Stop Giving Gifts

Gift-giving is a customary aspect of many holidays, but it is not written in the history of celebration.

Savannah Dennis, Print Editor

Holidays are an intriguing and complex concept. How one is defined and how they are celebrated is unique for every individual on the planet. Some may think that only the 10 federal holidays should be celebrated, while others may take off work and school to set aside time and honor National Artichoke Day every year on March 16th. The ability for holidays to be a choice in what and how we celebrate is part of what makes them so special, but is there a chance that Americans are celebrating holidays wrong?

For each holiday, the common denominator is a chance to be with each other. “I think we all like the idea of the holiday meaning that our day can change,” economics teacher Ben Knight said. “I don’t necessarily have to go to work, I might not have to go to school, so we’re already in a mood that makes us feel kind of like ‘hey this is nice, we can do whatever we want today.’ So I think the idea of the holiday is to give us rest, relaxation, celebrate, think, ponder whatever that might be.”

The National Retail Federation reports that during the 2019 year between the winter holidays, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Halloween, and Independence Day, Americans spent $825.55 billion. With four of the seven major holidays having record-high spending when the data was taken, it is clear that Americans are eager to spend during the holiday seasons more and more each year. Unfortunately, this spending is not simply representing the steadily increasing trends of the market or the prosperity of the average consumer. Rather it is showing the continuing success of business’s abilities to commercialize our holidays and the toxic underlying nature of our beloved holiday spirit.

In a survey conducted by Credit Karma, the truth was exposed that a quarter of Americans expected to go into debt by the end of the 2019 winter holiday season. “The debt in America is just unreal,” Financial Literacy teacher Lexi Shafer said. “It goes to show that people are more focused on what they look like from the outside, what they’re able to provide or look like and that doesn’t match up with their finances. They spend way more than they have on a monthly basis to make sure that they are giving off this appearance that ‘I have achieved the American dream’ even if they are in thousands of dollars of debt.”

With the total consumer debt reaching $14.15 trillion, according to the New York Federal Reserve, it is hard to argue that Americans are making a change to their spending habits. Why would Americans continue to spend when they know it is putting them in debt? “I think there’s a strong pull that if you don’t buy what’s the alternative,” Knight said. “If I don’t buy people stuff then what? So I think there’s some of that maybe social pressure. There’s a peer pressure on us to obviously hold up, whatever the holiday is, to hold up whatever that tradition is around that.”

Showing care for someone is not required in the form of a gift. “We’re obviously having a disconnect, the idea of what’s more important to get a present for somebody than it is to say ‘I’m sorry we can just be together, we can hang out,'” Knight said. “There are lots of other ways that you can show appreciation, it doesn’t have to be in a gift. We’ve definitely got ourselves into that habit.”

Societal pressures play a major role in spending whether it is intentional or not. “I think it comes down to keeping up with the Jones’, especially as parents,” Shafer said. “Parents feel like they need to provide their kids with the toys that the other kids have so that they aren’t left out or they aren’t viewed as poor because they can’t afford what other families can afford. I just don’t think that’s what we should be instilling in our kids is ‘Look at all these things I can give you even when my finances don’t match up.'”

For as long as most of us can remember, whenever a holiday rolls around there is a present waiting for us. “I feel like it’s a social expectation for people to get gifts and give gifts so maybe people don’t do it because they want to, sometimes people do it because they’re pressured to,” Rachel Chen ’21 said.

Americans spent $730.2 billion on the winter holidays in 2019 with their purchases accounting for gifts, decorations, and food for holiday parties. That exceeds the U.S. defense budget. How much is spent is not only a testament to how we celebrate these holidays but it is also a tool for companies and individuals to prey on. “When I was younger it used to be people who got into the stock market,” Knight said. “There were people that would just invest in toy-makers during Christmas and then they would sell their stock afterwards. That has changed because I don’t think people buy toys the way they used to, now everything is more digital.”

So the question remains: what are people really celebrating? Are they celebrating the birth of Jesus, the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and African heritage as the holidays’ roots intend, or is it an opportunity to celebrate Santa Clause, presents, and time off of school and work? This holds with other holidays like Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, and Father’s day. What should be an opportunity to acknowledge our loved ones and parents can easily turn into a day where we give a gift and forget about the day’s intended meaning.

Why do we gift gifts in the first place? Gift-giving is a way to show appreciation but how and why has it become the standard for a majority of common holidays? “There’s other ways that you could show that person that you care for them,” Knight said. “But I do think the way that our society breaks down, I might not have the time so if I don’t have the time to maybe spend with somebody, now what’s the replacement…sometimes the gift becomes the replacement for the thing that people really want and what people really want is to spend quality time together but unfortunately we seem to be stretched too thin on that.”

Rather than continue the habit of buying a gift because that is what has always been done, think about the impact a gift can have on the important people in life. “I think if you buy people gifts it has to be personal, it can’t just be something really generic,” Chen said. “I just feel like people should share their gifts and share their love and if I have the ability to give something to somebody that will make them even remotely happy I’m going to do it because it doesn’t cost me a lot. My friends’ happiness and my family’s happiness is very important to me and there’s nothing that’s better than seeing them so happy when I give them something that’s personal.”

Giving gifts is an opportunity to show someone that you care, not an opportunity to spend thousands and go into debt. “I don’t think you need to spend so much money just to make another person happy,” Chen said. “I just don’t think you need to spend money in order to show somebody that you care and love them and giving someone a gift because you don’t have enough time to spend with them is kind of crappy…If you really miss me then make time for me. You can always make time for somebody, no matter how busy somebody is you can always squeeze in a phone call, something. You don’t need to be putting yourself in debt to please another person.”

It is time for Americans to turn back the clock and concentrate on what holidays are really about. “Regardless, whether you have the money or not, we need to be more focused on spending time with our kids and loving on our kids before giving them gifts,” Shafer said. “I know that’s a hard lesson for kids to learn because of course the shiny, sparkly gift is more appealing and tangible…but I feel like year after year they will start to appreciate that time that you spend with them and the love you give them more than the gifts.”

Our society spends too much time away from the people who matter to us. Holidays at their core are meant to be an opportunity for families to come together and be with each other amidst our busy schedules and celebrate each other. Some holidays may also remind us to recognize an important event or figure in our religion but first and foremost we should recognize the people around us. No longer should we allow ourselves to use billions of dollars as a replacement for a couple of hours with our loved ones. Holidays and gifts are not inherently bad but with millions of Americans in debt, it is time to make a change and focus on what matters most: time spent with each other.