This week’s musing (my last for 2021) is an updated version of an evergreen post – it seemed to fit, once again, and I hope you’ll join us in the conversation.

It was “Black Friday” when I started this post. By the time I finish and upload it, there will have been an entire weekend devoted to encouraging us to shop the right way (i.e., in a way that supports commerce). I don’t buy into Black Friday, literally or figuratively, but I know plenty of people who like to use it as a way to get all of the shopping for their holidays completed. In that sense, I suppose, you could argue that it’s a system for finishing something. Giving a time container to the shopping drill means a better chance of providing closure to what can be a stressful process. And if you’re done with the purchasing that you will do this year, awesome. You can probably put your feet up and stop here. 🙂

But if not…

Wow, is this tradition stressful in so many respects – both in the giving and the receiving. How many unwanted presents have I helped people let go of in the past eight years (“How could I let go of these polka-dot oven mitts? They came from Aunt Betty!)? How many people wring their hands for days, or weeks, before the annual gift-giving events we’ve been conditioned to respond to? I mean, the song goes “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” right?…not “God Stress ye Merry Gentlemen.”

We’re coming into the home stretch on 2021, which in and of itself is a huge gift to many of us. Another weird and too-often tragic year is behind us. Not that it was all bad, of course, but gift-giving likely isn’t even on the radar of some. And I’ve been thinking, once again, about the connections between living in a more organized, intentional way, and the whole giving presents conundrum.

Just for giggles, I looked a little into the history of this gifting business. I mean, I think we’re all somewhat aware of why exchanging presents is a big deal this time of year – because marketing has carefully trained us that it is. But where did we get this idea, way back when? You know, pre-Facebook ads? I know we can talk all about the “magic of the season” or showing how much you love someone by giving them a material thing – but when did we decide that every person we’ve ever crossed paths with needs a fruit basket or a gift card?

Turns out, the gifting tradition at this time of the year did not start with a little drummer boy, or three kings. From the Curious History website:

“Long before even Jesus stepped into the scene, ancient Romans practiced present giving, especially in the festival of Saturnalia, celebrated to give thanks to Saturn, the god of agriculture. The festivals happened for seven days (from the 17th to the 23rd of December). In addition to making sacrifices to the god, the Romans also gave gifts to each other. The most popular gifts being: fruits, nuts, candles, and cheap wines. [gee, sound familiar??] The festival went on until the fourth century when early Christian leaders phased it out as Christianity took over the Roman Empire. Even after people stopped celebrating the festival, many new Christian converts held onto the December custom.”

So. Thanks, Saturn.

Line drawing of the god Saturn.
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn

Yeah, it was this guy’s fault.


Check this out – this infographic illustrates the sobering statistic that 15.2 billion dollars are spent by Americans on gifts people don’t want. That’s just dollars. Think about the time invested (wasted) in shopping. The time invested (wasted) returning. Think about the mental space taken up with working out what to do with the things we don’t want.

I also found it amusing that Gen X-ers (proudly raising my hand here) receive the highest percentage of unwanted stuff (wondering…is that because no one understands us, because we don’t want anyone to understand us, or because we don’t want anything to begin with?). I’ll go back to my Little House book series obsession and remind everyone that little Laura Ingalls was thrilled with things like a rag doll, a tin cup, and a penny. I’ll bet she had places to put those things, too.

So what are we encouraged to do? “Shop Small”? “Support Local Business”? Grab those “Cyber Monday” deals? Instead of listening to the external messages, what about going internally? Listen. Will your great uncle really mind if you don’t get him another sweater? Who is that gift really for – him, or your reactivity to the messaging you should buy him a physical present?

I might get a little hate from local retailers here, and perhaps the gift that matters most for them is making it through a very rough time. So, if there’s an opportunity to spend and keep things moving forward in that regard, ok. I’m not saying we shouldn’t give anything at all.

I think you could still frame it thoughtfully, with these parameters:

A true gift would not

  • Create a dilemma
  • Cause guilt (or ease guilt, depending)
  • Highlight shortcomings*
  • Attempt to manipulate
  • Encourage reciprocation
  • Expose obliviousness
  • Become a burden

A true gift could

  • Express appreciation
  • Provide relief
  • Enhance life
  • Bring peace
  • Inspire
  • Support growth
  • Demonstrate awareness


So think back – what’s one of the best gifts you ever received? Did it come with a bow, shrink-wrapped, tissue-papered, or encased in styrofoam? What made it memorable? Tell us the story of your gift in the comments.

*I have to confess…a gift certificate for organizing might do just that. Tread carefully there, y’all.