Tuning into the real spirit of Christmas

31 May 2008

With all the in-store promotions and advertising everywhere we look, it's easy to see Christmas as a time of overspending and overindulgence. In doing so, we can overlook the real benefits of the season, says behaviour expert Judi James.

A recent survey of more than 2,000 people undertaken on behalf of the website moneysupermarket.com found that almost half are worried about how they will cover the cost of Christmas this year. 

Only 17 per cent said they had already saved enough money for Christmas - and the same percentage expected to put their festive purchases on credit cards.

As many families look to rein in their spending during the economic downturn, this is a good time to focus on the positives of less lavish forms of consumption. 

Instead of promoting the size of the price tag, placing greater emphasis on some of the more meaningful benefits of giving and receiving gifts can make the ritual feel less superficial and more emotionally rewarding.

The real benefits of Christmas will last just as long as that extra inch on your waistline or extra nought on your credit card bill, but without the angst of either!

Looking beyond the price tag... 

Thinking about the true spirit of giving helps us cut through all the manufacturers' sales campaigns and remember that Christmas is not just about rushing round the shops at the last minute to grab things with the biggest price tag.

Although giving expensive presents might be superficially impressive, it can mask less generous sentiments, such as a desire to raise the giver's status. Giving expensive gifts can be a substitute for genuine acts of affection or even a subliminal way of controlling recipients by making them overly grateful.

When it's the receiver who has demanded the expensive gift, it negates all thought on behalf of the giver and can sometimes cause long-term resentments.

By focusing on the other facets of giving gifts, like spending time and effort on someone else and showing thoughtfulness and an understanding of their needs and tastes, you can create stronger bonds that will stretch way beyond the festive season.

Psychological benefits of gift-making 

An inexpensive or home-made gift that is well thought out is often much more memorable than something flashy and expensive that has obviously been bought with little or no consideration of the personal interests or needs of the recipient.

Gift-making really does extend the ritual of Christmas in a good way. It helps focus on a key aspect of the event that is often either forgotten or underestimated in terms of the creation of genuine happiness, namely anticipation.

Psychologists often claim that the anticipation of an event or gift will often far outweigh the pleasure of the thing itself. By spending time planning and making more meaningful presents - or by making decorations or gifts together - you can greatly increase the positive benefits and levels of happiness.

Rather than battling your way round the shops, you could be sitting down together making gifts for the rest of the family and friends.

If that sounds a bit too idealised and 'Walton family', it doesn't have to: Christmas is all about rituals, and although saving money on gifts might be prompted by the recession, the act of producing and sharing them is something you can continue long after the stock market is looking healthier again.

Practical gift-making tips 

•   Think creatively. Making gifts involves creative thinking, which can in itself have long-term benefits. Instead of going down the knitted hat route, encourage kids to create storybooks, writing their own short stories in hand-illustrated notebooks. (It didn't do the Bronte sisters any harm and you could be creating the next generation of J K Rowlings!)

You could also encourage children to make real-life scrapbooks for older relatives, hunting down photos and mementoes that can also spark an interest in family history.

Creative tasks such as making a frame for a photo they've taken of a friend's favourite pet or making food or other treats in the shape of their initial will help children learn new skills.

Making their own gifts can also help children appreciate some of the non-commercial benefits of Christmas, such as showing thought and affection for others. 

•  Give home-made gifts a designer twist. If you're already into sewing or knitting patterns, but are worried your efforts aren't always appreciated, take some time to go window-shopping in some of the trendier designer, toy and interiors shops.

At this time of year, these shops are full of hand-knit throws, cushions and soft toys, and you can copy some of the latest designs, rather than knocking out another range of woolly socks or vests!

The only thing missing from your hand-made gift will be the designer label. One simple idea you can copy from the trendy stores is attaching large, brown paper luggage labels tied with string to your presents.

Writing the recipient's name on one of these should ensure even the most hard-to-please kids think they've got a cutting-edge aunt/uncle/gran/grandad! 

•   Create healthy festive foods and hampers. Giving home-made food gifts is another lovely idea that shows you have really thought about the recipient and taken the time to create something especially for them.