I'm dreaming of a giftless Christmas
By Carol Toller
From The Globe and Mail, December 6, 2003
Have you heard about the woman who got asphalt for Christmas?
No, it's not an urban legend, or even an outtake from Bad Santa, the new, decidedly sour holiday movie starring Billy Bob Thornton. It's a true story (albeit one in which the principal character is still too bemused to have her real name in print).
About five years ago, this Toronto woman had a donation made to a charity in her name. Her sister was sick of Christmas consumerism, she recalls. So instead of buying another expensive tchotchke, the sister announced she was making a contribution on behalf of each of her siblings to a deserving cause: Ontario's Adopt-A-Highway program.
"We all thought . . . hmmm. Well, that's nice," the woman says. "A chunk of asphalt."
It's not exactly coal in the Christmas stocking, but a "gift that gives" -- to someone else -- risks being an unwelcome surprise to some friends and family members. For others, though, a well-chosen charitable donation made in lieu of a present can be perceived as a profoundly meaningful gesture during a season of thoughtless consumption.
Sarah Gingrich, of Toronto, made a contribution of $200 to Médecins san frontières (Doctors Without Borders) last year on behalf of her father. "I did it because he believes Christmas should be about sharing -- not about tinsel -- and about being good to your neighbours. So we tried to bring a little more meaning back into Christmas for him. And it was a more appropriate gift because he's one of these people who has everything that he wants.
"He was very happy about it."
It's hard to tell how many Canadians give donations in lieu of gifts, but Gordon Floyd, vice-president of public affairs for the Canadian Centre for Philanthropy, suspects that the number may be on the rise. "Just anecdotally, I'm seeing it around me," he says. "I've noticed a lot of people writing 'charitable donation' on their Christmas lists."
Katie Loftus, development manager at Evergreen, a non-profit environmental organization that aims to bring healthier green space to Canadian cities, is noticing a similar trend. "People in general seem more interested in giving gifts that make a difference in other people's lives."
Ms. Loftus is "exchanging" charitable donations with six friends this year -- she's now busy picking causes to match each of their interests. On behalf of one friend whose mother recently went through breast cancer, for instance, she'll probably donate to medical research. For another who owns a recording studio, she wants to contribute to an organization that helps Canadian artists. "The older you get, the more stuff you have," Ms. Loftus says. "We really don't need anything else, and what's nice about this is that it reflects all our interests."
Staff at Ten Thousand Villages, a chain of 36 shops across Canada that sell "fair-trade gifts" made in developing countries, along with "living gift" options, such as the purchase of an avocado tree for a village in Peru ($1.54) or a pig for a family in Nigeria ($38), say they are expecting a 25-per-cent increase in living-gift sales this year.
Still, Canadians are a long way from abandoning shopping malls altogether. A new Ipsos-Reid survey indicates that the average gift-giving Canadian will spend $761.15 on presents this season, plus an additional $724.08 on related expenses like party outfits, travel, decorations and entertainment. Thirty per cent of the respondents said they planned to do their spending on credit.
Those figures horrify Aiden Enns, the Winnipeg-based mastermind behind a grassroots campaign called Buy Nothing Christmas. Especially when you add these numbers to the equation: In a recent U.S. study, 33 per cent of gift recipients admitted to throwing Christmas presents straight into the trash. Thirty-five per cent said they had at least one unused gift sitting in a closet, according to the survey conducted by Opinion Research Corp. and cited on Adbusters' anti-consumption website.
To help curb unnecessary spending, Mr. Enns suggests alternate gift options on his website, http://www.buynothingchristmas.org, and encourages attention-getting stunts like the carol-singing party he organized last weekend at a Winnipeg mall. Decked out in Santa hats, he and eight like-minded anti-consumers sang standards like God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen with twisted lyrics: "Slow Down You Frantic Shoppers . . ." -- until a security guard arrived and put a stop to their subversion.
Mr. Enns may sound like the ultimate Grinch to some, but he says he has nothing against the holiday season per se. "I love the idea of people giving to one another," he says. "It's a profound act." He just wants to stop the sort of knee-jerk, meaningless exchanges that fill cupboards and drawers with perfumed candles that never get lit and sweaters that never get worn -- spending that happens just for the sake of spending.
So instead of buying presents for his 18 nieces and nephews, he and his wife, Karen, create handmade gifts. This year's offerings: photo frames for the 10-and-over set, and wooden toys for the young ones. Older friends and family might get homemade jam or a used copy of a book Mr. Enns has read and enjoyed.
Dozens of buy-nothing proponents have posted testimonials on the Buy Nothing Christmas website. Reimar Goetzke, Bev Short and their extended family collect money for needy households instead of shopping for each other. Usually, the money goes to someone connected to their Fort Langley, B.C., community. "The tearful 'thank yous' that we have received are better than the 'I wonder if I spent as much money as my sister-in-law?' concerns that we used to experience," Mr. Goetzke says. "The generosity is probably exceeded as well."
But some admit that their loved ones don't get what they're doing -- or like it. (A holiday-season Seinfeld episode may be partly responsible: When Jerry Seinfeld's sidekick George weaseled out of buying presents for his co-workers by claiming to have contributed to an invented charity called "The Human Fund" instead, the donation-in-lieu-of gift became a favourite allusion of cynics everywhere.)
Donna Stewart, of North Vancouver, says she has "just about given up" on going giftless. One family member didn't speak to her for almost a year, she says, after she tried giving charitable donations in lieu of presents. "Some people see it as a rebuke -- I care more about other people than I do about them. Or I don't trust them to give for themselves."
Her family also balked at her suggestion that they forgo the traditional holiday dinner in favour of something simpler -- she suggested following the model of friends who had traded in turkey for hot dogs al fresco. So for now, though she remains committed to the idea of a giftless Christmas, she's settling for making a charitable contribution that matches what she spends on holiday giving.
In the end, most buy-nothing advocates admit to experiencing the occasional twinge of temptation -- even Mr. Enns says he "struggles" each year with the impulse to buy something special for his wife.
And some compromise for the sake of the family. Ms. Stewart didn't try to get her grandchildren on board the giftless bandwagon, for instance -- "It's not really fair," she says.
Kelly Ross, of Vancouver, on the other hand, says the children in her life love her gifts of World Wildlife Fund polar-bear adoption certificates, which come with small stuffed animals.
But those who stick to their principles as much as possible say their efforts have made the holiday season more meaningful. "It really brings the joy back," Mrs. Ross says.
One Toronto executive gives gifts to her sons for Hanukkah, but also sits down with them each December for a group debate on charitable giving. Together, they sift through an envelope of pitches from various causes collected throughout the year, and argue over which groups should receive the money they've allotted to spend. "We have some real knock-em-up, drag-em-down debates," she says, about issues such as, what's more important -- supporting a charity that brings clean water to a village or another that stocks books for the community library?
The discussions appear to have influenced her kids, one of whom has gone on to pursue a degree in international development. "I think we've all learned from doing this."
As for the proud recipient of the strip of Christmas blacktop, her family learned from her sister's foray into charitable giving too. The lesson was this: Don't promise a gift you're not prepared to make.
After the sister announced her plan to give money to Ontario highways, the family members waited for the arrival of a certificate identifying the stretch of road that was being upgraded in their honour. But nothing came.
The following Christmas, the sister informed them that she had changed her mind and withheld the donation: She didn't want to contribute to excessive driving and greenhouse-gas emissions.
"We were polite about it," the giftless woman says. "But we were a little miffed."
Gifts that give
A sampling of items for a buy-nothing list:
A pair of hens and a rooster for a family in a developing country:$50,
World Vision (http://www.worldvision.ca).
A tree, planted to enhance green space in Canadian cities: $35,
A table and a chair for a student in Vietnam: $10.25,
Ten Thousand Villlages (http://www.tenthousandvillages.ca).
A polar bear (symbolic adoption to help save the species): $40,
World Wildlife Fund (http://www.wwf.ca).
A "gift of peace" card.
Cost: a donation to Oxfam Canada (http://www.oxfam.ca).
Clothes, food or toys for a homeless shelter or group home in your neighbourhood.
A contribution to the organization or charity of your choice.
(For tips on how to give wisely, visit http://www.ccp.ca/brochures/give_generously.asp).
Give coupons good for a meaningful "experience" (a walk by a river, an evening out) or service (babysitting, a massage, home repairs).
Make something: a photo album, fudge, a book of quotes, a recipe collection.
Give away a valued possession.
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Carol Toller is an editor in the Focus section.
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