A different approach to giving and receiving gifts

Giving gifts at Christmas time and birthdays is so ingrained in Western culture that most people can’t imagine opting out of it, no matter how much they may want to.


A gift that is given out of obligation does not carry with it the same wonderful heartness that comes with one that is given freely. There is no comparison between the two. And when you also give a gift in such a way that you release all ownership and control of the item, leaving the recipient completely free to use it or dispose of it in any way they choose, then that is a gift in the truest sense of the word.

A different approach

Richard and I long ago stopped giving Christmas or birthday presents to each other or anyone else, and we have an agreement with our families and friends not to give them to us either. This eliminates a whole lot of gift clutter from our lives, and a whole lot of pressure around Christmas and birthdays too.

We still give presents when we want to. We just don’t give them because calendar dates dictate we have to. And we always tell the person that if the gift we have chosen for them is not what they want, they are totally free to give it straight back or dispose of it as soon as they want in any way they like. That way we can be sure we’re not unintentionally creating unwanted clutter in the lives of the people we care about.

This philosophy is one reason why you will never see Christmas promotions on our online store and why there are no birthday messages on any of the message boards we host. I know some people find this odd, but it really is only cultural conditioning. In Bali, for example, where I lived for 20 years, there is no tradition of celebrating birthdays at all, and because 95% of the island’s population is Hindu, they don’t do Christmas either. The concept of giving gifts at these times is purely cultural. It has no spiritual basis whatsoever.

How to opt out

So what can you do if you truly wish to uphold the spirit of Christmas and birthdays without immersing yourself in the accompanying commercialism or stress? Well, you can do what I did many years ago. You can talk to your family and friends to explain how you feel. Broach the topic gradually, giving everyone around you time to consider and adapt.

Explore the different ways that all the time and money you used to spend going shopping can be put instead into spending quality time together, preferably in person. Or if you are separated by distance, via an online call. What better gift can there be?

And what can you do if your family and friends just don’t get it? Well, that’s a tricky one, but if you’re a regular reader of my blog or newsletters then you’re probably quite free-spirited and may decide to make your own rules anyway. For when all is said and done, a life lived from obligation is really no life at all.

Copyright © Karen Kingston 2014, updated 2019

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About Karen Kingston

Karen Kingston is a leading expert in clutter clearing, space clearing, feng shui and healthy homes. Her two international bestselling books have combined sales of over three million copies in 26 languages and have established themselves as "must read" classics in their fields. Her best-known title, Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, is now in its fourth edition. She is best known for her perspective-changing insights and practical solutions that enable more conscious navigation of 21st-century living.
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9 Responses to A different approach to giving and receiving gifts

  1. Lyn says:

    What a beautiful expression – a life lived from obligation is really no life at all – I agree xx

  2. Kate says:

    I totally agree with all the advice in this article. I’d like to add, that if your friends/ family want to give you a token of their love (because for whatever reason they really want to do this, even though you’ve said ‘no presents please’) – you can have a ‘wedding list’ of what you would like (depending on location and ability).

    I save up ideas to give to my husband for when my birthday/Christmas comes round. Things like:
    – riding lessons
    – massage (from a professional masseur)
    – pedicure
    – champagne tea in a nice hotel
    – theatre tickets
    – help with doing something hard, like starting a blog, etc
    – an hour’s gardening!

    … you get the idea!

  3. Lauren says:

    Over thanksgiving my husband’s aunt from the Philippines was in town. She taught me how to make and roll Lumpia. I did a big batch and divided them to freeze. I’ll give them to my dad and brothers along with a bottle of sweet Chili sauce. I think they are going to love it and it will be totally unexpected. I thought of making a batch of sausage balls for my my not so adventurous little brother. He can just pop a few in the oven at a time and not worry about frying, like he would need to do with the Lumpia.

  4. Caroline says:

    On giving and receiving gifts, I totally agree with you – but after encountering some awkwardness in others in response to ‘no gifts’, I’ve found a way of doing it that everyone around me has accepted without question. I just limit the gifts to food!

  5. Susan says:

    We do not exchange birthday presents or holiday gifts. However, when any of our 3 children’s birthdays would come around, we would do a special dinner with the entire family with a cake. They might get gifts from other members of the family (Grands, aunts/uncles/cousins). When our children would go to school the next day and would be asked by classmates, “What did you get from your parents from your birthday?” our children would have what available to say what we would say, “They gave me the gift of Life.” NOW, as small children, I doubt that they loved saying this, however, as adults, I can see that they appreciate and chuckle about this, especially as I am a professional organizer and we all knew that everyone had much already.

    Love your writing! Hello from Philadelphia in the USA!

  6. Anne says:

    I found your article on Paper Clutter to be fascinating; I am tackling my own paper clutter by buying plastic clear storage boxes and filing my papers; seems to help alot. As for Christams and other Greeting Cards; I hold on to my recieved Cards because “one day I hope to make a collage of greetings cards for a wall in my closet. Until then: I hold my cards in a group. I hope to clear out my card and paper clutter before summer. Thank-You

  7. Deborah says:

    Great!! I’m glad to see this article. I’ve been doing something similar. I have Christmas all year round. My children are grown so if they need a large ticket item I am not hampered by a December date. I make sure to write Merry Christmas on their gift card. This makes them smile and feel warm inside.

  8. Sarah says:

    Some years ago I started a family Christmas tradition for family and friends. Everyone pulls a name out of a box and gives the named recipient something of their own that has a STORY. You hand the wrapped gift to someone and tell the story of how you got it or why it’s important and what it meant to you. This brings lots of stories and smiles. Everyone has a keepsake that’s new to them but can be recycled. We did this for a brief time. One of the kids got Father’s manual from his bootcamp time in the U.S. Navy.

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