The Humanist Dilemma: How Can a Minimalist Avoid All the Gift Exchanges this Time of Year?

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Holiday Gifting Grief: As a humanist, I’m not into the whole Christmas-present mania, but year after year I find myself roped into it nonetheless. At the office we do a grab bag thing where we each purchase one small gift and play a game where other people can take the gift someone else opened. It’s not expensive or onerous, but it takes a lot of time, there’s a lot of conflict about the rules, and I have to fake my good will. My extended family includes many Christians who take gift exchanging very seriously. In the past I have asked to be excluded, but I know everyone will get me gifts anyhow, so I feel obliged to do the same. Most other groups I belong to (book club, volunteer gigs, etc.) also do some kind of gift exchange.

This really oppresses and depresses me (as well as my bank account, as I rarely receive anything I want or need). Is there anything I can do to break the cycle?

—‘Tis Better Not to Give or Receive

Dear Better,

I’ve been in this situation many times over the years. Coming from a Jewish background, where Hanukah presents were largely limited to children in the immediate family, I didn’t have an ingrained gift-giving tradition of my own, but encountered one as I acquired Christian friends and relatives. Years ago, after telling people I preferred not to exchange gifts, I just made a firm, clear announcement that I really wasn’t doing it and followed through—and no one gave me anything, nor expected anything in return. But I may have unusually cooperative friends and relatives. Nonetheless, if you try this and get some unwanted gifts one year, I’ll bet you get fewer each successive year if you stick to your guns and remind people you have opted out. (I suspect it’s better to graciously accept gifts, with thanks and an apology that you have nothing to give in return, rather than refuse them, which may seem offensive. Some people love to give regardless, and those who don’t will remember not to get you anything next year.)

When it comes to group grab bags and secret Santas and such, when the discussion has come up about what we’re doing this year, I’ve chimed in with, “I for one would rather skip the gift exchange and just have a nice party where everyone brings some food or beverage to share.” I’ve found there are others who’ve been harboring the same thoughts but just never spoke up—until I did. In some cases the majority agreed and the giving was ended. In other cases it has limped along, but usually on a minimal level.

I know some people feel I’ve been a wet blanket about a tradition they cherish. But I have found that when people participate, there can be a lot of hard feelings about who gives the wrong kind of gifts (too practical, frivolous, expensive, cheap, weird, ordinary, whatever), so there’s no pleasing everyone no matter what. And if I’m in a group that opts to keep it going, I will do my best to be a good sport and gently try again next year.

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s best not to link your aversion to holiday gift-giving with your humanist/atheist status, as that makes us nonbelievers seem like Scrooges and party poopers. Better to position it as an aversion to the commercialization of holidays—consumerism gone wild—and an acknowledgement that people are overwhelmed with holiday obligations, so it’s a mercy to dispense with those that aren’t really necessary. Although you might lose a few points with some people, you may gain with others. Just be careful to tread lightly where your lack of “holiday spirit” could jeopardize your job or relationships that are important to you.