5 Ways To Do A Present-Free Holiday This Year

Pass on the presents, and try these creative traditions instead.

November 17, 2016
gingerbread cookies

In those old-timey holiday movies, folks would gather 'round the fire and exchange homemade sweaters, simple toys, or even a bag of oranges. Each recipient would get one gift, and everyone was merry.

Needless to say, real life in the 21st century is a little more complicated. The hunt for the perfect gift can be exhausting (why do none of these stores have the perfume on her list?!), and expensive (curses, ridiculous shipping costs!). Throw in our natural inclination toward excess (he can’t just open one thing!), and it’s easy to see why some people would opt to pass on presents altogether. And as you load up your cart, you might even dream about being one of them. Skipping the paper, packages, and bows would make things so simple! But what would you do to make the holiday feel, well, special?

Turns out, there are plenty of cool, creative alternatives. Here are five family-tested traditions to try instead.

(Find seasonal recipes, inspiring imagery, and gardening tips every day inside the Rodale’s Organic Life 2017 Calendar!)

christmas gift
1/5 Jeanette Dietl/shutterstock
Do A Secret Santa For Charity

Making a donation instead of giving a present isn’t a new idea. To put a fun spin on it, Beth Becher and her family do Secret Santa-style donations. Each family member gets assigned a secret recipient, and then donates to a charity or a cause that they think the recipient would like. When everyone gathers for the holiday, each recipient gets some kind of clue about the charity they donated to (like a short poem or a drawing). Then, they have to guess who made the donation in their name.

Becher’s 2-year-old daughter and young niece and nephew haven’t quite reached the point where they’re excited about charitable donations. So for now, the kids still get physical presents. “I make sure it’s something they really need, like a backpack or new shoes. Or an experiential gift, like a membership to a museum,” Becher says. “So I’m not gifting junk that ends up in the garbage.”

Related: How To Tell Your Family You Don't Want Any Presents This Year

family vacation at the beach
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Put The Funds Towards A Family Vacation

Because the experience—along with the anticipation before and the memories after—are worth infinitely more than a new scarf or TV. When Nadine Perry was raising her two daughters as a single mom, she skipped presents in lieu of a trip. “I always announced our destination at Thanksgiving dinner,” she says. Usually, they’d head somewhere warm like the Bahamas or Jamaica to escape the frigid winters where they lived in Newtown, CT.

Perhaps surprisingly, the girls never gave much pushback about not getting presents. “They did their chores, received allowance, and were able to purchase small things. They understood from an early age that I wasn’t into consumerism and never overdid it on any holiday,” Perry says.

Related: 10 Secrets Hotel Employees Won't Tell You

wrapped christmas present
3/5 Teodora D/shutterstock
Bequeath Your Books

One of the most rewarding things about reading a great book is sharing it with someone else. Rather than swap the usual gift cards and trinkets, invite everyone in your family to wrap up a book they bought and loved that year. Stick all the books in an anonymous pile and let each person pick one. (Trades, of course, are encouraged.) In the end, guess who gave each book.

“It’s such a fun game because we get to talk about the books we love and find out new things about each other,” says Mihaela Akers, who lives in Brooklyn. Her family traded regular presents for a book swap a few years ago, and they haven’t looked back. “We all realized we had been wasting money on objects. So when I mentioned using books instead, everyone was immediately on board,” she says.

Related: 7 Ways To Regift Graciously

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Do A Casserole Swap

Katie DeCicco of Centennial, CO, swaps homemade casseroles with eight of her closest friends and family members. “As we’ve gotten older, we don’t need ‘things’ and the things we need, we can get for ourselves. A night free of cooking is our present to each other,” she says.

Single-use aluminum pans make casserole swaps easy, but you don’t have to go the disposable route. In the beginning, each member of DeCicco’s group bought a new baking dish for the swap. Now each year, those same baking dishes get filled with a new casserole and passed on to someone else.

hot chocolate with marshmallow snowman
5/5 elena shashkina/shutterstock
Just Hang Out

As cliché as it might sound, sometimes, spending time together really is the best gift of all. When Sophia Antoine’s husband was put on kidney dialysis in 2010, holiday gifts fell by the wayside. “We were just thankful to be together,” says Antoine, who lives in Fort Lauderdale.

The tradition stuck. Instead of exchanging gifts, Antoine, her husband, and their family cook, play board games and video games, watch holiday parades, and chat. And it’s helped Antoine’s kids develop a healthier approach to presents. Last year, Antoine’s parents decided to skip gifts because of budget constraints. “My nieces and nephews were livid. They left soon after they realized there were no gifts to open. My children weren’t fazed at all,” she says.