It’s Okay To Not Give Gifts This Year

Photographed by Nicole Maroon.
A few weeks ago, I was chatting with my mom on the phone. It was a casual conversation, catching up on what was up with both of us, as well as other members of our family. When the topic of Christmas came up, though, I felt an immediate shift. My mom became a bit more reserved; was she steeling herself? "How would you feel about not exchanging gifts this year?" she asked. I breathed an enormous sigh of relief. 
It turned out that my mom had been nominated by our other family members to broach this potentially sensitive topic with me. As the youngest, I've always been the one to cling most tightly to our various family traditions, even as my older brother and sister lost interest. I was so adamant about not giving in to the truth about Santa Claus for fear that it would ruin the holiday, that the rest of my family was forced to play along until I was 15. So it's really no surprise that they were nervous about floating the idea of doing away with gifts altogether. But, in 2020, I'm more than ready to throw out every remotely stressful custom — no matter how cherished — in the name of making things a little bit easier. 
I'm not alone in this, and my family isn't the only one to see gift-giving as a nerve-racking pursuit this holiday season. According to a study conducted by Qualtrics on behalf of Credit Karma, 59% of the 1,034 American adults surveyed plan to alter their gift-giving practices this year, with 40% limiting the number of gifts they're purchasing, 36% placing price limits on gifts, 34% striking everyone but family off their lists, 18% refusing to participate in workplace gift exchanges, and 16% not buying gifts for anyone at all. WalletHub's Coronavirus and Holiday Shopping Survey of 1,500 respondents, too, showed that nearly one in three people are foregoing holiday gift exchanges altogether this year due to COVID-19. 
For many, this decision to not exchange gifts was influenced by financial concerns. Fifty-four percent of those surveyed for Credit Karma said they feel more financially stressed about the holidays than they did last year; and 34% said they feel like they're financially unprepared for the holidays, with 50% of them specifying that they are worried about affording gifts. This, of course, makes sense given that the coronavirus pandemic has led to skyrocketing unemployment rates, wide-spread financial insecurity, and a collapsing economy. In the past eight months, many Americans have struggled to cover basic living costs like rent, so participating in Secret Santa gift swaps not only isn't a priority, it isn't even really possible.
Even if you're fortunate enough to have kept your job throughout 2020, there are other reasons you may not want to participate in gift exchanges this year. For some, the pressure to pick out the perfect presents for all their loved ones is a massive burden every year but has only increased in size this year. Dr. Shawn M. Burn, a professor of psychology at California Polytechnic State University and author of Unhealthy Helping: A Psychological Guide to Overcoming Codependence, Enabling, and Other Dysfunctional Giving, writes in Psychology Today, "For empathic people, gift-giving can engender all kinds of time-consuming thought and effort as they anticipate what their gifts may mean to others. Recognizing that some people will see their gifts as love yardsticks ('How do you love me? Let me count the gifts!'), they take great pains to choose the right gift." If that's already something you obsess over every holiday season, it may be simply too much to balance on top of say, homeschooling your kids while working full-time (also at home!) or any of the other anxiety-producing changes you've had to make to your daily life because of the pandemic. 
For me, most of the nervousness I feel about the holiday tradition in 2020 has more to do with receiving gifts than giving them. I've spent the majority of the past eight months inside my small apartment, so every last square inch of space has become more precious than ever. Shortly after shelter-in-place orders took effect in New York City in March, I, like so many others, did a purge of all the unnecessary crap I had in my apartment and made room for new essentials like a small workspace and some exercise equipment. This is not meant as a dig at any of the loved ones in my life who have been kind enough to gift me something over the years, but I have to be honest and admit that a lot of the stuff I got rid of was stocking stuffers, Secret Santa items, and White Elephant winnings. Those types of little presents that you'd never buy for yourself can really start to pile up. So now, the idea of having to bring some tchotchke gifted to me by a well-meaning co-worker or cousin into my home, disrupting the sacred space I've worked hard to make function for my new way of life, well, it sends shivers up my spine. 
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to re-think nearly every aspect of our daily lives, from screen time to wedding celebrations. We're taking time to reconsider all sorts of practices we previously took as givens. For the sake of our sanities, that re-examination should be extended to holiday gift-giving, especially if it's adding anxiety to an already overwhelming year.

More from Living

R29 Original Series