The Experience-Based Christmas

FLASHBACK: I’m eight years old. My mom and sister and I decided to be in the community production of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.” I was a baby angel. Adorable, I know. We had rehearsals/performances every evening Monday-Saturday through Christmas Eve. It was fun and festive and everything always felt so Christmassy! But what about my dad? He couldn’t be in the play with us because rehearsals started before he was done with work. He came to several performances, but mostly, he was left to fend for himself most evenings leading up to Christmas. Christmas is about families and he missed us. Christmas morning arrived and we were all together. My sister and I came running down the stairs and saw the biggest load of presents around the tree I’ve ever seen! It turns out my dad spent his evenings buying us stuff… lots of stuff… to make up for not being with us. As the stuff pile grew taller and the wrapping paper pile got more out of hand, my mom got a bit tense. The following year my mom made a sweeping declaration: this wasn’t going to happen again.

Since there were only four of us in my family, the “draw a name out of a hat” thing wasn’t super exciting. But mom wanted to change the focus of Christmas shopping from buying to experiencing. So, at the beginning of each year, we chose three places as a family we wanted to go shopping. These included a cute little boutique street downtown Portland, the Saturday market, a bookstore, we even did the airport one year! We scheduled three nights for our destinations. We usually went out to eat (or at least a treat) at or near our destination. Then we would draw a name and break up into pairs (luckily my sister was old enough we could go shopping together if we each picked a parent’s name). I honestly don’t remember the presents (except for the business card holder I got my sister because it was an adorable miniature suitcase from the airport… nevermind her lack of business cards…) but our family had three scheduled evenings together during the Christmas season and we didn’t have to do any shopping outside of those events (my mom usually just ordered some sort of food basket like Harry & David for all the other relatives).

We also had a fourth rotation (yes, we got someone twice if you’re doing the math correctly). For this one, you had to be a little more sneaky. You were to donate money to a charity in that person’s name and then wrap the donation letter for under the tree. This got tricky when they mailed something back before Christmas and we were all trying to get to the mail first. That first year, I drew my mom’s name for this. As a nine year old, I had no idea to which cause what my mom would want me to donate and I also admit that I couldn’t think of a possible charity that I would be excited to find out had been donated in MY name. I talked to my dad who suggested maybe a foundation for a disease my mom suffered from. He explained to me that the money would go toward research for figuring out how to help my mom and maybe find a cure one day. I remember how good it felt to send that money. And on Christmas morning, I opened up a picture of a wolf named Matsi that had been adopted in my name! Matsi was proudly displayed on my shelf the rest of the year!

My parents also let us in on a Christmas secret. Every year they sent an anonymous envelope of cash to a family we knew that could use it (a huge amount to a nine year old!). They asked our opinion on their choice of a family for that year. We agreed because we had no opinion on the matter at that age, but then the secret was ours too. This changed Christmas because it was giving that was much closer to home. This wasn’t some generic organization helping strangers. These were our friends.

Recap of the Experience-Based Christmas:

  1. Choose (at least) three places you want to go as a family this Christmas time and put them on the calendar. Make it an event with food! If you are choosing to give gifts, draw the name of one family member and break up to shop. If you choose not to shop, take a picture of a present that would make them laugh if they opened it. Gag gifts are always fun, but only for the moment. Take a picture of it and wrap that instead! Or make the destination somewhere that doesn’t involve shopping (ice skating! movies! going to see your community theatre’s production of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever!”).
  2. Draw the name of a family member for whom you will donate to a charity. Think about what this person likes and what charity might be meaningful to them. This was a great exercise for me to have to do as a kid. I really had to think about what would be significant for each of my family members and what their individual passions and priorities were (mine were obviously wolves!).
  3. Choose someone you know that could use some cash. Don’t be judgy about circumstances… they probably aren’t as good with money as you, but that doesn’t make their struggle any less real. Then secretly send them an envelope of cash. I found growing up that sometimes you would hear the story of the receiving and sometimes you never did, but I also learned that it didn’t feel any less awesome if we never heard them mention it.

This year, my family is headed to Hawaii (the ultimate experience-based Christmas!) and we are forgoing gifts for the trip. My kids have been remarkably on board which shows me they’re ready to do something similar to this next year. We’ll see how we adapt it to fit our family’s needs. I’m still thinking of the specifics with such young kids…

Did you have non-traditional shopping traditions growing up? Do you now? How do you choose to give this season?

the experience based christmas


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  1. Love creating experiences and memories over just giving stuff. We have not taken the plunge for Christmas just yet, but did skip a big 16th birthday party for our son and daughter (twins) and opted for a family vacation. We had an amazing time, something we will all remember for a long time. Enjoy your trip to Hawaii!

    • MaggieBanks

      Family vacations are always a better option – though they don’t save any money if we always replace presents with a trip! But they’re definitely a lot more memorable!

  2. That’s awesome! Instead of doing gifts my girlfriend and I booked a cruise in February. We’d rather spend the money on spending some QT together instead of buying stuff. I just need to work on the family with this. Maybe next year I’ll be more proactive. Enjoy your trip!

    • MaggieBanks

      Oh yes… Mr. T and I haven’t given eachother gifts for anything all year, which will continue through next year because of our big summer trip to the UK/Paris. Trips are always better than stuff.

  3. This is absolutely wonderful! I especially love all the Portland references/experiences (was the bookstore Powells downtown by any chance?)! My fiancΓ© & I have completely reformed the Christmas experience between each other and we do not exchange gifts (except my fiancΓ© happened to draw my name for our secret santa on my side of the family – and he accidentally let that slip lol). This year we selected a dollar amount, and we are going to put together a weekend trip to spend time with one another! It’s a challenge & allows us to create memories. Next week I am going to select a few charities of choice & donate (we receive Christmas bonuses and I wanted to put it towards others in need – the envelop of cash idea is brilliant, I may need to implement that)! I hope your family has a wonderful time in Hawaii! πŸ™‚

    • MaggieBanks

      We’ve totally done Powells. And my friends and I used to go there frequently and play Hide and Seek or Sardines! And I am always about trips over stuff. πŸ™‚

  4. My wife and I talked to our boys (10, 8, 7) about doing an experience this year instead of gifts, but they weren’t interested in that idea. I hope someday we can be more experience-based, but I’ll probably have to ease into the process with the boys. Perhaps experiment with birthdays and smaller holidays first.

    • MaggieBanks

      A friend of mine has given her sons a lego set every year for Christmas. Last year, she was trying to phase them into experiences so she gave the oldest (now 12) rock climbing lessons. He burst into tears and asked where his Lego set was. She said she’ll never stray from Legos… so, the kids definitely have to be on board to make it “magical” – but we have done a local Toy Store for one of our places and those were fun presents!

  5. I love this post. We were considering trying to get our family to do a secret santa type draw, but didn’t get it organized early enough… maybe next year. I like the idea of the three set shopping trips. Each person gets three gifts and it’s a fun experience too! This year my husband and my step-daughter are going on a big trip in January, so we’ve all agreed that we will keep Christmas small and simple this year… We mostly want to enjoy special foods for the holidays, so we will put more emphasis on the meals, rather than the gifts.

    • MaggieBanks

      Hmmm – Meals. I love food, so I’m on board with that plan as well. I honestly have great memories of the shopping trips. And trying not to run into the other pair shopping for us! It was fun, sneaky, and memorable!

  6. Childhood, for me anyway, involved a cycle of consumption and debt. We didn’t want to maintain this cycle of craziness, so we made the decision to go cold turkey and stop buying gifts for everyone who already had tons of stuff. Instead, we give to those who could use a helping hand. I love that your mum had the forethought to do this a long time ago–she sounds wonderful. πŸ™‚

    • MaggieBanks

      My mom is a wonderful lady and this was a beloved tradition for all of us. Hilariously, even though there were only four of us, she loved having it be a “surprise” who had her name for each place. She’d always say things like “don’t tell me who you have!” when it was very clear when we had to figure out who could shop with whom. πŸ™‚

  7. J

    Awww, I wish we had the same experience growing up, but we didn’t. Christmas has always been about gifts and food and very little about charity. But as adults, this is what we are trying to do. We still bought gifts but only for the people we really care for (back in the day, we have to get everyone, EVERYONE, a gift), but we made sure to set more money aside for sharing. Your kids are very lucky to have you as parents and to grow up in a household like yours, I’m sure they will grow up to with the kindest hearts.

    Happy Christmas to you and your family, Maggie! Enjoy Hawaii! πŸ™‚

    • MaggieBanks

      You flatter me! Merry Christmas to you as well! We always make yummy candies for all the people we aren’t buying presents. If the candy is yummy enough, they don’t even care. πŸ™‚

  8. Apparently I’m a big softie as this had me actually tearing up!! For us, Christmas is always about board games. Someone normally receives a new one as a gift, but that doesn’t stop us rummaging through all our favourites too. 3 years ago, someone started up a family christmas quiz to entertain us after Christmas dinner and we’ve kept up with it. It’s almost free- paper, pens and a source of info (quiz books from the library or the internet) are all that’s needed.

    We’ve also done things like Christmas present treasure hunts, with clues left around the house, and quiz question gift tags, where the recipient has to answer a question (loosely linked to the gift) before they open it.

    I guess those things aren’t non traditional shopping habits, but they’re things we do to make Christmas special without having to spend money. πŸ™‚

    • MaggieBanks

      I love those ideas! Thank you so much for sharing! The family Christmas quiz sounds AWESOME!

  9. I love it! I have been stressing about Christmas. But I made one bit of progress. I suggested to my sisters that we forgo gifts for each other and our husbands and only buy for the children. This is a bit controversial in my family but they agreed on the condition that we do something special together. So I spent more money that I normally would on Opera tickets, but so much happier to to that rather than give or receive unwanted gifts. Four less people to shop for, one small step…

    • MaggieBanks

      I love it! The more experiences we can exchange for stuff, the more we win! Congrats!

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