Why I refuse to buy ANY gifts this Christmas

Why I refuse to buy ANY gifts this Christmas (…and doting grannies and aunties can’t either!)

  • Last Christmas, Dinah Van Tulleken and her husband decided to not buy this year
  • READ MORE: 115 easy Christmas gift ideas for difficult people – all under £100

My plan for this year’s Christmas started on Boxing Day last year. Surrounded by wrapping paper and abandoned gifts, I suggested to my husband Chris that next time we shouldn’t buy anything — for each other or the children.

To say he was excited by this would be an understatement. He’s never been particularly interested in presents from me (or for me). The best gift I ever got him was a pack of David Beckham/H&M underpants which had been lying on my desk when I left the office late one Christmas Eve. (Huge thanks to the H&M press office, and David, if you’re reading, my husband would like you to bring this range back, please.)

For my birthday this year he got me a copper pan. I hadn’t realised I wanted or needed one but, apparently, he’s saving my life by avoiding Teflon and ‘for ever chemicals’.

I tell you what is for ever: the porridge stuck to the bottom of my birthday gift.

Not buying anything for my husband is trivial because he can buy for himself. But not buying presents for our two girls, aged six and three, is a trickier proposition.

Dinah van Tullken is pictured with her husband Dr Chris van Tulleken and their children

Chris took a while to get his head around the idea that we’re not buying them anything either.

‘Ah! So you mean Father Christmas will bring it all for them?’ he said with a wink.

‘No, Chris. The big guy with the white beard does not exist. That would still be us buying for them, and as I explained, we are not buying them anything.’

He looked panicked and I was forced, once again, to listen to the story of the greatest (and possibly only) trauma of his childhood.

It was 1987 and he was convinced that the largest present under the tree was a plastic model of He-Man’s fortress, Castle Grayskull. It turned out to be a version of Castle Grayskull, but one that had been lovingly made by his dad. However charming that sounds to us now, for nine-year-old Chris, Christmas was ruined.

I patiently let him finish and explained I understood all that, but we still weren’t going to be buying any presents and here’s why. We have, at a conservative estimate, the equivalent of two entire bathtubs full of plastic pieces: Lego, Playmobil, Sylvanian Families, model animals, model dinosaurs — the list goes on.

We have another two bathtubs full of soft toys, despite the fact that each girl shows affection for only one. In Lyra’s case a greying rabbit called Rabbit, and for Sasha a tatty monkey called, yes, Monkey.

READ MORE: One hundred and fifteen easy Christmas gift ideas for difficult people – all under £100: Read You magazine’s big gift guide 

These have been accumulated as presents, hand-me-downs and rewards for doing what we need them to do when we need them to do it; finishing courses of antibiotics, applying eczema cream, etc. And Chris is particularly prone to guilty airport purchases on the way home from work trips. Lego seems to have opened stores in nearly every airport to accommodate this urge.

We’re increasingly aware of the global impact of our purchases. Everything we buy the kids will go into landfill. Much of it already has.

I find it hard to stomach that the main focus wherever you look at this time of year is to buy, buy, buy. Given the cost-of-living crisis, it feels obscene that there’s such a huge amount of pressure on everyone and that the stuff we buy feels more disposable than ever.

Have a think about how much of what you got and gave last year is still in use. Like everyone else, we’re busy and, therefore, guilty of those last-minute silly purchases. Chris particularly would get techy stuff. Such as a pair of walkie-talkies for the kids which were so advanced they couldn’t use them, and anyway, within the week we’d lost the charger.

He got me a fitness tracker that I hadn’t asked for, was slightly offended by and again had a special charging device which when it failed couldn’t be replaced without buying the whole thing again.

The previous year it was a fancy electric toothbrush which I didn’t want. But I can’t quite bear to throw this stuff away, so it lives in the drawer of devices without chargers and chargers without devices.

Concerns about material excess at Christmas are as old as the age of consumerism, but with the planet on fire and plastics everywhere it seems like we are at a moment of reckoning and have been for some time.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas. I live in the house I grew up in and it warms my heart watching my children run downstairs on Christmas morning, my father’s Phil Spector LP playing on his old record player. They’re having the same wonderful Christmases I remember.

DINAH: He got me a fitness tracker that I hadn’t asked for, was slightly offended by and again had a special charging device which when it failed couldn’t be replaced without buying the whole thing again

The girls are lucky to have three remaining grandparents, eight aunts and uncles and seven cousins, and most of us manage to get together on the big day somehow. So Christmas Day will feel Christmassy even though I’ve forced this rule on the family, telling my mother, in-laws and the brothers and sisters not to buy the girls anything.

My sister was appalled and very cross that she will be thought of as the mean old aunt. Just because I want to strip the joy out of Christmas, why should she have to?

If presents really brought the girls happiness for more than literally a few moments, I might be more persuaded, but the adverts sell a different idea to the sad products you find inside, which are quickly abandoned.

There is a hardcore of a few Sylvanian figures and Schleich animals which get regular outings, but they make up around 1 per cent of the total.

The girls are happiest doing simple stuff: tormenting the cat, trashing the living room, building forts, drawing on the furniture, collecting snails in the garden, annoying everyone else in the park and, to be totally honest, watching TV. They do not need, or even want, more stuff.

And my gift refusal is not one-sided. I don’t want to give presents to my family, but mainly I don’t want to receive them.

Gifts are complicated; they come with obligations and expectations. For me, gifts come with guilt. I am overwhelmed by the volume of stuff coming into the house. And gift-giving is part of the cycle.

I immediately feel obliged to go and buy the giver or their child something they may not need or want. This is not a popular opinion, but present-buying can put pressure on other people to buy for you — however generously you give a gift, it’s hard not to expect something in return.

READ MORE: Wondering what to get your kids for Christmas? The 30 best Amazon gifts for children revealed – with great deals on LEGO, Furby and more! 

So, how are we planning to do this?

Last year Lyra (five at the time) begged for a violin. I looked at buying one, but something told me it might not be a wise investment. Perhaps it was the fact her little sister smashes everything Lyra owns, or maybe it was because she was a completely normal five-year-old and doesn’t show interest in anything after the initial novelty has worn off.

We ended up renting one at a very reasonable price, and I can count on one hand the number of times that instrument has left its case in the last 12 months. In fact, I can count the times on one finger.

Returning the violin in immaculate condition for another child to ignore was the most validating experience of my year and renting again this year will make sure that Christmas Day has some magic under the tree without guilt about landfill.

This year we’re updating Lyra’s bike rental. She has had the same bike from bikeclub.com for a year and it is now so miniature she has started to look like she’s performing a circus act when she rides it. If we hadn’t rented it, we’d now be trying to sell it on eBay — or not quite getting round to selling it on eBay.

Now the bike gets returned and fully refurbished for another child and Lyra gets a bigger gift under the tree, albeit a second-hand rental one.

Sasha will get a dolls house that’s been up in the loft since Lyra outgrew it two years ago. We’ll get that down and wrap it up, and she’ll be over the moon and will play with it enthusiastically for a full ten minutes — exactly the same amount of time as she would a new gift — before she moves onto smashing Christmas tree ornaments and demanding another mince pie.

When it comes to the excitement of bulging stockings, I’ve had a long-term strategy. For the past six months I’ve been quietly confiscating toys and teddies and any hand-me-downs from cousins. These are long forgotten and will appear as if new on Christmas Day in stockings hung from the ends of their beds.

So the children will have gifts; they will believe Father Christmas has been. The brandy will have been drunk, the carrot nibbled and the mince pie reduced to crumbs. But we will not have bought a single thing.

And that is the point. Not to buy stuff.

Chris’s present to me and the children will be less time on his phone, less work at weekends. We will have more outings to climbing walls, wildlife parks, etc. Things they’ll remember and will learn from. Committing to these activities — we have put dates in the diary so that it’s not just empty promises — has made us realise these are much harder gifts for us to give.

Both of us were buying plastic as a replacement for meaningful time being present as parents.

Chris and I will do the same for each other. In the past year we have gone out together as a couple without the children as many times as Lyra played that violin.

In fact, we have already booked the theatre and a babysitter for an evening in March. I have no doubt that I’ll sleep through it, but we’ll be together.

So the children will have gifts; they will believe Father Christmas has been. The brandy will have been drunk, the carrot nibbled and the mince pie reduced to crumbs. But we will not have bought a single thing (stock photo)

I won’t be buying for other adults, either. I’ve always taken this approach at work and in my friendship group with the Secret Santa.

Whoever draws me knows they’ll be getting something from Choose Love, where you can buy essential supplies for refugees and displaced people across the world.

I worried that people would think this was a bit holier than thou. But, in fact, it’s gone down well, and more and more people are donating on behalf of others to charity.

We’re well aware that the no‑present approach may not last for ever with our children. It will certainly get harder as they get older and more aware. They’re already becoming more and more conscious of what’s normal among their friends. (There are rumours someone in Lyra’s year is getting a phone).

However, we have pledged that, for as long as we can, we will try to persuade them that Christmas really can be about family and not things.

And, as they get older, they’re more able to understand that experiences are really what they enjoy the most, even if they can’t open them on Christmas Day.

If I can drum this into the children, perhaps Chris will finally heal from the Grayskull trauma of ’87.

To underline the lesson, our Christmas movie will not be Bond with his fancy cars and expensive watches — it will be The Grinch: ‘Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.’

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