• Jessica Warren


Photo by Ben White

We have access to infinite worthy causes and news of the world’s issues in our pockets, and with growing global wealth disparity, and increased financial, political and environmental instability, many people in developed cities who find themselves higher up Maslow’s Hierachy of Needs are looking for ways to give meaningfully and sustainably this holiday season.

Encyclopedia Britannica explains that, after originally being a time chosen to mark Jesus Christ’s birthday, or the winter solstice, “Since the early 20th century, Christmas has also been a secular family holiday, observed by Christians and non-Christians alike [...] and marked by an increasingly elaborate exchange of gifts.” Then Santa Claus made an appearance, heart-tugging Christmas adverts hit our screens, and present-buying pressure started mounting.

Christmas is meant to be a time for festivity and feeling merry and jolly, but modern-day high expectations, mixed with work deadlines, gift-giving, being in close proximity with family we may not usually see that much -- mixed with too many festive drinks -- can be a recipe for seasonal stress. One of my favourite quotes from spiritual thought-leader Ram Dass is “If you think you're enlightened, go spend a week with your family” -- usually our oldest, most sensitive emotional triggers come from our relationship with the people we grew up around.

No-gift" Christmases by choice are getting more popular as we start valuing experiences over things, as well as quality time together in a distracted, busy world, and become more aware of our environmental impact. The “Buy Nothing Day” movement is building momentum this year as a counter to the over-consumption of “Black Friday”. Instead of buying things we don’t need after Thanksgiving, the aim is that “for 24 hours you will detox from buying stuff” instead.

If you’ve heard of Gary Chapman’s “Five Love Languages”, you’ll know that gifting is one of the ways people prefer to give and receive love (alongside words of affirmation, spending quality time together, acts of service and physical touch). Different people prefer one or two of these types of expression of affection over the others, which is useful to keep in mind when giving to someone you know this holiday season. If you decide to do no gifts this year, be careful about letting others know in advance -- you can even find etiquette guides to it online.


Here is my practical, feel-good guide to giving this holiday season:

Photo by Monika Stowowy

Giving physical gifts

As I mentioned, one type of love language is giving and receiving physical gifts. It’s worth checking with significant others or those close to you what their preference is over the holidays, without guilting or shaming them, because for some, physical gifting amounts to a strong demonstration of love. Personally, presents that someone spent time thinking carefully about or made themselves, and that are being unconditionally gifted, mean a lot to me.

Following the American tradition of discounts in post-Thanksgiving “Black Friday” sales (details for Apple’s are here), and with retail generally in decline as many cut back on their spending and acquisition of unnecessary material things, many retail outlets have in-store and online discounts available already to tempt more customers in the run up to Christmas. The hip-but-classic London department store Selfridges is offering up to 20% off many lines in its Christmas Comes Early sale, for example.

Many big online players like Buzzfeed, New York Magazine, New York Times have curated 2019 holiday gift guides to inspire you. You can check out Forbes Magazine’s 2019 online sustainable holiday gift guide for travelers, and Fed and Fit blog’s eco-friendly gift guide here. The sustainability-focused The Conduit club in London also has a great ethical gift guide for its members here. Good Housekeeping has a fun list of “gifts that give back.”. Refinery29 has lists and even holiday “survival guides” for different types of present. Goop has released its famously quirky annual holiday gift guide with lists covering “the wellness junkie,” “under-$100,” “the host” and “the ridiculous but awesome” gifts -- it’s worth a peek at what the Goop team found out there!

Personalised subscriptions can make great package-free gifts. Audible often offers deals for audiobooks; Business Insider has this list of quirky subscription gifts; or you could offer to cover anything from someone’s Calm meditation app or Economist magazine subscription, depending on what they’re into.

Some families and friends agree to a “three-gift Christmas” - based on the theory that Jesus received gold, frankincense and myrrh from the Wise Men, or just that three seems like a reasonable number, giving someone presents to unwrap without going overboard. A “Secret Santa” between family members, a group of friends or colleagues can also be organised exchange Christmas presents, with each member of the group assigned one other member's name to provide a small gift anonymously to, costing no more than a set amount.

For many, the holidays are an expensive struggle to get through. Often the best gift is cash, but if that feels inappropriate or uncomfortable to give, then useful online vouchers -- like for Amazon.com -- allow people to choose from a wide range of practical gifts they really need.

We don’t just have to give gifts to people we know this winter. The Winter Toy Appeal is one scheme offering an easy way to buy presents for children living in extreme poverty in London. Toys cost just £10-15 and can be easily purchased from their online gift list. The US Postal Service’s “Operation Santa” allows individuals and companies to respond to the hundreds of thousands of children and families who send in letters addressed to “Santa” to American post offices each year. Many request simple toys, clothing, other basic necessities or help for their families that many of us take for granted. This list by The Spruce has details of seven other charities to support children who need help this Christmas.

Photo by Everton Vila

Giving presence, rather than presents

Our time or undivided, undistracted (smartphone-free) attention is often underestimated as the best gift we can give to someone. Connection can mean a lot to people who are lonely, down on their luck, or who love us but we don’t get to spend much time with throughout the year.

We can volunteer to help out with logistics at organised shelters (like Crisis at Christmas) and give company to homeless people, who might have nowhere else to turn, over the holidays. Many soup kitchens and local charities need extra hands over the festive season -- you will likely find many opportunities near you by searching online.

Giving time to someone we know can also be highly impactful. Maybe you have a friend who is moving home and might need a hand, an elderly relative who would like help with chores or some company, or somebody who could do with a few hours of childcare or a pet-sitter over the holidays. Maybe you have a skill that you know a friend could benefit from. Giving ourselves self-care is also important over the holiday season. If pressures mount, make sure you are recharging with enough sleep, short regular meditation sessions, restorative exercise and nutritious food.

As adults, sometimes it feels like hard work to spend time with our parents or other close family members over the holidays. If we take some time to think about what’s important to them and their interests, and an activity they would enjoy doing with us (like taking them to an exhibition they’re interested in) -- rather than wishing they interacted with us differently and did what we wanted to do -- our acceptance of how they are can make time together much more enjoyable for both parties. At the very least, our parents gave us life, and usually much more growing up (like a home, education, love as best as they could, genes that helped us survive up to this point), so concentrating on what we’re thankful to them for also helps.

A survey by the charity Samaritans found that Christmas is the “loneliest time of year” for one in six people, with a quarter saying that "everything feels worse" over the festive season. A kind Thanksgiving tradition -- which I have been at the receiving end of as a Brit in the US -- can be to invite a friend or acquaintance over to a meal if they don’t have close loved ones around to share a holiday with. People whose family live in a different country; who have gone through a recent change in personal circumstances, like a divorce or separation; or who might be alone for other reasons may feel awkward to ask, but grateful to know, they have the option to be around people.

What to do if one party gives something but the other doesn’t?

Remember the unconditional gifting I mentioned earlier? One of the 10 Burning Man principles -- designed to reflect the community’s ethos -- is “Gifting” described on the official website as where “The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.”

Often, if we notice what’s going on inside us, experiencing our recipient's gratitude while accepting our gift actually feels more enjoyable than receiving a present ourselves. Giving, whether through volunteering, donations, gifts or being there to emotionally support someone, is known to benefit our physical and mental health, with benefits like greater self-esteem, lower blood pressure, and increased levels of happiness.

If you feel embarrassed about not having a gift available when you are given one, remember the other person will likely feel thrilled at your gratitude for their thoughtfulness, rather than wanting to make you uncomfortable. If you want to reciprocate, offer to take your gifter on an experience they would enjoy, or send them something meaningful in the post or the next time you see them.

Photo by Tom Parsons

Charitable giving

Many people who choose to have a “no-gift” Christmas decide to give to charities they care about over the holidays, instead of potentially receiving presents they are fortunate enough to neither want or need. If you decide to donate rather than swap gifts, but are not sure who to support, I find it helps to ask ourselves “If I could change anything about the way the world works, or help a group of people or an environmental issue, which would it be?” For further inspiration, here is a strong list of Christmas charity organisations that focus on low-income families over the holidays.

Once we decide on a cause, comparison websites like Charity Navigator use “objective ratings to find charities you can trust and support” based on factors like efficiency, transparency and accountability. You can browse by cause category (e.g. environment, animals, medical etc); see “hot topic” suggestions for charities that are supporting particularly urgent causes; and their “tips for donors” section gives advice on useful giving topics. They even have their own “Holiday Giving Guide.”

Those of us with Facebook accounts will likely have seen their “Fundraiser” tool which allows people to raise funds for a chosen charity from online friends. This can be a useful way to boost awareness and amplify our donations using our network for a cause we care about (Facebook claims to take no fees).

Final thought...

We can make the holidays about spending quality time with people we love, giving ourselves a break or an experience we need to recharge or grow, reflecting on how fortunate we are with what we have, and giving what we can to those who need it. It’s worth remembering that Christmas is only for a day -- looking ahead, we can choose to be careful about how we give and receive regularly throughout the year.

Jessica is Co-Founder of Mind: Unlocked. To keep up with mental well-being events and free resources, sign up to their three-bullet weekly emails. Or, if you're ready to meditate to transform your life, check out Mind: Unlocked's 21-day online course.


Find your next best friend or soul mate on the ICBRKR app, available on iOS and Android, and share your positive energy with like-minded people.

To view related posts, click on the relevant hashtags below: