Presents or presence?

baby in a snowsuit on a sled

What do you remember from holidays past, stuff or experiences? Photo: familymwr via Flickr.

Does anyone else find Thanksgiving and Christmas a bit of a contradiction?

We spend a couple of days focused on Thanksgiving; usually setting up the menu, grocery shopping, or juggling travel plans for a day spent with our families. What started as a day for family and gratitude, is often replaced with family watching football on TV, mapping Black Friday’s shopping spree, or eating turkey sandwiches while camped out overnight in the parking lot of a big box store to be first in line to purchase the newest or biggest or brightest! We shift from gratitude to “give me more” in less than 24 hours, with some stores opening at midnight and encouraging a shopping binge running right up through the after-Christmas sales.

Shopping didn’t work when Congress suggested it, and buying more stuff made in China isn’t likely to lower our unemployment rate. As I think about Transition and Christmas, a couple things come to mind.

The 3/50 Project ( has an educational flyer on re-localization:

Keep the Cheer Here

Independent local merchants return 68% of their revenue to the community.
Big boxes, national chains? Only 13%-43% returns.
Out-of-town websites? Zero. Zip. Nada.
Spend it here. Get more back.

My family celebrates Christmas, and we take this a step further to include reduce/reuse/recycle along with re-localize, with a focus on “presence” instead of “presents.”

Here’s how it works for us.

1. Identify someone facing greater challenges than we are.

I lost my job two years ago and don’t qualify for unemployment. We’ve gone through some major changes – avoided foreclosure with a short sale of our home, moved to a very rural area where rent is much lower, two kids had to change high school, and two more waited a couple of years before starting college. We have given up many of the things we don’t need, but certainly enjoyed. The homeless couple camped out on the side of the street begging for help every Sunday after church are a good example of someone who is in worse straits than we are. It isn’t hard to find them, once you start looking.

2. Gather information.

Tap into local social service agencies, non-profits, or churches to learn how you personally can best offer support. Sometimes folks are too quick to pull out the checkbook, when your skills or other resources are a better match to the needs. Be creative, give of yourself, and build relationship.

3. Create new holiday traditions or resurrect old ones.

We bake cookies, the kind you have to mix up the night before, roll out, cut out, and decorate. It takes hours, and is accompanied by laughter and stories and a good radio station playing holiday music. Half of them disappear while we decorate the tree. There are tons of board games in thrift shops, and our collection has grown over the years. This year we plan to play a different one for each day of Christmas break. Sledding, cross country skiing and ice skating are among our favorite winter activities. Reading aloud, a new book or old favorite, is also something we really enjoy.

In our snow-covered landscape, it is also fun to provide food and watch birds and wildlife gather. On our rented farmsite, we add a treat for chickens, geese, and cats to enjoy. We also have a lot of fun with slow food, planning our menus and searching for new recipes to use our surplus of apples, squash, pumpkin, venison and chickens. We focus on recipes using ingredients like wild rice and dairy products, and get organic flour from the family-owned mill just a few miles down the road. We try to keep it local.

4. Focus on presence instead of presents.

I remember the people and stories from many Christmases ago, but couldn’t name more than a couple of gifts that I’ve received. It is the relationships that are memorable. Without the stress of all that shopping, we might even have the energy to learn to appreciate an uncle’s quirky personality over a game of Parcheesi! We also might find he knows how to use the old smokehouse sitting out by the garden. There is a lot of Transition wisdom in our families, and I can’t think of a better time to share the stories and honor the wisdom of our elders.

— Patricia Benson, Transition Voice

Transition US logoOne in a series of monthly columns from Transition US, a non-profit organization providing support, encouragement, networking and training for Transition groups in the United States.

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  1. Green Gardener says

    When I asked my friends not to buy me anything for Christmas because I’m opting out of consumerism, one of my friends became very upset. The others did not respond. It’s difficult being one of those who wants to act as though all life on Earth matters.

  2. Francie Delaney says

    Hang In There Green Gardener,
    You’ve probably just struck a nerve with your friends – got them out of their comfort zone! Most folks in this country have been so brainwashed into believing consumerism is the ONLY way to show caring. It might help to suggest starting a new tradition with your friends to replace the consumerist ic one. (As an example, my family gathers for a de-stress day: choosing something everyone finds relaxing, eg a hike in the woods or a spa day – homemade nat’l ingredients for a facial w/ softly playing music/ no electronic interruptions. ) This could help fill any void they may still feel not doing the “traditional” gifts. If suggestions like that don’t appeal to them hopefully, maybe also finding folks more “like-minded” to share the holidays with will help. Mcuh Peace, Francie

    • Joy Meyer says

      Hello, Green Gardener,
      With my senior husband I have, gradually, let out the word to our (large, extended) family that being together is THE gift. However, in the event that someone felt like they really wanted to give a material gift, we would love a monetary contribution instead to someone in need, either to the charity of their choice, or to our personal favorite, Heifer International, the organization that sends pregnant animals to farm folks in need after training them in proper care and with the obligation to give the newborn to someone else, thereby doubling the gift and giving the receiver the pleasure of sharing in turn. Heifer gift units come in all sizes, from bees and chicks and goats to cows and buffalos.
      When we remind them before the holidays, we mention that we, in turn, give them gift cards (from this organization, computer printed or on nice card stock) with animal “shares” (leaving off the $ amount). Fun fact: It all started with the kids who, on gift overload, love to pick their animal (but in addition I do wrap something SMALL for them for under the tree).
      This year, we followed the lead of our 6 year old grandson who suggested sending a cow. Why? For the milk, the butter, and the =chocolate! This purchase, spread out thoughout a great number of people, was the most satisfying gift we ever gave as all 4 grandkids (6-11 yrs.) agreed on the cow. In return, most of our family honored our wish, not all through Heifer International, but in other charity contributions. The family of one of our children chose to give in the traditional way: funny socks and a mat for the sink…Change happens slowly, but seeing it happen at all is its own reward.

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