) and I were the youngest ones playing and he brought a swirly, crystal ball thing from Sharper Image and none of the adults would touch it with a ten foot pole.  He promptly stole it from the confused, disappointed receiver and was pleased with leaving with his own gift.  Or the time my grandmother brought isotoner gloves and matching ear muffs, not realizing the fashions have changed a bit… you could see it on her face that she felt bad that everyone was making fun of the gift, not thinking about the person who had brought it.

It was stories like this that prompted me to question the purpose of the game and the purpose of holiday gift giving all together.  My family has gone through several evolutions of gift exchange over the years.

First we noticed that everyone would tear into their stack of gifts all at once and it would be over in 20 minutes without knowing if the people liked the gift or not.  So they decided to go around the circle opening each gift one at a time… asking “who’s it from, and then everyone oohing and ahhing.”

This new way spurred a couple of problems… 1) It took forever, 2) if the gift was not so good, everyone knew it, and 3) sometimes people would run out of gifts and there would be some spoiled individual who still had 5 more packages to open… the favoritism was out of the closet!  Along with these problems, people started noticing that we were spending $200 or more to buy ten $20 items, when the person would probably prefer one $200 item.

This is when we started the tradition of trading names.  Everyone’s name goes in a hat and each person chooses who they will give a gift to next year, someone keeps the list private and people submit to the group a list of items they’d enjoy for $200.  This worked ok, but eventually it evolved into the people buying their own present, wrapping it up, bringing it to the gathering, opening it and pretending to be excited and the ‘original giver’ handing over $200 by the end of the night.

Upon realizing we were all just exchanging cash for cash, the silliness of this process was clear and quickly abandoned.  That’s when, for entertainment purposes only, we moved solely to the White Elephant Gift Game mentioned above.  But now, it seems it’s time for a new evolution.

Holiday Gift giving in the Christian tradition stems from the 3 wise men bringing gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (I was actually given frankincense and myrrh one Christmas, very creative gift, but smelled like an old dusty basement!)  And then also “from the third century in the ancient town of Myra, located in what is now modern Turkey, is home to a shrine dedicated to Bishop Nicholas. Over several centuries, tales spread detailing the benevolence and generosity of Bishop Nicholas, and this is where the idea of St. Nick as gift-giver began.

One of the stories, it turns out, involves Nicholas passing by the homes of maidens too poor to afford a dowry – money that a bride gives to her groom for their wedding. The bishop would throw gold coins down the chimneys of these maidens, where they would fall into stockings, which were hung over the fire to dry.” [from]

I want to honor the reasons why we exchange gifts at the holidays.  I assume that amongst the many reasons, some are:
1) because it reminds of the joy we felt as children opening gifts from Santa and feeling excitement over the perfect surprise [joy]
2) because it’s an easy way to show others that we care about them and want them to be happy [love]
3) because it’s an entertaining way to pass an hour or two, while celebrating what excites the people we love [fun]

The White Elephant Game does serve to entertain us and still give us the exciting opening an unexpected gift feeling… but for me, it’s not meeting my needs of feeling love, fun and joy around the holidays.

The definition of a white elephant gift is “a valuable possession which its owner cannot dispose of and whose cost (particularly cost of upkeep) exceeds its usefulness.”  Wikipedia goes on to say “receiving a gift of a white elephant from a monarch was both a blessing and a curse: a blessing because the animal was sacred and a sign of the monarch’s favour, and a curse because the animal had to be kept and could not be put to practical use to offset the cost of maintaining it.”  It made me wonder, in what ways are these gifts a blessing (getting a desirable gift) or a curse (getting an undesirable gift and feeling too guilty to throw it out).

I would like to point out some of my specific concerns before acknowledging other options…
1) The Excess “STUFF” factor: We every possession we’ve kept from birth to this present moment somewhere in the confines of our 1500 sq. ft. condo… (it’s coming out our ears).  Each chance we get we take another load of excess ‘stuff’ to the goodwill drop spot.  When I give ‘stuff’ away that someone just gave me, I do experience a twinge of guilt, but for years we’ve been asking people to not give us stuff… and yet, we still on occasion receive unwanted, unsolicited stuff.  If somehow we end up with an unuseful gift, it is going to go straight to goodwill.  And instead of feeling guilt, I will choose to know that the $20 is going to make someone very happy as they find this item for only $2 on the shelf at Goodwill.  But I still would rather give $20 straight to a charity instead of contributing to the excess consumption and production of crap on this planet that ends up in landfills.

2) The Insult Factor: I tend to notice the person’s expression who brought the undesirable gift, as the person who ended up with it tries to get others to want it, and as other’s avoid it like the plague… it can make the person feel bad.  Even a “pitty” steal, where someone steals it just so the person thinks they like it, doesn’t make them feel better, because it’s obvious it was done out of pitty.  (I feel like this used to happen a lot to grandma and definitely happened to Sean once, not that he cared, but she did).

3) The “There Isn’t Enough For Everyone To Be Satisfied” Factor –  my minister in California once joked about how he didn’t like the game of Musical Chairs, because it teaches children that there aren’t enough resources for everyone and they have to fight to make it in this world.  Sure, Musical Chairs is a classic game and it seems silly to challenge something so ingrained in the fabric of our culture, but I can’t help but think, “he has a point.”  I remember what it felt like to push someone off my seat, or to have my butt hit the floor when someone else had pushed me off… it sent home the message “fight or be left out in the cold.”  It didn’t honor the fact that scarcity is an imaginary thing… the teacher could easily play the game the opposite way where a new chair is added every time and the kids run around and see who the new group of people sitting is… and repeat… until everyone is sitting.  They could talk about how each person brings different gifts to the circle and that with everyone there, they are the strongest most diverse group that they can be.  This would teach the kids that there is always enough, there is always more, and that it’s great to include people to achieve tasks together.  And it’s true, scarcity is imaginary… there is enough food on the planet to feed everyone… there is enough land to and resources to clothe and house everyone… we just all have to work together to make it possible and stop buying into the horde-mentality of “there’s not enough”, gathering and stock piling away.  Scarcity is a myth, fueled by people who ‘take away the chairs’ and then charge everyone money to have them back.  I’m not trying to say providing a useful product for a price is bad… I’m saying there has to be a better way than scooping up a natural resource and selling the exact same resource  for an obscene profit without providing any real value.  This definition allows for the fact that we need someone to manufacture the oil or make paper from trees… but it does raise the question of how do we provide for everyone and why isn’t that our first priority, as their struggle eventually becomes our struggle as we’re all connected.  [i digress]

That jovial accusation of Musical Chairs isn’t far off with this game either.  As we play the game, it’s only fun if people are “stealing” gifts from one another.  And we suspend the realization that any of us could go purchase the same $20 item if we really wanted it that badly, and there’s no need to be upset about letting someone else have it.  It’s playing into the idea that we have to take what we want from people we care about and possibly leave them with less in order to be happy… and we’ve all felt that feeling of, “gosh, i wish that person had gotten what they wanted.  i feel bad that everyone isn’t happy.”  And when I take from someone i care about (which is everyone in the room) I don’t feel happy… even if it is a game… the emotions of greed, disappointment, and guilt are real.

So I proposed the following in an email to my family:
Couldn’t we go back to our 3 original purposes for gift giving
and use our creative minds and hearts to create a new game that ensures that:
1) every person is excited about what they are receiving
2) every person is happy that what they brought made another person feel loved, heard, valued and pleased
3) every person is entertained as we go around the circle

I mean, maybe it wasn’t so silly to buy your own gift after all… it gives each person the excuse to be able to spend money on oneself, to show people who love you what you appreciate and care about, and to be entertained seeing what the people like.  I can imagine we’re not the only household in the family tight on funds this year… perhaps this is a great year to entertain ourselves in a new way… a way that allows us to be our true selves, get to know each other on this honest and compassionate level, and feel joy of togetherness… the real meaning of Christmas.

Coming up with a new game would be my ideal… but if no one else is interested and would rather play the game as is… i have a couple of solutions that take me out of it and allow others to continue…

1) I can put a $20 prepaid credit card in a bag and plan to donate my gift to charity if i don’t like it or can’t use it
2) I can simply opt out and notify everyone that i’ve donated $20 to a charity in the family’s name and explain what the $20 will do for that charity, and then I’ll just watch

It is my greatest desire that everyone experience the feelings of excitement and joy in giving and receiving, knowing that there is always MORE than ENOUGH.

I then invited them to offer feedback on what their desires were for creating a happy holidays and so I exted this discussion to you… What makes you feel good and how can your holiday gift giving experience be deepened this year?

This inquiry truly stemmed from the fact that we’re on a tight budget this year and I’m wanting to make sure that where I spend my money is a useful and conscious place… as it does make a difference.  I challenge you to consider before you shop to notice if what you are buying supports your beliefs, your local community, the end receiver.  By being Concsious as you spend your money, you can feel good on multiple levels about where you are spending your well-earned cash.


Buy something that will change their life for the better… a self-help book, a self-development experience, a gym membership (make sure they want it!), etc.

Donate to a worthy cause in their honor… (best if agreed upon in advance).

Buy something that supports your (or their) local small businesses, like a gift certificate to a local coffee shop or massage therapist.

Buy an experience, verses an object… experiences like gift certificates for golf or a manicure, or tickets to a concert are more likely to be used and bring joy.  They are also less likely to be ignored, dust collectors donated after enough time has passed to not feel guilty, or tossed in the trash to overflow the landfill down the street.  This is even better when you agree to enjoy the experience with them!

BE TRUE TO YOU! These are my suggestions of how “I” stay in alignment with my beliefs… you’re ideals might be different, especially if you or your family works for a national chain… shopping there might be in your best interest…  all I’m really suggesting is whatever you do, Think Consciously before your shop! 🙂


Entry filed under: BLISSfix Journal, Conscious Products. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Good Day Sunshine – Beatles Conscious Song – Shiny Happy People – REM

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Lisa Cartolano  |  November 30, 2008 at 4:24 am

    Looking for ideas on choosing gifts that are both entertaining and educational? Please visit and learn how these simple recommendations can make gift giving as easy as ABC.

  • 2. blissfix  |  December 1, 2008 at 7:15 pm

    This was sent as an email to me. Some very good thoughts here:

    No More Gift Buying

    “When you become detached mentally from yourself and concentrate on helping other people with their difficulties, you will be able to cope with your own more effectively. Somehow, the act of self-giving is a personal power-releasing factor.”

    –Norman Vincent Peale

    ‘Tis the season for gift buying and yet, this year’s financial challenges make shopping more stressful than ever. This week, I wanted to focus on the kind of gift that could really make a difference in someone’s life – a gift that not only brings joy after the holidays have passed, but also gives you an opportunity to strengthen a relationship with someone you love. It’s the gift of your time and talent.

    Right now, in this very moment, there’s someone you care about who is burdened by a project they feel unequipped to handle – something you do well. Think about it. Is there a family member who has trouble getting organized, a sister who would love help with holiday decorating, or a friend who needs curtains for his new apartment? This year, instead of spending money on gifts, why not offer to help out? Here’s a fun, new approach:

    1. Make a list of five people you intend to buy gifts for.

    2. Schedule a time to call each one.

    3. When you do, say something like:

    “Hey Maggie, I know we all have a project or task hanging over our heads that we keep meaning to get done. This year, rather than buy you a gift, I thought I’d offer my time and talent to help you get a project completed. If you’re willing, why don’t you spend some time this week thinking about something we could do together, and when I call you back next Monday, let me know what you’ve come up with and we’ll schedule a date. How does that sound?”

    4. Follow up with a call and, if the person agrees, schedule a date to work on the project together.

    There are several benefits to giving this kind of gift. First, you relieve a loved one of the emotional stress that comes from procrastination. Second, you give this person an on-going reminder of how much you care. After all, if you help a friend organize a kitchen closet, he or she will think of you and feel loved every time they open the door. Third, giving the gift of our time adds less “stuff” to the planet. And finally, sharing your talent gives you a chance to spend meaningful time together.

    So, this week, consider a new tradition. Just imagine how life would be different if everyone helped each other in this way! Now, let’s see. I still have boxes that need to be unpacked, a pantry that needs to be organized, and pictures that need to be hung on a wall. Hmmm….

    Take Action Challenge

    Do something different this holiday season. Give your time, talent, and love to someone who matters. Think about what you love to do, then find someone to share it with. Who knows? It might just turn out to be the best holiday ever!


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