The Ethical Dilemma: Christmas Challenges

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Giftzilla: I grew up in a family that intentionally downplayed the material aspects of Christmas. We exchanged simple practical gifts and, if budgets were tight, none at all. My new in-laws are quite the opposite. The holidays are an extravaganza of excess, almost like a contest to see who spends the most. The unwrapping goes on for hours. Last year, newly married, I found it appalling. Now I find it offensive. I feel we are supporting a culture of greed and acquisition that exploits underpaid foreign factory workers. I’m trying to simplify my life, own less and spend less. In conforming to my in-laws’ holiday traditions, I feel I’m compromising my own values. I suggested drawing names, but that went nowhere. My spouse says we can’t opt out, but guess who’s expected to do all of the shopping and thanking? Can you offer a solution?


Dear Overstuffed,

Perhaps you can nip this in the bud since your marriage is new and your family traditions are still in the formative stage. Can you alternate years with your extravagant in-laws and your own more modest kin, so at least you’d only face this situation half the time—or would the in-laws send you gifts and expect you to pack and ship in return? Or could you host the holiday on your own turf where you could call the shots on drawing names or otherwise toning down?

In any event, you need to have a heart-to-heart with your spouse. Make sure he/she knows just how much the excess grates against your grain and that, while you’d like to be a good sport, too much is too much. If your spouse declines to stand with you and face the festive foe, can you tell your spouse he/she will have to shoulder all the giving and thanking (but you’ll be happy to contribute home-baked goodies or take over all the serving and clean-up)? Then stand your ground and let your spouse do all the running around. This might change the tune as fast as when my non-Jewish friend told her Jewish husband if he wanted to keep keeping kosher he’d have to do all the cooking himself. Bring home the bacon! No more gift madness!

If all these suggestions fall flat, give everyone on the list a donation to a wonderful charity. Or, better still, give each a card informing them you donated their gift from last year. When their eager shining faces struggle to appear thrilled, tell them you’re so glad they love it and that you plan to make this your special way of giving back every year. While you’ll still receive your load of goodies this year, you might find a lot less in your stocking next time. And even if the in-laws keep on showering you all the same, at least you’ll save yourself lots of time shopping and wrapping, and you’ll be putting your funds or those unwanted goodies where you feel better about them. And maybe, just maybe, others (perhaps other silently seething spouses) will rally to your side and topple the over-the-top Ghost of Christmas Presents.

Sharing the Guest Room with Santa: For the past couple years, I’ve spent Christmas Eve and Day at my brother’s wife’s parents’ home, who have just one young grandchild from their three grown children. While there is never a single word about Jesus or the original meaning of Christmas, everyone (nine adults) makes a huge fuss to convince the little girl that Santa is coming, that he knows if she’s been bad or good, and that he came down the chimney and left her all these wonderful presents (as well as quite a few presents for everyone else—the same number as if we had each bought one for each other, wink wink). While I’m certainly not religious, I think it’s disgusting to delude this child and even worse to encourage good behavior for the purpose of earning presents, with nothing about any higher values. I’d really like to say something, but I don’t think it would go over very well.

–Chafing Down the Chimney

Dear Chafing,

I’m not clear on what you’d like to say. I don’t think you want to tell them they should put Christ back in Christmas, do you? Is it that you want to announce there’s no Santa Claus, perhaps by slyly asking the child why does she suppose the number of gifts for each person is the same as the number of guests? Or is it that you’d like to instill some thoughts about kindness and generosity and being good for goodness’s sake? Hopefully that’s what you have in mind.

The fact is, you’re an invited guest and peripheral relation who has been welcomed into this family to share their traditions. If you don’t appreciate or enjoy the way they celebrate, don’t accept the invitation. But it would be inappropriate for you to throw a monkey wrench into their happily humming devices.

The child will find out soon enough that (spoiler alert!) there is no Santa Claus, but it’s better if you’re not the one to wise her up. If she were to ask you point-blank if you believe in Santa, try to deflect, e.g., “Why do you ask?” But feel free to seize any opportunity to speak about why it’s important to be good even if you don’t expect a gift-wrapped reward, or that your own conscience is always watching you more closely than Santa ever could. Talk about how fortunate it is to have this occasion for everyone to spend such a nice time together.

Meanwhile, enjoy this family’s delight in doting on their sole child even if the way they do it is not your idea of a good idea. Show them you appreciate their generosity in including you, but not that you frown on their customs, or next year your stocking will contain nothing but a lump of coal.

Joan Reisman-Brill is a writer based in New York City. She received her BA in English literature from the University of Chicago, an MA also in English lit from the University of Michigan, and an MBA in management and marketing from New York University. She has worked in public relations, marketing and myriad facets of writing and editing for nearly four decades. She has been steadily increasingly her humanist identification and activism at an accelerating rate, and while she doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, she welcomes this opportunity to tackle the questions.