Try for a lighter, more meaningful Christmas

Shortly after the Thanksgiving leftovers have been polished off, holiday stress begins its annual escalation.  This year the inevitable pressure to find the perfect holiday gifts seems accentuated, given the supply shortages caused by the ongoing pandemic. 

University of Minnesota professor Joel Waldfogel, who wrote “Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays,” claims that while we are good at knowing what we need and want, figuring that out for other people isn’t so easy. 

Clever ad makers have used this conundrum to drive us to stores or websites with the promise of gifts so perfect you’ll put everyone you know on your list. 

While commercials of little children coming down the stairs on Christmas morning to the sight of a lit-up pine tree with cascades of presents under its lowest branches give my heart a warm tug, the anxiety that accompanies the thought of so many gifts leaves me feeling less than merry.

Oodles of presents are not necessary. Children are equally enraptured, if not more so, with one or two well-chosen gifts. In fact, between the ages 2 and 5, my children often left many wrapped presents under the tree for days, playing instead with the first they’d unwrapped. 

Overbuying simply feeds the cycle of make-sell-buy-discard that loads up landfills more than hearts. So if you can, stop stress-shopping and consider a lighter, more meaningful, giving season. 

For starters, buy local. There are many area artists who have created one-of-a-kind beauties from jewelry to paintings to garden statues. My holiday season never feels complete without a visit to the Don Drumm Gallery on Crouse Street, where the work of over 500 artists is sold. 

You can also consider shopping at companies with charity-based business models. Each year, my sons eagerly anticipate the following:  

Bombas socks, which are incredibly well-made, comfy and cute. For each pair purchased, the company gives a specially designed pair to organizations serving those who are homeless. Win-win giving. 

T-shirts from Out of Print, a company whose merchandise has “iconic book cover artwork and literary references,” and price tags that look like library check-out cards of yore. With a portion of their proceeds, the company donates books and supports literacy programs. 

Logo merchandise from WKSU, our local NPR affiliate, which my boys wear with regional, nerdy pride because “I heard on NPR …” are words one of us says daily. 

Recently, my 25-year-old son, Hugo, happily realized that his childhood education hadn’t been limited to school. “We learned all the time, like, we went to so many museums!” he told me before we waxed on about our favorite. 

And while it may not feel the same as giving a toy, when my children were young I was deeply grateful to receive annual memberships to museums, zoos and science centers, gifts that truly keep on giving for at least 12 months. Most memberships cost close to $100 a year, a prohibitive expense for many young families. 

Finally, as the word “holidays” means “holy days,” helping others seems abundantly appropriate. Each year former New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes an annual giving guide, identifying impactful charities. This year, one of his recommendations particularly resonated with me. 

In 2012, my only daughter was born with Down syndrome, which I often write about. But she also had milky-white pupils. Cataracts. Before she was 2 months old, her lenses were surgically removed. Without those surgeries, she would have been blind. 

One of Kristof’s highlighted charities this year is the Seva Foundation, which restores eyesight to people around the world. A significant portion of their work is removing cataracts with a 15-minute surgery that costs roughly $50 per eye. 

If the gift of eyesight doesn’t resonate with you, that’s OK, many other nonprofits that improve lives in any number of ways also benefit from even small contributions. 

I understand that plenty of people find great joy in going all in on everything Christmas — one my eldest sons’ high school science teachers joyfully installed and decorated over 20 Christmas trees in his house each year. 

Others find great satisfaction in buying gifts — the first time my son Hugo spent Christmas with his girlfriend’s family, he felt like he’d won the present lottery. 

But if holiday gift buying feels like a chore, one you can never get quite right, consider changing the expectations. I’m pretty sure if you do, nobody will be as disappointed as the Madison Avenue ad makers would have you believe.  

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, December 12, 2021.

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