The Real Gift of the Holidays

Tomorrow, a lot of people all around the world will be celebrating Christmas. Many other people celebrate other holidays around this time of the year depending on their own cultural and religious traditions.

One big thing that all of those celebrations have in common is that they’re usually centered – in theory – around family and friends. We’re encouraged to come together, spend time with people that we love and care about, and enjoy some time together.

The thing is, for too many of us, that translates into trying to create some kind of perfect holiday. We try to make the perfect meal. We try to find the perfect gift and give it in the perfect way, with perfect wrapping paper.

Whenever you try for perfection, though, you always fall short. Even worse, you’ve usually sunk tons of time and energy and money into achieving that perfection, leaving you drained and anxious.

There’s a reason that many families end up fighting during the holidays. It’s not that they don’t love each other. It’s that they’re so frazzled from the stress and worry of all of the preparations and spending that they blow up at each other.

I witnessed this in my own family many times, particularly when I was younger. A bunch of wonderful, well-meaning people, frazzled by the holidays and often with a person or two having had a couple too many drinks, watched as the dreams of a perfect Christmas became a little less than perfect and allowed the stress of the season to get the better of them.

Here’s the thing, though: the real value of the holidays comes from spending time with each other. It doesn’t have anything to do with the perfect gift or the perfect meal or the perfect event. None of that matters, not even a little bit.

In fact, there’s some science actually backing up that assertion.

First of all, people often seek out how to give the perfect gift or the perfect meal, not for the people enjoying the gift or the meal, but for themselves. There is a large oxytocin and dopamine release that people feel when they strive to give that perfect gift and imagine that perfect reaction. It’s not as much about making the recipient feel good than making the giver feel good.

Even more than that, most gifts are actually worth less to the recipient than their actual value, particularly when looking at gifts that adults receive. As is described in this great article from Joel Waldfogel, the problem of gift giving in the traditional “buy something for someone” sense is summed up really well:

When economists comment on holiday gift giving, it is usually to condone the healthy effect of spending on the macro-economy. However, an important feature of gift giving is that consumption choices are made by someone other than the final consumer. A potentially important microeconomic aspect of gift giving is that gifts may be mismatched with the recipients’ preferences. In the standard microeconomic framework of consumer choice, the best a gift-giver can do with, say, $10 is to duplicate the choice that the recipient would have made. While it is possible for a giver to choose a gift which the recipient ultimately values above its price – for example, if the recipient is not perfectly informed – it is more likely that the gift will leave the recipient worse off than if she had made her own consumption choice with an equal amount of cash. In short, gift giving is a potential source of deadweight loss.

In other words, if you look at just the gifts alone, the recipient would be better off almost every time with just the equivalent amount of cash. (People do try hard to exploit the idea that the giver is more informed than the receiver and thus can give a better gift than the receiver can find, but that’s really hard in the age of the internet.)

The same is essentially true of a holiday meal. The host is essentially giving a certain value to all of the guests, but if you gave that in cash instead of a meal, many guests would use it on different foods or something else entirely.

What’s the point, then? Am I just pooh poohing all over the traditional holiday celebration?

No, the point I’m making is that the value of the holidays doesn’t come from the gifts and the meals, it comes from the people and the interactions. The people and the interactions should come first, with the meal and the gifts as afterthoughts. Think about it – if it were just meals and gifts, what would be the point?

So, I’m going to make a few humble proposals for the rest of the holiday season. Many people are loathe to just abandon their plans for the season, the gifts and the meals that they’ve already selected, just because of the suggestions of some guy off of the internet, so I’m going to suggest just a few tweaks that will make the holiday season that much better without spending any cash and maybe even saving a few dollars.

Holiday Suggestion #1: When Choosing Between Preparing Something or Spending Time with People, Spend Time with People

It is always far better to have a slightly less perfect holiday meal or a slightly less perfectly wrapped present in exchange for another ten or fifteen minutes spent with family and friends. A meal is a meal – a good one, perhaps, but you can fill your belly any time. Time spent with family and friends cannot be so easily substituted or replaced.

More specifically, prepare as much as humanly possible before guests appear. Have lots of dishes mostly finished and in the fridge so all you have to do is pull them out according to your schedule and put them on the stovetop or the oven. Don’t hesitate to wrap gifts quickly, either – perfectly pinched corners aren’t going to be noticed much at all when gifts are opened. I’d far rather have ten minutes sitting around talking with someone I love and a gift that looks like it was wrapped by a drunken T-rex than ten minutes less and a perfectly-wrapped box.

Think about all of those little last minute details you’re worried about. Do they really amount to anything? Drop the ones that don’t matter and try to do as many of the others as far in advance as you can, including prepping the big meal in advance as much as possible the day beforehand.

Obviously, doing this allows you to spend more time with family, but it’s also a bit of a money-saver, too. You can figure out pretty quickly if you’re missing any key ingredients, for instance, so that you can easily pick them up the day before instead of dropping into panic mode on that day.

Holiday Suggestion #2: If You Must Prepare Something, Ask People to Help You

Still, you’re likely going to have to prepare something when guests are present, so when you do that, ask for some help. The purpose isn’t that you need the help, but that you want someone to be nearby to talk to and interact with.

This serves a couple of purposes. First of all, it means that you get to spend a little less time in the kitchen. If you have someone who can help you move things in and out of the oven or the refrigerator, then you’re going to be able to get in and out of there quicker. Second, it actually serves as a pretty good way to bond with someone. That kitchen situation turns into a great opportunity for conversation.

This tip seems obvious, sure, but it really matches up well with a more “people-oriented” perspective on the holiday season. Don’t just go into the kitchen alone while all the guests are together in another room. Bring a person or two with you and keep the connection going.

Holiday Suggestion #3: Do Things That They Enjoy

Different people tend to have different interests and ideas about how to spend a holiday together. Some play cards or other games. Some watch television or throw in a movie. Still others open a bottle of wine and sit around and talk. Yet others find something outdoors to do.

Time and time again, the one thing I’ve found that makes a holiday event great is just putting down my own barriers and doing what someone else is interested in doing. If someone wants to go outside and shoot at targets, I’ll go along even though I’m not much into shooting. If someone wants to watch a movie, I’ll watch it with them. If someone wants to play a game… wait, that one’s usually me. If people just want to sit around and chat while polishing off a couple bottles of wine, I’m down for that, too.

Those aren’t necessarily the things that I would choose on my own. They might not seem exciting to me in the abstract. But what I’ve learned is that there are few better ways to have fun and bond with someone than to put your guard down and just try something that someone else really wants to do.

Holiday Suggestion #4: Have a Backup Plan for the Key Things

This one is a time and stress and, yes, a money saver too. Think about the five or so most important things that you’re going to want to have on that big day. Is it some key part of the meal? Maybe it’s a handful of roasted chestnuts that always makes Uncle Earl smile.

Whatever it is, have a backup for that thing. If your meal centers around a perfectly-cooked ham, have a pre-cooked ham in the freezer – or even thawed out – just in case things go awry. You can always eat it later. If you always have a particular treat on hand for people, make a double batch and put the extras aside. If you really value making sure that everyone has a gift to open, buy a few extra gifts and stow them away somewhere, and choose things you’d probably use yourself. (Honestly, I use batches of pocket notebooks for this because I’ll use them anyway.)

Practical backup items like these are good because they can rescue a big element of a holiday from going into complete disaster mode. If they’re practical, though, that means you can use them later on yourself. A wrapped up package of pocket notebooks might never be opened, but you can open them and use them yourself. A ham in the freezer might never need to be heated, but you can heat it and cut it up yourself later on for a multitude of meals.

Covering worst case scenarios with practical solutions that can be used elsewhere makes every event go by much easier without much additional real cost and with a lot less stress and potential for outright disaster.

Holiday Suggestion #5: If Something Doesn’t Turn Out Right, Shrug It Off and Go with the Backup

I have seen people melt down before when a holiday plan didn’t turn out quite right. One holiday, the meal was quite late because the main course needed far more preparation time than the hosts had planned for and by the time the food made it to the table, many of the guests were intoxicated and a bit combative. I have seen a host burst into tears because they didn’t have a gift for an unexpected but much desired guest.

If something like this happens, just shrug it off. Look for a backup and move to it quickly or just dump the whole thing and move on with life. Getting upset because things didn’t go perfectly means that things go from still being great to things being rather negative.

Just shrug off the disasters. Don’t try to come up with some expensive emergency solution. Don’t have an emotional breakdown because your plan didn’t pay off. Almost no one besides you is really bothered too much by the disaster – if anything, it’s probably going to be a source for a fun memory that people will laugh about in future years. Just roll with it.

Holiday Suggestion #6: If You Have Minor Errands, Enlist Older Children and Teenagers

Older children and teenagers often feel stuck in between the children and the adults when it comes to the holidays. The result most of the time is that they sit around feeling awkward and out of place and even bored.

You can usually find people in this group by looking around. What kids between the age of eleven and, say, twenty four or so are just sitting around looking bored or just twiddling on their phones? Those are the ones who don’t feel like they quite fit in yet, so help them fit in.

The best solution for this I’ve found – and it’s a great way to bond with people in that group – is to give them a minor responsibility for getting ready. Have them set the table or get out silverware or clear the table or something like that. Treat it as though you simply think they’re responsible enough to handle it (even if you’re not 100% sure they are).

Sure, sometimes it won’t go perfectly, but that’s not entirely the point of doing this. The point is to make them feel welcome and a part of the family instead of feeling like an uncertain person stuck between childhood and adulthood. Plus, it can save you some time in the kitchen and dining room to boot and cut back on the stress of getting everything done.

Holiday Suggestion #7: Avoid Verbal Conflicts

Eventually, someone is going to say something that gets your goat, particularly in these politically polarizing times. Someone might say something that tramples some deeply-held belief of yours and you feel deeply offended and deeply compelled to respond.

Don’t. No one wins when you do that. You’re not going to convince Uncle Earl that his viewpoints are flat out wrong and against everything good people everywhere stand for, no matter how great your comeback is. All you’re going to do is make half of the room less comfortable and add to everyone’s stress level, which doesn’t make the holiday celebration any better for anyone.

Just bite your tongue. If you’re really upset, leave the room for a bit to “check on the food” or “check on what the kids are up to in the back bedroom.” Get out of there and vent to yourself if needed, but don’t give into a verbal conflict. It’s a sure fire way to put a damper on a great day.

Holiday Suggestion #8: Skip the Homemade on a Few Items

Rather than worrying about how you’re going to pull off seven different homemade things in the next few days, focus instead on just making two of them. Put aside the ingredients for the other five. Instead, on your way home, just pick up some simple substitutes for those things that are pre-made or are much easier variants.

The thing is, most people will really only remember one or two things about any great holiday. It’s the “peak-end rule” in action, which is a known psychological phenomenon in which people remember only the peak moment and the feeling they had at the end of any event. So, just make one dish really well and have it be the centerpiece and don’t worry about the others.

As for the “end” part of the “peak-end rule,” focus on simply making the day pleasant and enjoyable. No one is really going to care about how fluffy your mashed potatoes are. They will care, though, that you’re spending more time with everyone. So put down the ricer and spend more time in the living room.

What about the unused ingredients? Most of that stuff can be frozen or put aside for other uses in the coming year. It doesn’t have to be part of your “perfect” holiday.

The Money and the Meaning

The purpose of all of these suggestions is very singular: it’s all about re-establishing the holiday season as being centered around people rather than stuff. In the end, the gifts truly are secondary when it comes to the holiday season.

Make this a holiday season that’s centered around the people in your life, and then keep that in your heart. Over the next year, focus on making your holiday traditions center around people rather than things. Make homemade gifts rather than buying the “perfect” present at the store, or forego gift giving entirely. You can achieve those things by having a frank talk about holiday expectations with your family at a different point in the year. Plan and prepare a simple and delicious meal rather than a “perfect” holiday dinner.

The goal of all of those things is simply to spend less money and time on the elements of the holiday season that don’t really matter. Then, because you’re under less stress about the whole thing and your time demands are smaller, you can spend more of the holidays without money and time stress and actually spending time with the people you care the most about.

If that’s not much closer to the true meaning of the season, I don’t know what is.

If you’re celebrating holidays over the next several days with family and friends, keep some of these things in mind. If you’re hosting, don’t worry about everything and let some of the minor stuff go. Find some simple substitutes and try to minimize the time in the kitchen and maximize the time with others. Enlist helpers, particularly anyone who seems to be sitting around uninvolved. If you’re not hosting, bring something to help and offer your assistance to the host or hostess. In either case, avoid verbal conflicts and if you find that you tend to get hot-headed after a few drinks, limit your intake. Those simple steps will make a holiday much better and set the stage for holidays with even lower stress in the future.

Merry Christmas and a happy holiday season to all!

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