Discover more from XO, MU by Melissa Urban
The Boundary Lady's 2023 No Gift Guide
How to save your sanity this holiday season and get off the gift train for good (part 1 of 2)
This issue is brought to you by The Book of Boundaries, coming in paperback on November 14th (!) and featuring a special bonus chapter on boundaries with children
‘Tis the season… of relentless online gift-guides, pressure to buy early because “supply chain” and “shipping delays,” and the resulting anxiety, stress, and debt. (Gift guides were popping up in mid-October this year, ugh.)
In the early 2000’s, I decided the commercialism of the holidays was not serving me, so I set a boundary with my entire family. I didn’t finesse it in the least; I just dropped it in their laps after Thanksgiving dinner: “Hey, I’ve decided I don’t want to exchange gifts anymore, so don’t buy me anything for Christmas, and I’m not buying you anything either. Spending time with you is more than enough.” (I guess you could call that last part “finesse?”)
You can imagine how well it went over.
My parents were confused, my sister was offended, and everyone thought I was being Grinch-y and selfish. You know what? It was selfish. Every holiday season, I spent my precious free time running all over town (or the internet) trying to find something to buy people who already had everything they needed, knowing there was an excellent chance it would end up shoved in a drawer or collecting dust in a closet. It felt wasteful and impersonal, and I hated the implied sense of pressure around how much I spent and how “meaningful” it was.
It was stressful, time-consuming, and energetically expensive, not to mention the financial hit my credit cards took each year. And in exchange, I also ended up with a pile of gifts (that cost other people time, money, and stress) that I didn’t need either.
So I drew a line in the sand… and I’ve never looked back.
Your handbook for holiday happiness
If this idea (or at the very least, setting reasonable limits around gift-giving) sounds like heaven, order your copy of The Book of Boundaries, like, TODAY. It will prepare you to have all of these conversations, and teach you how to not feel guilty about it.
Wait, NO gifts???
Once I shared my news, I was understandably met with questions like “Won’t you feel left out?” and “What if I want to get you something?” and “What will you do when the rest of us open presents?” (Me: “Not even a little, I’m asking you not to, I’ll happily watch everyone else opening presents from my comfy spot on the couch.”) I explained that gifting was the one factor that was single-handedly making the holidays not-fun for me, and that I wasn’t going to subject myself to that any longer. I closed with restating my request plainly: “No gifts this year, please.”
Then, I held my boundary.
That first year was rough. A few people showed up with a gift for me anyway (probably because there is a terribly damaging story told by the patriarchy that a woman often means something different than what she says). I was graceful in acceptance, didn’t open it, and didn’t have anything for them—and I didn’t apologize for it. I did my best not to make it awkward, but frankly, it was awkward, and we just had to sit with that. A few people didn’t give me anything, but made a point of it, like, “Here you go—Christmas with no presents, just like you asked.” Perhaps they were expecting disappointment in the moment, but I just cheerfully thanked them for respecting my request.
Just two short years later, no-gifts-with-Melissa was easy-breezy par for the course. Family still felt weird opening all of their presents in front of me, but I made sure they knew how happy it made me to watch them give and receive of their own choosing, and that I didn’t feel left out in the least. (And I didn’t! I loved having zero anxiety around “will I have to pretend to like their gift?” and “are they pretending to like what I gave them?”) Christmas day had SO much chill now—just me, a mug of tea, and my mom’s famous Hermit cookies, sitting on the couch listening to Christmas music and taking in all the wrapping paper madness.
Also, it’s not like I went full-Scrooge. I made the effort around the holidays to share a meal, plan a night out with friends, or engage in some other way that let me spend quality time with people I love. One year I made my family a Christmas morning mix CD, which tells you how long ago I began this tradition.
Without the pressure of shopping, buying, wrapping, and shipping, I was able to fully enjoy all the trappings of the season—the parties, baking cookies, decorating the tree, and using my free time to play outside, travel, and see friends. It allowed me to enjoy the things that really matter, be grateful for the things I already had, and know I was making one small contribution to the environment—and giving a quiet middle finger to capitalism.
Getting off the gift train
If a no-gift approach is like Christmas carols to your ears, here’s how you can have the conversation with family and friends.
Give yourself plenty of time. People start shopping early, so have the conversation now. Pick a time when people are relaxed and feeling conversational, or schedule a call or FaceTime to talk about your holiday plans. You might also consider sending an email, if your family communicates that way often. This would allow you to thoughtfully craft what you want to say and give them space to process.
Clear is kind. Try, “I’ve decided this year, I won’t be exchanging any gifts. That means I won’t be buying presents, and I won’t be accepting presents from anyone either.” Here is where I’d normally tell you that you don’t have to explain or justify your boundary, but in the spirit of deepening your relationship (and if this is a wild shift), you might consider sharing a general but personal reason for the decision. “Instead of gift buying and receiving, I want to focus on the time we spend together over the holidays/doing something special with you on our next visit/practicing gratitude for the things I already have. I need to make this change for the sake of my mental health/stress levels/feelings around the holidays. I appreciate your support in this.”
Don’t give them a problem to solve. Even if money is a factor, saying “money is tight this year” presents a problem for people to solve—as in, “We’ll institute a $20 gift limit, then.” (And what about next year, when your new job is going well?) This goes for concerns about storage space (“we’ll just buy you small things”), the number of toys your kid already has (“but she outgrows them so fast”), or lack of time (“just buy everything online and don’t worry about wrapping it.”) This is about so much more than just one specific concern, so keep your reasoning big-picture.
If people call you Grinch or Scrooge, reply with vulnerability. “Not even a little. I’m fully investing my heart and energy into the holidays, and you’ll get to watch me show up far more happy and relaxed because I’ve taken gifts out of the equation.”
Think about what you are willing to do. Imagine the push-back you might receive and do your best to plan for it. If this is also the year you tell them you’re not coming home, find other ways to demonstrate your commitment to connection: “Though we’ll be home this year, we’ll FaceTime with you in the afternoon.” If you have kids, will you make an exception? “We know you want to send something to the kids—we’re comfortable with two presents each, and I can email you their list next week.”
Specific boundary scripts
Here are some word-for-word scripts you can use in these scenarios, using my patented Green/Yellow/Red framework.
If they say, “You don’t have to get me anything, but I’ll still buy something for you,” start holding your boundary with a Green response: “I’m asking that you don’t get me anything. Your gift to me is respecting that request, and I promise, it will mean a lot.” (You could also add, “It’s not really a gift if it’s unwanted, right?”)
If you still get a gift on Christmas morning, then you’ve got to escalate your response to a Yellow response: “I told you I didn’t want gifts, and I meant that.” Then set it aside without opening it. Once you get home, do with it as you please, like re-gifting it or donating it. It’s no longer their business once it’s in your hands. Yes, this is a pretty bold statement, but if you open it and thank them, you’re abandoning your boundary (and yourself) just to make someone else more comfortable, and we don’t do that anymore.
If you’re into Year Three of no gifts and they’re still not honoring your boundary, you’re going to need a Red response: “I’ve told specifically many times that I’m not exchanging gifts. I won’t accept this.” Then, hand the gift back to them or place it back under the tree. Yeah, it’ll be awkward, and you’ll probably be blamed, but at this point, who is the rude one here?
On that note, NEVER show up with gifts “just in case.” Mean what you say, or don’t say it at all. Show up with a letter to the family, a nice bottle of wine (if you indulge), a plate of homemade cookies (same), a photo album of your favorite memories to pass around, or a Christmas Spotify mix, but no individualized gifts. This is your self-care and your boundary, and you deserve it.
But I want to gift… responsibly
I asked my Instagram audience how going “no-gift” has impacted their holiday season—and I could feel their relief and exhilaration through the screen:
“It’s SO much easier. I get to just focus on my time with family and traveling to see them with no extra financial stress.”
“I went no gifts with my siblings, and there is less stress. I’m looking forward to our family Christmas again!”
“So much easier to travel! No extra packing, shopping runs, or wrapping upon arrival!”
“No more stress! No more Black Friday shopping in crowds. FREEING!”
“I went no gifts years ago because of you. Took a while to get them on board but now my family really embraces the experiences over gifts philosophy!”
However, I recognize going no-gift isn’t the right boundary for everyone. Maybe your boundary needs to be about the kinds of gifts (please no more cheap toys for the kids), or the number of gifts (I’m only buying for kids 12 and under), or the amount spent on gifts (let’s institute a $20 spending limit).
If you want to continue exchanging gifts this year but need to limit your practice to reduce stress, time, and expenditures, stay tuned for Part 2 next Monday, where I’ll lay out my strategies for going slow-gift this season.