Why I don't give Christmas gifts

I love Christmas. So much so, my family has placed strict limits on how soon I can start listening to Christmas music. My son once wrote a short essay for school, titled “The Attack of The Early-Christmas Dad.”

But while I love Christmas – the celebration of God’s love for us – I do not like the materialistic orgy it has become. It reminds me of a quote attributed to Gandhi: “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Even if Gandhi didn’t actually speak those words, they certainly ring true. Especially at this time of year, when Americans – Christian and heathen alike – will each spend an average of $660 on gifts and then return $250-plus billion worth of them, including nearly one-third of all online purchases, right after Christmas.

I realize that by questioning the tradition of gift-giving, I risk coming off like Luther Krank, Tim Allen’s character in “Christmas With the Kranks.” One Christmas, he tells everyone – family, friends, co-workers – he’s not going to be giving or accepting any gifts, whereupon … well, let’s just say, it doesn’t go well for him.

I’ve avoided Luther’s unpleasant fate by being more diplomatic, gently spreading the word among family and friends that I really don’t need or want anything for Christmas, except their continued love. And I’m not alone. According to a new Harris poll, seven out of ten Americans say they’d happily give up gift-giving, if their loved ones went along with it.

According to the same survey, nearly half of us feel “pressured” to spend more on gifts than we can afford. Moreover, NerdWallet says that 56 percent of Americans went into debt buying gifts last Christmas; and many – including 24 percent of millennials – are this very minute still digging out of the hole.  

I didn’t always feel this virtuously about the celebration of Christ’s birth. As a correspondent at ABC News, I loved receiving the network’s generous Christmastime gifts. One year, when Nightline’s executive producer, Tom Bettag, sent me a holiday card explaining that, in lieu of a gift, the show had made a charitable donation in my name, I was bummed. I felt cheated.

This many years later, I prize Tom’s spirit of giving and try emulating it. For instance, my family and I keep an ear out all year for specific needs in our community that might make for meaningful Christmas presents – such as a cord of firewood for a neighbor who uses a potbelly stove to keep her house warm all winter.

I asked some of my beloved colleagues for their favorite alternatives to mindless gift-giving, and here’s what they said:

* (Joan Lunden) We give promissory notes for kindnesses we’re happy to provide. “Bosses could bring in a fitness instructor or massage therapist to the office … the gift of health to their employees.”

* (Chaz Corzine, Michael W. Smith’s manager) From the St. Jude Christmas Gift Catalog, we give things “like a chemo treatment for a child in need.”

* (Dr. Ted Baehr, founder of Movieguide) We give our friends a full-blown Christmas service at our house.

To which my friends and family add:

* We encourage our kids and grandkids to give us the gift of time together.

* We send letters to people in our lives, describing things we admire about them.

* We host special dinners for friends, to share the love and lights of Christmas.

* We contribute to charities that help the families of prisoners.

* We give the gift of clean water to people who don’t have it.

If more of us bought into these suggestions instead of today’s holiday rat race, we might make believers of Gandhi-like skeptics. More importantly, we’d be helping put Christ back into Christmas.

Michael Guillen  Ph.D., former Science Editor for ABC News, taught physics at Harvard. His novel, "The Null Prophecy," was published in July.