Rethinking your Christmas gift-giving

Perhaps you’re a minimalist and don’t want to give your kid a stockingful of junk. Or perhaps you celebrate Christmas for Christ, and are uneasy with the religious observance and crass consumerism combo. Or perhaps you’re just plain old – the average Kiwi household spent more than $1000 on Christmas last year, which is a decent chunk of change.

There are dozens of reasons why parents think of gift-giving with a shudder. Mother-of-four Sarah Tennant has come up with ways to tweak the process and alleviate the stress.

Something for everyone

Wellington mum Maria McDonald was raised in a family that didn’t ‘do’ Christmas presents. Carols, yes; Christmas dinner, yes; just no gifts. Maria was sufficiently un-traumatised by the experience to continue the tradition with her own children, but she did find it awkward as a child when friends asked what she got for Christmas. So the family started choosing gifts or activities to do all together – buying a tent or going away for a holiday – and calling that their Christmas gift.

Whole-family gifts are an excellent way to buy something long-lasting or memorable – a board game, a kayak, a swimming pool, even a dog. Think back on how many individual presents ended up being a whole bunch of nothing – it might be a good deal!


‘Buy experiences, not things’ is a minimalist cliche, but it’s still good advice. ‘Experience’ presents can be fantastic – think ballet lessons, theatre passes, indoor rock-climbing vouchers, even tickets to a theme park. Last Christmas I gave my kids concession cards to the local swimming pool – ten trips each. They were thrilled, and apparently never suspected it was all part of a plot to teach them to swim!

The best thing about ‘experience’ presents is that they can be expensive enough to satisfy the generous urges of grandparents, who are often the worst offenders when it comes to giant plastic beeping, flashing toys. If you can head them off in the direction of a zoo membership, there’ll be happiness all round.


We all want to raise grateful, non-greedy children. And we all tend to feel irrationally surprised and hurt when presenting them with a large pile of gifts turns them instead into a hybrid of Smaug, Scrooge McDuck and a particularly brutal Amazon reviewer.

One solution is to focus on the joy of giving, not getting. Slightly older children can be given a budget and gentle guidance; young children might need a firm prompt along the lines of “Here, let’s buy this for you to give Daddy and put it up high so you don’t eat it”. Secret-keeping probably won’t happen. This is OK.

Another way to encourage generosity is to sign up for a fill-a-shoebox charitable program, or to donate a child’s curent toys to kids in need. Beware the latter, though – the difference between donating and decluttering is easily lost on a small child. I’ve had to repeatedly inform my kids that “I don’t want it any more” does not necessarily equal “this is a gift someone else would be glad to get”!

The most sure-fire way to get kids excited about giving, of course, is to get then to hand-make presents. What this eliminates in functionality and aesthetics on the part of the gift, it makes up for in sentimental value – or, at least, disposability.

Buy Ahead

Well, it’s a little late for this year. But next year, set a monthly reminder on your smartphone or calendar to buy Christmas presents. It will prompt you to keep an eye out at sales and think of things your kids will actually want. At the very least, hopefully it will remind you to buy online gifts in time for them to ship to New Zealand!

Actually, we Kiwis are already pretty good at planning ahead. A 2017 MasterCard poll found that around a third of Kiwis buy their Christmas presents throughout the year – in fact, we prefer to have our Christmas shopping done by October 31! Another third of us save up money all year to spend on presents in December.

Set expectations

With Christmas as with conflict, the trick is not to escalate. Remember: this year’s unusually lavish Christmas is next year’s benchmark to beat. Having some kind of permanent and concrete guidelines, like “two presents each” or “a $40 budget per kid”, protects you from one-upping yourself into bankruptcy.

It doesn’t hurt to tell the children about them, either. Obnoxious-sounding questions like “Is that the last one?” often come from a child who isn’t greedy, just inexperienced at Christmas and anxious to know what’s going on. Setting expectations can help prevent social disaster.

As a parent, though, it’s perhaps even more important that you keep your expectations realistic – not in terms of presents, but in terms of the kind of glowing, wholesome apple-cheeked Christmas-card bliss you might hope from the present-opening.

Things will go wrong. A price tag will be left on. An aunt will swoop down on discarded wrapping paper with the zeal of a turkey vulture. A toddler will claim noisy ownership of her cousin’s toy. An eight-year-old will give a sickly smile of thanks that fools no-one. Grandma will visibly disapprove of the child who rips into the package while ignoring the card.

In short, it will all be a tad dysfunctional and neurotic, because giving gifts is always complicated. Don’t worry; it’s been that way ever since Joseph scratched his head at the myrrh and wondered if the Wise Men had kept the receipt.



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