The sight of twinkling lights, the sound of joyous music and the smell of comfort cooking are warm familiarities that the holiday season is approaching. While feeling nostalgic, these emotions are usually quickly countered with the low level dread I feel about overspending and the anxiety around choosing a meaningful gift for my loved ones. Now that I have a child that is being raised in a multi-religious home, I am even more acutely aware of how easy it is for children (and all of us for that matter) to become wrapped up (no pun intended) in the materialism of the holiday season.

The gift giving tradition of the holidays at its root is really about celebrating with loved ones and showing gratitude. So, why do the majority of us so easily accept how commercialized and far removed we have become from the true meaning of the holidays? A survey of 1,000 school children between the ages of five and seven years old revealed that 36% don’t know whose birthday we celebrate on December 25 with over one in five believing the festivities are in celebration of Simon Cowell’s birthday. You may laugh, and I am not even all that religious, but a part of me is dying inside. Simon Cowell?! Really?!

About a year and a half ago, I began becoming increasingly intrigued by the idea of minimalism. It all began when I started practicing mindfulness daily and slowly became aware of my behavior patterns when feeling overwhelmed. I often found myself at the local shopping mall or perusing one of my favorite stores online when I felt anxious or out of control. When I buy in this state of mind, I am almost never happy with my purchase weeks later, but at the time it’s a quick dopamine hit and seems like just what the doctor ordered. On top of this habit, I also noticed that over time these items filling my home were actually contributing to my feeling of overwhelm.

I would stand in front of my closet trying to figure out what to wear and found myself grabbing the same pair of black jeans, t-shirt and blazer. Amidst these items were dozens of other items going to waste. This daily experience was leading to feelings of guilt and disappointment in myself. Disappointment that after spending the time and money on these items that I had no more control over my life or my emotions than before I bought them and, in fact, I felt worse. It’s funny how while shopping this is how I thought I was regaining control!

Over the last year and a half, I have been slowly purging my life. I have always done this a few times a year, because despite being an unconscious shopper at times, I am organized and tidy. And that is a common misconception about materialism and unconscious spending – you can do it without hoarding. Now, I make a practice of releasing items from my home once a week and anytime something new comes into my home I release something old in its place. Sometimes I donate these items or give them away to friends and family. Sometimes I recycle, and if I have to, I will throw some items away.

All this time I thought adding material items to my life brought my life value and now I know I was unconsciously seeking worth and what I found was the opposite. Now, when I let go of these items, I feel light and powerful. When I give something away that meant something to me a long time ago, but is no longer serving me, I share the story about it with the new owner and feel I am giving that person something far more valuable.

So, how does this recovering-materialist-now-novice-minimalist navigate the holidays? Here are a few ideas:

Start talking to your family about how you would like to approach holiday gift giving differently. This is the second year in a row that I no longer exchange gifts with my brother and sister in law. Each year we take turns choosing a charity and make a large family donation. And top of this, my husband and I haven’t exchanged gifts in years. Instead we like to go on a nice dinner date because we love, love, love to eat and the time we get to spend alone away from our baby is critical to nurturing our relationship.

When you must give a gift, try to go with experiential gifts over the material variety. Last year, I bought my three year old niece tickets to Disney on Ice. She doesn’t remember any gift I have given her, but she still talks about this experience from a year ago.

If you must purchase something material, try to make it a consumable product. This one may seem a little odd, but I do find that when the situation really calls for buying “something” I try to buy something consumable. Think about the number of times someone has bought you a gift that truly brought value to your life? Rare, probably. However, I do find that a really delicious batch of homemade jam, a great bottle of wine or an artisanal soap very often gets used, and even for the brief moment of time it is consumed, it brings someone joy. One of my favorite holiday gifts I have received is from a work colleague who gives out delicious homemade toffee every year.

What other gift giving practices reduces stress and brings more joy and meaning to your life? Like and comment below. Happy holidays:)



Heather Freed is the executive director at Erika’s Lighthouse. She joined the Erika’s Lighthouse team in 2007 upon graduating from Lake Forest College with her B.A. in psychology and communications.  After taking time off to complete a Masters of Social Work program at Loyola University Chicago, Heather returned to us in 2012 as the Director of Programming and Communications, and in 2015 became our Executive Director.  Heather oversees the day to day operations of Erika’s Lighthouse, ensuring that our programming is in line with our mission. Heather’s background includes work with youth, families and schools.  She is a licensed therapist and has experience in prevention, crisis intervention and community outreach.  Heather is energetic and passionate about mental health issues and strongly believes in the importance of teaching our children about good mental health.