Experiential Gifter Heather Greenwood Davis

They love Christmas, and embrace the joys of the season, but it has been five years since Heather Greenwood Davis, her husband, and two boys have exchanged Christmas presents. A life-changing year-long trip around the world in 2011 & 2012 changed this family’s perspective on the excess the holidays bring, and showed that presence is more important than presents — and so they traded the annual focus on gifting for a season of shared experiences. We talked to Davis about the decision to make such a drastic change, and how that decision is being received by family and friends.

What was the Christmas gift turning point for you guys?

When we were planning our round the world trip, it became really obvious that I was not going to be carrying gifts from Toronto, or the kids stockings and everything you’d need to recreate the kids’ usual Christmas at home. We started talking to the kids about the idea that Christmas was going to look differently this year. I realised I felt a lot of relief about it, that we were going to be away over Christmas. I realised it had been stressing me out.

So that year that we were away, for Christmas of 2011, we were in Namibia. There were still Christmas trees and lights everywhere, but no snow obviously, and it was a weird experience. We set out on a game drive, with our goal being to find elephants, which I love. All day we spent looking for them and we couldn’t find them. Then at sundown we came across these elephants. My kids, myself, and husband, we all went nuts. It was an incredible moment, and we shared it together. I remember calling home and talking to my parents and saying we’d had this great day and realising that the only thing I missed about Christmas at home, and the only thing my kids seemed to miss, was that we weren’t with our family. They didn’t even ask about gifts.

So we come back to Canada in 2012 and we’re six months away from Christmas, and we land, and that’s what’s on the TV — “Six months until Christmas, better start your shopping now,” and the ramp-up had begun. I sat my boys down, and at the time they were nine and seven, and basically said to them, “Did you enjoy last Christmas?” “Yes.” “How would you feel if we did something similar to that this year? No, we’re not going back to Africa, but what if we just made a plan and did something really interesting and fun, together instead? And did away with specific Christmas presents?” We had a long conversation about it, but they were on board immediately.

So to make a very long story slightly less long, it was a combination of having had this rich experience while we were away that was gift free, and coming home to a culture that we felt was focussed on consumerism and collecting things.

I think most people wouldn’t feel like their kids would ever be on board with that.

I feel that a lot of what parents do around Christmas is really about ourselves. We want to give the kids things that maybe we didn’t get at Christmas, or we have memories of Christmases where we did get a lot of things and we were really thrilled about it and we want to pass that along. We’re not necessarily recognizing that our kids live in a different world.

As a middle class mother, I’ve been lucky enough to have great jobs and a good income, and my kids get stuff year round. It’s not called a gift per say, but you know sometimes they get a video game, sometime they have some special thing happen at school so they get to buy an extra thing, or whatever it is.

When I was a kid I got a gift on my birthday and at Christmas. I’d go through the Sears catalogue, and I remember ripping things out that I liked, and what have you. And I also remember from that time is that had no one handed me a Sears catalogue there might not have been that many things I wanted. But if you had this big binder in front of you of things that you could possibly have, suddenly you wanted all these things.

How did this go down with your friends and extended family?

The way I presented it to anyone who asked is we’re doing presence with a C instead of presents with a T. We soon realised that we couldn’t just say we don’t want any Christmas presents, we had to say we’re also not sending any Christmas presents out. Because the other big emotion that comes up around Christmas is this feeling of guilt, and there was also this one-up-manship that was happening.

So I had people who, even that first Christmas after me saying, “Listen, we’re not buying you guys anything, don’t buy us anything. If you want to do something for us at Christmas let’s spend some time together”. Presence with a C, not presents with a T, right? “Come on over, bring a bottle of wine, bring something we can eat together — whatever you like, but do not bring us a present to open. Don’t bring us anything that you’re planning to leave behind.” And people would still bring us stuff. They couldn’t just not do it. And I would actually have to say to people you realize now this is about you. If it was about me, I told you what I wanted for Christmas.

Some people thought we were being unfair to the kids. I’ll give you a good example — my dad. My parents really wanted grandkids, and my boys are their first. And then we took them away for a year, and now we’re back and we’re like, “Don’t buy them anything.” They were going nuts. My mother buys them things every day. So it’s really hard for them to wrap their mind around this. And I remember my father, who knows me well enough and knows how stubborn I am, listened to what I said and he was like “Yes, that make sense and I understand why you’re doing that.” He seemed to be onboard, and then he called me a couple of weeks later to confess that he had called my oldest and asked him, “So hey buddy, what do you want for Christmas this year?” My son, who would have been 10 at the time, was like, “You know what grandpa, we talked about it as a family and I don’t think we want to do it that way this year, but maybe I could come sleep over at your house or we could go do this.” At that point my father realised this wasn’t something I sort of pushed on them that it was something we had come to together. Once he knew that he was on board. And the kids will tell you, Christmases are more memorable. We put a lot more focus on spending time with each other.

I honestly like the idea of this, but it is pretty radical.

I’m not standing on a rock pitching to people this is the way Christmas should be for everyone. I’m telling you what works for my family. So if someone is having similar concerns to what I was having, they can adopt any part of it. I know people that just cut back, so they’ve decided to put a limit on the price of gifts. I know people who’ve decided that within their family they won’t exchange gifts, but they still exchange with the extended family. I know people who are taking trips, so they’ll decide as a family where they’ll go every year over the holiday season. Or they’ll plan a family trip later in the year based on the fact that they aren’t spending the kind of money they were spending at Christmas before. So you could adopt any part of it.

How has this changed the holidays for you, Heather?

It has lowered my stress levels and made me enjoy Christmas more. In my experience, gift buying is a mom job. My husband may have been buying a present for us, or for the kids, but really I’m not even sure he was doing that. It was me who had the long, long list. I had a binder one year that would keep track of what I had bought all the little nephews, and nieces, and cousins, and sisters-in-laws, and what have you so that next year I didn’t buy the same thing for the same people. It was stressful, it was another job. And it makes me so happy — I was in the mall the other day for something, and I was like, “Hey, alright, The Christmas tree is up and the crowds are starting — I don’t need to come here again until February. I’m out.”

People are like, “Oh Heather doesn’t celebrate Christmas,” but we REALLY celebrate Christmas. We have a Christmas tree, we decorate the house, we have the carols playing, we go out with people, we have people over. I love the holiday season. We just don’t do gifts. The other rule I have with Christmas, because I can’t control everything and everyone, is if I come to your house at Christmas and you’re doing something, or you’ve got something special lined up with the kids, or what have you, that’s fine.

But the one place that kids sort of receive something on Christmas day is we go to my parents house usually on Christmas eve for dinner and my mother still puts out a stocking. She puts out a stocking for me, and she still puts out a stocking for the kids, and she’ll fill it. There will be the clementine in the toe, and chocolate maybe, and a book, or whatever. Every year my kids leave that stocking there. And they never ask about it. It’s always a matter of my mom calling a few days later and saying, “Hey, the kids forgot their stockings.” I’m like, “They’re not interested. They’re grateful, and it was a nice thing to do, but they’re not interested. You’re doing it for yourself.”

This must save you a fair bit of cash too.

Right, and that’s the thing. Have you heard of Blue Monday? It’s the day when the credit card statements come in that have all the Christmas purchases on it. I think it’s in either January or February. And they’ll announce it on the radio. This is madness. We know there’s a day in three months where we’re going to be depressed about the money we spent? It just makes no sense.

Do you think you’d ever go back to giving gifts?

Every year I ask my kids,”What would you like to do?” And they know at any time they feel strongly that they want to go back to exchanging gifts, or maybe they want to do a Secret Santa, or whatever it is, then we’re open to discussion for that and we can talk about how it happens. They feel like they have control over the holiday, and that’s made a huge difference.

Want to read more about Greenwood-Davis’ around-the-world trip with her family? Check out her site, Globe Trotting Mama, to learn more.

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