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How 6 families went gift-free for Christmas

Is it possible that less shopping can result in more joy? Families that have stopped exchanging presents say that it is. They tell how and why they gave up the holiday tradition.

By Dec 3, 2013 1:20PM

This post comes from Gerri Detweiler at partner site on MSN MoneyWhat are the holidays without the search for the perfect gift, the hunt for the rock-bottom best deal on the newest electronic gadget, piles of presents under the tree, or the Secret Santa Gift exchange at work?  

Santa Claus on strike © Steve Nagy/age fotostockApparently it's more Whoville -- and less Grinch -- than you might think. Here are six families who have given up the holiday shopping routine for what they say is a more relaxed and -- dare I say richer? -- experience.  

Dan Nainan | Manhattan, N.Y.

Going green and saving money are just two reasons that Dan Nainan proposed to his family that they stop gift giving altogether. There was also the challenge of finding the right gift. “Let's face it, a male of my age is going to have a difficult time figuring out what my sister would like, or what my parents would like . . . how would I have any clue?” he asks.

He explains why he took the initiative to bring up the idea of a gift-free holiday season with his family: “It occurred to me that we were all spending and wasting an inordinate amount of time (and money) fighting the crowds, then spending even more time and money getting the gifts wrapped, and then even further time and money returning the gifts.”

His family embraced the change. For the past several years, instead of giving gifts to each other, they donate the money they would have spent on each other to a needy family. ‘For us, it's much more important to spend time with our loved ones. That is truly the best gift of all,” he says. That and not “seeing people trampled to death on Black Friday, or fighting over parking spaces.”

Carol Meerschaert | Paoli, Pa.

You definitely won’t find Carol Meerschaert frantically trying to thaw a turkey or wrap last-minute presents this holiday season. For one thing, she is a vegan. For another, she’s likely to celebrate the holiday with a hike, followed by a potluck where everyone "eats what they like," she says. The meal will be followed by games, a movie or both. Gifts will not be exchanged.

"The point of the holidays should be to cherish your family and friends," she explains. "Spend time together, create memories. For many it has become a gimme, gimme. Or worse, a stress-filled time of year with lists, crowds and bills. We opted out."

When asked whether there was any backlash when her family decided to go gift-free, she says there was none at all. "The opposite," she said. Everyone was relieved not to have to figure out what to buy, and then to shop for it.

Julia Robinson Shimizu | Los Angeles

It wasn’t smooth sailing for Julia Robinson Shimizu’s family after her mother, now 90, proposed they stop exchanging gifts, which she felt were a waste of money. "There were some bad feelings when some family members refused to cooperate and gave gifts anyway, making others uncomfortable, even angry," she says.  But exchanging presents is no longer a part of their tradition, and everyone seems to be at peace with it. "The idea of spending time together, even shopping together, at other times of the year, has much more meaning to us," she says.

Unlike Nainan and Meerschaert’s families, there are children in Shimizu’s extended family, and they still get gifts, she says.  "I don't have small children and am only a great-aunt to those who do, (so) I can't speak to this. I do have fond memories of the excitement of the holidays and I suppose limited gift giving to kids is acceptable, but want to be careful to avoid going over the top. I think I am a lonely voice on this one, though," she adds.

Jackie Kaufman | Redington Shores, Fla.

About 10 years ago Jackie Kaufman’s family opted out of all gift giving; not just for the holidays but for birthdays, anniversaries and "anything that requires a gift." Even more surprising: Her kids are now age 22 and 25, which means they were still preteens when this change took place.


"Our family was in the retail gift business for many years, including owning stores and kiosks in major malls in Florida," she explains. "Year after year we saw firsthand how the business of buying gifts and the stress level, took its toll on people. How any gift was better then not buying one at all. It was crazy, and in my mind I said, 'This is not what any of the holidays should be about. It should not be the gift, but the recognition of that other person in your life.'"

Now she says a family dinner or a phone call to wish a happy birthday is enough. "Our life around any of the holidays is now stress-free knowing gifts are not on the agenda."

Kristy Jahn-Smith | Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada  

Christmas dinner last year was pizza and beer for Kristy Jahn-Smith’s family. There were no gifts. But they didn’t feel cheated at all; they were celebrating on a vacation to Mexico. It was such a success, that her family -- husband and kids plus Grandpa, an aunt and an uncle -- are all headed back again this year.

"Christmas day was spent swimming and drinking beers on the beach. It’s just so low-key and very relaxing. Lately when I am in Costco and see the rows of plastic crap stacked half way to the ceiling, I breathe a sigh of relief and smile, because I don't have to think about any Christmas shopping. I know Grandpa is a big fan of spending Christmas this way, too. Ultimately we all spend more time together away from the distractions at home."

Perhaps the best part? There’s no pressure on Mom to create a perfect holiday. "Instead of sweating over a turkey or cleaning house for a houseful of guests, I get to enjoy daily housekeeping service and a stack of good books, read poolside," she says.

Max Wong | Los Angeles

It’s been more than a decade since Max Wong’s "really, really large extended Asian family," as she describes them, decided to shop giving Christmas presents to everyone in the family, including the kids.

"Hoarding and OCD behavior runs in the family," she explained in an interview about her radical approach to Christmas on my radio show, Talk Credit Radio. "It was sort of a pre-intervention step, because a lot of us looked around our houses and said, 'We don’t want to be that little old lady that has to be dug out from under her pile of National Geographics.'"

Her cousin came up with the idea, and while everyone liked it, they immediately started "cheating in the stupidest possible ways," says Wong. For example, she bought her niece the entire Lemony Snicket book series, which she found in pristine condition at a garage sale for only $7. Her niece’s mom immediately called her out on it. "I’m a librarian," she told her, "I can her get any book you want her to read."

When I asked her how the children in the family reacted, she said that’s the first question she gets when people hear they do this: "What about the children? Like they are living some kind of Dickensian horrible life." The loophole is they still give birthday and graduation gifts, but for Christmas they try to give experiences instead: baking cookies, going caroling, or staying up all night and spending the day in PJs. "We thought we were going to get a lot of complaints, and we got none. They quickly figured out this (the relaxed rules) was a better deal."

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Dec 3, 2013 2:55PM

I have had many Christmas's and I love this time of year, I can still remember the new snow at midnight, a soft blue with the trees bare standing in moonlight, it all seemed so magical.  I barely remember gifts I received over the years; but the memories of home baked lemon pies, fires in the fireplace, Christmas music on the record player, Christmas eve dinner, opening a present and going to mass are just like yesterday to me, and I am 71 soon to be 72 (God willing).  This year we will not be giving gifts, and I am not able to make that big dinner that took days to prepare, but in my heart will be all those love ones I have lost over the years and memories of Christmas's gone but not forgotten.

Merry Christmas to all of you, I wish you the best.

Dec 3, 2013 2:40PM
I am in total agreement with this, but both sides of my family is not. The parents actually get angry when I mention this every year. We are in our 40's and don't need anything. Our daughter doesn't need any more toys. My brother in law has six kids and if he buys for our one, of course we have to give to all six, but how fair is that? And then I am supposed to buy for a MIL and a FIL that are newly married to others and live hundreds of miles away and know what to get all of them? And then all of them start asking in October what we want for Christmas and when I can't think of anything they get angry or get us stuff we don't need. I wish the gift giving would stop, but they think I am being a cheap skate. I am just trying to keep my sanity
Sounds great to me! We don't cook, clean, or exchange gifts, either. Christmas is a very relaxing day. We go out to lunch at a buffet restaurant. Cost of Christmas per person: ten dollars, plus tax and tip.
Dec 3, 2013 2:41PM
My family stopped gift-giving on specified days when we ended up with seven gift flashlights between the six of us one Christmas.  It was an obvious indication that none of us wanted for anything and that mandatory gift-giving had become, well, kind of ridiculous.  As my mom laughed, "It's not OUR birthday, anyway."  I still do holiday cards, which has always been a fun project for me, but sometimes they get mailed before Dec. 25; sometimes after.  In the end, given my husband's 20 years of a second chance at life after a double lung transplant in 1994, we like to say that every day is Christmas!
Dec 3, 2013 3:01PM


Going gift free is not new or hard.

people that are broke, just trying to keep the lights on do it all the time. 

Dec 3, 2013 3:48PM
What's the big change?  People like us that never could afford Christmas gifts to begin with have done this for years.  Christmas is not in a box, it is in the heart and soul of man.  My husband never got a Christmas gift as a child.  He was lucky if food was on the table, and grateful for it when it was.  People don't seem to appreciate anything anymore.  This is a selfish and self-serving society.  Thanksgiving has become a shopping time for Christmas instead of a day to thank God for our blessings.  Holidays are jokes these days.  As much junk as most people have, why have a day just to add to the pile?
Dec 3, 2013 3:44PM
I love this idea.  I'm 39 and although I am no where NEAR rich, just comfortable, I don't want anything.  I have a 19" tv, 25 years old, but it works.  Each year I think "Maybe I should get a big, huge tv this year" and then I think about how much less money I'd have in savings and about how my old tv still works fine, and I always just let it go.  The happiest people are the ones who are content with what they have. I've very content.
Dec 3, 2013 2:59PM
My teenage sons ask me what I want for Christmas, I tell them, a compliment.
Dec 3, 2013 2:44PM
My family stopped exchanging gifts about 15 years ago and it is wonderful (though we do continue to give gifts to the young children).  Instead, we take turns picking a charity of our choice and each family contributes $250, about what we would have spent buying gifts.  This year we picked a charity working on hurricane relief in the Phiippines.  In addition to being stress free, donating to worthy causes honors the spirit of Christmas  in a meaningul way and the gift is sure to be fully appreciated.  If you are interested,  I recommend checking out charities at  before you donate.
Dec 3, 2013 2:34PM
We started this a few years ago too. I don't see what the big deal is. It was not worth the stress. Only the little kids get presents. But we do spend money by supporting various agencies that provide Christmas to those who can't afford it.
Dec 3, 2013 2:56PM
Gift free is NOT spending lots of money on a family vacation to Mexico or a cruise.
We've gone gift-free for the past two years, because we don't have enough money to even buy items for crafts. We'll be lucky if we have enough for a family dinner this year. 
Dec 3, 2013 3:46PM

  The first gifts given were to a new born baby in Jerusalem by three wise men from the East, and this was th reason as well as the celebration of that birth, but as civilization grew and greed became  the order of the day the reason for giving gifts was lost and has now become "Big Business" and the end result is how much more money can I make next year from the sheep who forgot  this birth and the reason for the gifts from three wise men.

   My wife and I quit this practice of giving gifts during this time of that birth for the past 17 years, and we do this out of respect and to honor that child on a personal level which we agreed on, and along with that fact we do not travel on any other holiday, except for our birthdays which mine is on the 27th of the same month and her is the 28th, and we celebrate our anniversary which will be 30 years on January 19th, and we do give gifts to each other but not for any special reason other than we feel in love and still are and tell each other as many times a day as we need or want to say I Love You, and that in it's self is the true gift we share every day of the year.

  The gifts we give are either clothes or food, and rarely something special like a book for me and flowers or a box of candy for my special friend, partner, and Special Lady Love.

   Any thing else is just a commercial con job to take your hard earned money and line the pockets of companies and corporations who pay their employees low wages, so I help others who have less than we, and give to St. Jude Children's Hospital all I can afford to give, how about you?

   By the way, I am politically incorrect as much as possible and want to wish you all a Very Merry Christmas with or without gifts, enjoy the time of holidays with those you love.

Dec 3, 2013 3:41PM

Why does it have to be all or none? Can't you enjoy giving gifts without going into debt and buying useless crap? Can't you make a nice holiday meal without stressing yourself to the point you can't enjoy it? Does it really have to be Chateubriand or Pizza? An IPad or nothing? There is a happy middle ground to occupy here folks.


We only exchange now with the kids in our family. Mainly because we've all had financial difficulties over the past year. I do have my son give a nominal gift each year to everyone who gives him something because I want him to learn the joy of giving in addition to receiving. I don't agree with the families that stopped giving gifts to their children. While they may not show it, young kids can't understand this. They just think that they must have been bad or something.


It's one thing to be frugal, but not giving gifts to your children at Christmas smacks of just being cheap.


Dec 3, 2013 4:36PM

I am getting tired of those who don't want to celebrate Christmas in the 'traditional' way, implying that those of us who still celebrate with presents, Christmas decorations and preparing special holiday meals are somehow more 'plastic' and greedy than they are.


My family and friends do all of the traditional things on the holidays and we all agree that we still find the days special, heartwarming and fun. Different strokes for different folks; if your idea of Christmas is beer and tacos on the beach, then fine. Just don't keep trying to make the rest of us wrong for wanting to observe the holidays more traditionally. I'm sick of being told that loving to give to others on that day is somehow 'shallow' of me.

Dec 3, 2013 3:21PM
We stopped gifts for adults years ago, for the "kids" nieces nephews we did one small gift under $20 & and put $$ into their college accounts, now ended that too. Our grandkids are teenagers or older and scattered all over the world, not a thank you or phone call from any of  them the last 3 years so we ended the gifts. The cost of living on retirement income is tough enough without "stuff" on top of years worth of other stuff we need to get rid of. We make a donation to the local food bank or soup kitchen or homeless shelter or animal rescue. plus we try to remember a few random acts of kindness in the spirit of the season. The best "gift" hub & I give each other all year long is our devotion to and support of each other in our old age, as long as I have the guy I love every day is Christmas.
Dec 3, 2013 2:41PM
Good for them!!!! My wise father told me once that Christmas doesn't just come once a year and you know, he was right. We help a lot of people all year. Our Christmas is very low key. We give to who we want and don't feel obligated to give to everybody we know. Their friendship is enough.
Dec 3, 2013 3:14PM
With 8 children of our own and their family which gives us 20 grandkids, 10 great-great grandkids along with their wives and husband it came to such big a number so we just allow each family to do what they feel is best for their family but we do get together for a pot-luck dinner where everyone shares their favorite recipe. That the part all the grandkids like as it give them a chance to get together and catch up on things they are doing with their life. they stay in touch and the story they share are good for a memories book. Happy Holiday everyone, enjoy your family.
Dec 3, 2013 3:33PM

To each his own.  Personally, I refrain from the gift exchange as much as possible.  Give the kids get a few things, but don't go bat crap crazy and then spend the next year trying to pay off the debt.  All the commercialism of this holiday is insane.  That's why most folks like Thanksgiving much more. 

Dec 3, 2013 3:00PM
we also stopped giving gifts at Christmas. I had petitioned one year and failed- and that year everyone got a Miracle Thaw from me.  Next year, I tried again and Yeah!   We choose a charity to give to each year . The young kids still get to open presents, but NO adult stuff. Everyone seems OK- and it is awesome NOT to have to run around in December worrying about  gifts.  
Dec 3, 2013 3:41PM
After Thanksgiving, I called by mother to tell her "Thank you, for stopping the madness of the Holidays." She is the one that put her 80 ish foot down, and said "No more cooking!" No more exchanging idiotic gifts!
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