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Mom Talk: How We Committed to A No Gifts Christmas

Written by Ria Faust

Photography by Ralph Hilario

For parents striving to be minimal and thoughtful with their consumption, the holidays can be tough. While you might hate Frozen-themed toys, and feel there couldn’t possibly be a need for more LEGOs in the house, the look of joy on a child’s face when they unwrap a wished-for gift is a tough feeling to beat. But as mama Ria Faust shows us in today’s Mom Talk, there is another way. She made the commitment to a “no gifts Christmas,” and opted instead to travel with her 6-year-old daughter and their extended family. While gifting was a hard habit to break (especially for grandma) it ended up being easier than she anticipated. So, for all those no-gift-curious parents out there, this is for you. And if you have gone gift-free yourself, please tell us about it in the comments below! 

“We talked it over and agreed that it would be nice to do no gifts this Christmas since we are taking a trip. We’d rather just spend time together.” That was the message I delivered to my mama, aunts, and uncles. No response.

I am the oldest of six kids in our family. When we were growing up in the Philippines, Christmas was a big deal. There was a lot of excitement finding gifts under the tree with our names on the tags. I remember the anticipation of waiting day after day until we were finally allowed to open them on Christmas. Our mama gave each of us multiple presents. Gifting was what we knew.

As little kids, my siblings and I picked up the tradition and gave each other and mama homemade Christmas gifts. After we got our first jobs, we exchanged store-bought gifts. Then when the family count grew to double digits with partners, we transitioned to Secret Santa to simplify. We stuck with Secret Santa even after we had kids. However, our kids were not part of Secret Santa and still received presents from each aunt, uncle, and grandma.

I first tried no-gifting when my daughter Amelia turned one. She was too young to want things for herself and would not miss gifts. A benefit to her early January birthday is its proximity to the holidays, which many people have off work, making trips a possibility. My husband has a lot of family in Oahu, so we decided to celebrate Amelia’s first birthday in North Shore. My family from California and Washington joined the trip because our wanderlust is genetic. When I sent invitations, I requested no-gifts because the trip was already a lot. However, if anyone wished to paint a picture, write a poem, or sing a song for Amelia, we would be delighted. One of the best gifts from that first birthday party was when our niece Laura sang an original song for Amelia with a ukulele, accompanied by her mom Terri on maraca and her dad Bill on guitar. It went something like this, “She’s only one, one, one…Amelia’s having birthday fun, fun, fun…All the time in the sun, sun, sun.” The song was a party hit and everyone sang it for days after. The no-gifts practice stretches our family’s creativity and have given us so many great memories.

Toys are a simple way to deliver joy, and there are so many beautiful and clever ones these days. I have bought plenty over the years for Amelia’s birthdays, Christmases, and, sometimes, no reason at all. It quickly started to feel like too much. There were too many toys in our too-small house. It made our home feel tight and stressful. After a massive home edit, I ended up donating a lot of toys, which made me feel guilty, but much lighter afterwards.

I also edited Amelia’s wish list to contain fewer things and more experiences, such as an annual pass to a kids’ museum, ticket to a musical, afternoon tea, paint-your-own pottery session, and money for her savings. It wasn’t a no-gifting practice. There were still gifts, but they were not more things to fill the house. They encouraged going out and doing rather than staying in and collecting. It was the transition to no-gifting.

A year ago, 17 of us traveled to Manila to attend a wedding and celebrate the holidays. We committed to that month-long trip over a year in advance. I decided to add Australia to my itinerary because I have never been and always wanted to go. I told my immediate family about Australia and they began to make their arrangements, too. Once mama knew, it was as good as an announcement. She told my Manila-based aunts, uncles, and cousins, who decided to join, as well. If there is one thing my family agrees on, it is travel. It was this trip that inspired me to finally give up Christmas gifts for myself, my husband, and our daughter.

Before the Christmas retail season began last year, I emailed my sisters and brothers and asked what they thought of a no-gifts Christmas. Everyone agreed. I knew they would be an easy sell since we have been doing it on and off for a few years. Then I emailed our cousins in Manila and asked what they thought of no-gifting. As expected, they were for it, as well. Then they volunteered me as tribute to inform our parents.

Through the family group chat, I told everyone that the family trip to Australia was an incredible gift already. We do not need gifts under the tree, too. After a week of radio silence, I realized that we would find out only on Christmas morning whether they’d heed the no-gifts request. Unlike booking travel, open communication is not our strong suit.

I did not present the no-gifts idea to Amelia last year. None of us told the kids about it. It was incredibly hectic before the trip and we had no time to tell them. And like I mentioned, our communication needs improvement. Mostly we thought they would not notice, and we were right! It was also hectic once we got to Manila. Most of us stayed in the same house. Of course, the kids loved it. They played together from waking to bedtime. Then there were wedding events, museum trips, a farm visit, a pottery-making lesson, and family reunions. There was little opportunity to wonder about gifts under the tree.

The morning of December 25th came. It was a Christmas miracle: everyone heard what we were asking for and went along with the no-gifts request. We were in sync. Well, everyone except for mama, who gifted each grandchild a toy. We told the kids about Sydney and Byron Bay and built up the excitement by reading books and learning about Australia.

Once we arrived in Australia it felt like a vacation. It felt like the best present. Seventeen of us from the U.S. and Manila took the trip together. On New Year’s Eve we ate and hung out at Coogee Pavilion. Ten minutes before midnight we walked across the street to Coogee Beach, laid down our blankets, and watched the fireworks. It was uncrowded, free, and the most chill New Year’s Eve we ever had. Then we went to Byron Bay, where we celebrated Amelia’s birthday with cake, spent every day at the beach, kayaked with dolphins, surfed, and relaxed.

This year my brothers and sisters already agreed to do no-gifting again. We plan to gather at our mama’s house, take the kids to a Nutcracker marionette show, go to an amusement park, and ice skate. Two weeks of the gift of time. Our mama is an indulgent shopper whose love language is gifting. It remains to be seen whether she will get with the program this year. Either way she will be spending time with all of us, and that is a gift to us.

This essay was originally published on November 29, 2019. Ria’s tradition of a no-gifts Christmas still remains intact!

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  1. Ricci says...

    Very timely article for the season.

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