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No gifts, please! New Yorkers opting out of yearly present exchange

Some New Yorkers are opting out of gift

Some New Yorkers are opting out of gift giving. Photo Credit: iStock by Getty Images

So long, Santa Claus!

Some New Yorkers spurn all shopping for Christmas and Hanukkah, having made "no gift" pacts with loved ones.

"No gift proliferation treaties" are often initiated by super busy women (those would be the people who do most family shopping) who have reassessed their priorities and determined that the presence of loved ones trumps holiday "presents." They may be irreligious, or irked to have holidays they consider sacred hijacked by crass commercialism.

Chris Rock lampooned the gift-giving frenzy in his SNL monologue on Nov. 1, noting that America turned Jesus's birthday "into the most materialistic day of the year! ... It's a whole season of materialism!"

Some time-pressed and space-constrained New Yorkers say they loathe unnecessary, obligatory shopping and the ritual of a "transactional exchange" followed by the time-suck of returning wrong-sized clothes or unwanted gadgets. They are also motivated by environmental concerns.

"I hate the thought of all that junk going into landfills," said Tami Hausman, who decries holiday shopping as, "expensive, stressful, and just unnecessary."

Hausman, who is in her 40s, lives in Greenwich Village and owns an architectural public relations agency, honors the holidays by putting up lights, volunteering at a soup kitchen, meeting loved ones for drinks and dinners and donating "to good causes throughout the year."

"Gifts are stressful. They're stressful by nature! They're supposed to be stressful," said Dan Lainer-Vos, an assistant professor of sociology who studies gift giving in different cultures.

Opportunities for insult abound in the annual gift giving gauntlet: Does perfume mean the giver thinks you don't smell good? Does a gift card signal you're lazy? And if your gift is judged inadequate or tacky by the recipient, "you're shaming yourself," said Lainer-Vos.

Exactly, said Sheila O'Connor, 50, of Hell's Kitchen, who said she has "a 'no-gift pact' with my partner," as well as her four siblings.

The endless search for a perfect present under deadline "seems silly. You go through all this effort to think of something someone is going to want," while the possibility of guessing wrong and disappointing the recipient looms, she said.

It's much more relaxing and rejuvenating "to drop the shopping and enjoy the downtime from work," said O'Connor, a fundraising director for a nonprofit. She and her partner forego tchotchke swaps and plan trips together instead.

They are in good company: A 2013 report commissioned by American Express revealed 72% of respondents prefer spending their money on "experiences" instead of "things."

"I made the decision to request total cessation" of gifts "because I am not religious, I don't have kids, and I don't believe that adults need to give each other gifts," said Ellen Jovin, an Upper West Sider, writer and co-founder of the communication skills company Syntaxis. "At 49, I know what I need, I can buy it myself if it's something I really want, and I am a dedicated non-accumulator of stuff," she said.

The "no gifts" movement is modest in size and doesn't seem to yet threaten profits: The average American plans to spend $804.42 on gifts this holiday season -- up almost 5% over last year's spending of $767.27, according to a survey commissioned by the National Retail Federation.

And even the most ardent of materialism's mutineers said they still give holiday tips to service workers and often wind up buying for children and/or elderly relatives resistant to altering holiday habits. O'Connor, for example, relented in the case of her mother, who is "really into Christmas" and wouldn't hear of a gift veto.

"I get her a gift and she gives me a gift -- an ugly sweater -- and I say, 'thank you very much: I love it,'" O'Connor sighed.

An alternate holiday, "Buy Nothing Day" -- observed the day after Thanksgiving -- began by activists more than 20 years ago and has gradually morphed into "Buy Nothing Christmas" for many independent thinkers, said Kalle Lasn, editor-in-chief of, a site devoted to a sustainable future.

Advocates of gift sanctions say "'let's spend some time with each other and share human solidarity instead of a monetary exchange.' It turns out they're having much more profound experiences," by sharing hikes, walks, games and meals than material gifts, Lasn said.

Mutineers against materialism "really enjoy it, because it reminds them of the holidays they celebrated many years ago before consumerism hijacked Christmas," Lasn continued. The movement has support in both the secular and religious world, he added, noting, "the frugality and simplicity ethic is at the heart of every religion."

A pragmatic thriftiness is driving a re-evaluation of holiday spending habits for some Americans, added Herb Sorensen, owner and president of Middle class people "just don't have the disposable income they had in the past," are more deliberate and cautious spenders, especially if they live in urban centers where housing costs gobble up their take-home pay, he noted.

Anyone contemplating an overthrow of gift-giving traditions in their families is advised to have a frank and candid discussion with everyone on the gift list to prevent misunderstandings and injured feelings.

The gift-giving ritual is an ancient tradition that cements, celebrates, creates and maintains social relations. Failing to observe a social convention that some hold dear can have disastrous consequences.

"If you want proof, think of a situation where you were expecting a gift and didn't get one," suggested Lainer-Vos.

Lainer-Vos was not thrilled to hear about New Yorkers opting to forego gift rituals, positing that the trend was perhaps one more indication that "urbanization contributes to social isolation."

But Jovin insisted "my sense of the holiday is not a curmudgeonly one! What I find depressing and unholiday like is seeing people stuffing themselves as fast as they can (on Thanksgiving) so they can go shopping!" That, she said, "does not honor the idea of the holidays at all."


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