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Shop less, play more: a day time can stand still

I’m not sure I agree with Tolstoy in that all happy families are alike. Or maybe every happy family sings and dances their way through Christmas. I’ve never openly discussed our resemblance to a musical theater troupe, but I’m outing my family this year, because I think we may be slightly atypical.

After all, polls show that 90% of Americans feel anxiety around the holidays. So I’d like to propose a solution: don’t shop, play. In my family it involves gifting unisuits and tangerines and jumping into snowbanks in our bathing suits (for visuals, see video Slow Christmas: How we play).

Before I go into more detail, I want to explain I’m not writing to warn of an impending “shopocalypse” (to borrow the term from the 2007 documentary What Would Jesus Buy?), but simply to offer one experience of one- mostly- happy family.

A day without Xbox

I write less to rail on the dangers of over-consumption and more on the beauty of a time of year when you can just slow down. In fact, in the era of email, iphones and 24 hour everything, the holidays might be the only time of year we slow way down to just hang out with each other.

There’s no sacrifice in this, on the contrary, I wonder if it was easier for us to truly enjoy each other’s company because- on Christmas day at least- we tuned everything else out. “It’s not like we had automatic entertainment,” explained my sister Rebecca when I asked her about our childhood holiday experience this week. “We had to create our own entertainment. And it’s actually the most fun.”

For the family member who most enjoys the shopping experience, she surprised me by continuing, “one thing that’s lacking now that we have all these electronics and everything else, instead of just finding ways to have fun with each other people are just going to play Xbox and watch tv.”

I’ll admit even today at our weekly family get-together (with my Spanish family), my husband and I spent a good chunk of the time on our iPhone and Android phone (the latter being his).

Even for those who don’t celebrate the holiday, Christmas is the only day in the year when even 24-hour supermarkets close. It’s the one day of the year when you get to act as if you were trapped in a snow storm. And at least to our family that is a reason to celebrate.

When you shop your closet

Perhaps the entire holiday season is more celebratory and less stressful, given that my family doesn’t shop for gifts. We do exchange presents, but there’s this unwritten rule in our family that you shouldn’t spend money on them. Instead, we shop in our closets or amongst all that free stuff we’ve accumulated from sporting events or as work-related handouts.

It might sound a bit silly or cheap, but the reality is the money spent on gifts is discounted by 20%. Or as the economist Joel Waldfogel explains the research, people value the items they buy for themselves 20% more than those gifted to them.

So we are no longer talking about wasted resources or time, but actually a waste of money. In the U.S. holiday spending is expected to reach $65 billion this season, so that’s $13 billion dollars wasted. (I was surprised to learn that even 10% of gift card balances go unspent).

My most fashion-conscious sister- Rebecca, again- explained why not spending money on gifts actually could mean that we appreciate them more. “If you pay money for a gift, even if it’s not what someone wanted you get away with it because you paid money for it where if you have to be creative enough to give something secondhand or that you’ve gotten for free you have to be much more creative and you actually have to think about what someone wants.”

To get more of an idea of what it means to celebrate a shopping-free (but not gift-free) holiday, I edited some of the highlights of 2 decades of our family’s Slow Christmas celebrations into a video.

How to have a Slow Holiday

For those wanting to try out a more re-gift holiday this year, here are a few ideas from our family from over the years:

  • freebie t-shirts from running races or work events
  • CDs (either created or well-loved and ready to be passed along)
  • fruit (from a neighbor’s tree, aka, urban foraging)
  • jewelry (since most of us tend to end up with a collection, why not regift a piece or two)
  • family gift certificates (for anything from dishwashing to footrubs)
  • secondhand goods (okay, so we do spend a bit for this, but it still forces you to be creative)