Have you ever felt the urge to pepper spray a fellow shopper so you could secure yourself a discounted Xbox? It’s happened. “Only in America” we love to say, having a cocky chuckle, comforted by the knowledge that we are vastly more laid back and reasonable here in Australia.
But are we?
As Christmas fast approaches and my shopping list magically grows longer rather than shorter as I add in all the people I’d forgotten, such as childcare staff, swimming teachers and neighbours, I wonder if perhaps the accumulation of stuff is sending us mad.
Elbowing people out of the way to save $30 on a dollhouse, or queuing for country miles to fight off the competition for a remote control Batmobile, isn’t really my thing. I’ve turned to online shopping to avoid the crowds, but this has also made me less mindful of the senseless consumerism. At least walking around the shops at Christmas crazy time with arms full of bags and fed-up feet reminds me that perhaps I need to slow down, to cut down, to think of the environment, to think of others less fortunate – not to mention my lounge room floor after the Christmas morning present massacre is over in a spray of paper and annoying plastic wire bits in a total of 15 minutes.
Look, I love a gift as much as the next person. I adore watching my children’s eyes widen to 10 times their natural size when they unwrap a much-longed-for present. I remember that anticipation as a child, when Christmas morning finally came and that bulging stocking beckoned.
But what I don’t love is the packaging that requires commercial-sized bolt cutters to open anything, the paper, the cost, the plastic, and the dirty feeling overconsumption gives you, like when you gorge on fast food, later bemoaning the decision when your stomach is churning.
In recent years, my family has started the idea of 'experience giving'. This is often combined with a physical gift that can be unwrapped – something small and token, because, for a five-year-old, writing on a card doesn’t have quite the same impact as a box and a toy.
My children relish the idea of being taken to a place they don’t visit often, by someone other than their parents. The zoo, the aquarium, the museum, or simply a fish and chips dinner on the beach; for kids, a special day devoted to them is memory-making, and those memories will remain long after the plastic fantastic breaks.
It also teaches them the golden nugget of patience. A gift of experience is something to look forward to, a reason to cross days off the calendar as the excitement grows. For the parent, it’s one less child for a few hours – and that is worth more to me than an award-winning Barbie in a ball gown.
The problem is that experience-giving is time consuming. We need to find a block in our schedules and give the gift of ourselves. Yes, it can be costly if you include food, entry fees and transport, but it doesn’t have to be. And given the cash we part with (or should I say credit, now that we can wave over a screen to pay for things), surely the gift of experience is worth that same money?
Experience-giving is thought provoking. It forces us to think about the person we’re giving to in a way that tangible present giving doesn’t. Naturally you can’t give everyone on your list an ‘experience’, but even cutting down on what we buy – if only to lessen the crap we need to buy storage for later – will make Christmas more meaningful.
We’re a world of intelligent and creative people, and I’m certain we can share our skills. A budding photographer can help other family members learn how to take great photos during an outing to the local bushland or the beach. Someone with an eye for gardening may come and help plan out your landscaping and take you to the nursery to choose some plants. A trip to the mineral springs, just you and your sister, to soak away the year’s stresses? Bliss. A golf game with your brother, followed by lunch and a beer at a nearby watering hole – things we don’t get to do much as we become parents. A stint of babysitting while you send the parents off on a picnic with a basket full of goodies you’ve packed will be a gift long remembered after the food has been digested.
And for the kids, a grandmother who can knit can take a child to a craft shop, buy some special rainbow wool and knitting needles, then teach them to knit a scarf, perhaps baking some scones for afternoon tea. Granddad building a magnificent piece of woodwork with his grandson from some leftover wood scraps, with maybe his own little hammer to take home? Priceless. An aunt taking the niece/nephews to a make-your-own-pottery place, followed by an ice cream, will surely have more impact than a ceramic cat from the $2 shop.
It’s not so much going organic as it is thinking laterally. What I want for my children is individuality – to build upon themselves. To therefore own what every second kid on the block owns isn’t really anything to aspire to. I concede that for children, fitting in and obtaining the ultimate gift they’ve dreamt about is something we can’t ignore. Yet teaching and surprising our children and loved ones with adventures and experiences they didn’t even know they wanted can feel significantly more fulfilling.
In the wise words of Dr Seuss, from How the Grinch Stole Christmas: “Maybe Christmas doesn't come from a store, maybe Christmas perhaps means a little bit more …”