I don’t know whether it’s a wider cultural shift or simply that my friends and I are getting older, but a number of years ago I noticed that many people in my life were getting fed up with the traditions our society has established around Christmas gift-giving. I had long-standing uneasy feelings about those traditions as well, since they seemed perfectly designed to upset as many people as possible: the pressure to get the “perfect” gift, the growing number of friends and family (a blessing in any life) resulting in a growing number of hours and days and weeks spent shopping among the maddening crowds, the hurt feelings when one person surprises another with a gift but the recipient never even thought of getting one for them; the friend who spent half their paycheque or a lot of time and effort on a gift for someone they consider really special, but gets in return the same gift that person has given to all their friends.
Giving gifts should be an act of joyful generosity, but amidst the stress of the season, it often turns into an obligation to tick people off of one’s list—and if you’re buying dozens and dozens of gifts, who has the time or energy to put a lot of thought into each gift? (unless, I suppose, you start your Christmas shopping promptly on January 2). Not to mention the obligation to spend money you don’t necessarily have on gifts your acquaintances, coworkers and friends likely don’t need and probably don’t want, all in the hopes of meeting your social obligations and not hurting anyone’s feelings (I know of some people who buy generic gifts—labeling them “male, older” and “female, my age”—to make sure they always have something at hand with which to reciprocate).
Is there an answer? A number of years ago, I attended a Christmas party at a coworker’s house where we played Party Kris Kringle (this is also called Cut-Throat Kris Kringle and, for reasons I don’t understand, Chinese Kris Kringle). My friends and I hadn’t been in the habit of getting together for Christmas, we just randomly showed up at one another’s houses laden with gifts (and returning home laden with reciprocated gifts from our friends). Watching this group play the Kris Kingle game was a revelation: the gift exchange, which was central to my experience of Christmas in relation to my friends, was completely secondary. Here the party was the thing, and everyone was having a great time.
The following year, I held a Christmas party at my house for my friends and suggested we play the game instead of everyone exchanging untold gifts with everyone else. Although there was some resistance (I remember one friend saying that they liked the experience of shopping for gifts for all of their friends, which boggled my mind), most people were up for it. We’ve done it every year since, and it’s growing into something of a tradition that no one would even think to question.
Last year, we tried the same thing with my extended family and it seemed to be very popular with everyone there as well. My suggestion, if you often feel wrung out by the pressure of gift-buying during the holidays, is to try something similar with your friends. Instead of everyone spending lots of money on gifts for everyone else, you and they just have to spend a small amount of money on one gift. And instead of spending hours in shopping malls searching for those gifts, you and they can spend an hour or two in your kitchens making snacks and desserts to bring to the party, so that once the game is over everyone can share in delicious, home-made food.
As for the money you save on those gifts, consider donating at least some of it to a worthy cause (and we all know there are no shortages of those around and, especially at this time of year, no shortages of opportunities to give).
Because for this year’s party I tried unsuccessfully to find the rules somewhere on the internet as a reference, here is my version based on the experience of my friends and I, in case it proves helpful to others: Rules for Party Kris Kringle.
Whatever you decide to do—and whether or not you celebrate Christmas at all—I hope you and yours have a wonderful time together over the holidays, and that the new year brings everyone reading these words prosperity, good health, and abundant joy.