American gift-giving trends and traditions reflect a change in American values


David explained that many of the survey participants say the holidays are no longer about “buying lots of things anymore,” but that the holidays are about “giving things that truly have great meaning and show great love for the individual.”


A welded crèche, a wooden manger, a climbing wall and an Native American drum were some of the presents found beneath the Sabey family’s Christmas tree over the years.Mark Sabey, 55, an attorney with a large national law firm, shares that homemade Christmas gifts have been a long-standing tradition in their Centennial, Colorado, home.

“We have five boys and one girl. When our children were young we thought it would be a more meaningful gift-giving experience if our children designed and made presents for each other," Sabey said.


A recent survey from Time Inc., one of the largest media companies in the world, and YouGov, a research and consulting organization, calculated that 2 million families have dropped out of holiday gift-giving this year. The survey on holiday gift-giving trends and practices found that while household holiday gift spending had increased, total gift spending had only increased by about 9 percent.

While some families claim that this number is due to the fact that exchanging gifts has become too expensive, many families suggest they spend less on holiday gifts to help them focus on the true meaning on the holidays, researchers and family specialists say.

The Sabeys could be counted among them.


“We spent a lot of time the garage, so we wanted (our children) to work on homemade presents because they learned some practical skills. They could experience the joys of giving," Sabey said. "Quality time with parents working on presents was good, too. We would take them shopping for supplies, and this was not necessarily a money saver. Sometimes the supplies were more expensive than just buying the thing, but that wasn’t the point.”



Changing values


Cara David, managing partner at YouGov, said the organization has followed the top 10 percent of American families, in terms of household incomes, to track how families have changed over the years.


David said that prior to the recession, during the stock market decline and through the aftermath, spending has changed. Not only that, survey participants have changed their outlook on life and what is important to them, David explained.

“You see that reflected in how they intend to spend the holidays. Their gift-giving reflects it, the amount of travel they do during the holidays to be with friends and family," she said. "They tell us about gift-giving and the meaning of their gifts.”


David explained that many of the survey participants say the holidays are no longer about “buying lots of things anymore,” but that the holidays are about “giving things that truly have great meaning and show great love for the individual.”

While the results include some “blah humbug” people who just do not have an enthusiasm for the holidays anymore, the survey did include families with children.


Jim Taylor, vice chairman of YouGov, said that one of the big changes that came out of the recession was that people stopped spending money not out of fear, but out of lifestyle choices that brought happiness.


“The great silver-lining of the recession is that among affluent and wealthy families, the happiness went from 46 percent of the family to over 72 percent,” said Taylor. “We have a bunch of people who feel really good about leading a life that is primarily focused on fulfillment, not spending money or not even earning money but having relationships. And holidays have quickly begun to represent that.”


Josh Golin, associate director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, an organization devoted to stopping the commercial exploitation of children, said his campaign has seen parents frustrated with the over-commercialization of the holidays, so they are buying fewer gifts.

“They (parents) are really looking to reverse these types of trends," he said. "Whether it is parents that already try to limit this stuff or they are just really frustrated at how hard it is to limit the stuff, or whether it be families that had an epiphany.”


Although he cannot comment on the reasoning behind the YouGov findings, some of the gift-giving decrease may be because too many families that focus on gifts feel regret, almost emptiness, when they look at their credit card and realize that the plethora of gifts only increased their child’s desire for more gifts.


He suggested many parents are seeking to implement new holiday traditions that help their families focus on the meaning of the holidays.

"Kids are much more open to the idea of the altruistic side of the holidays maybe than we give them credit for sometimes," Golin said.



Gifts of experience


Amy McCready, the founder of Positive Parenting Solutions, an organization that provides training for parents of toddlers to teens, and author of "If I Have to Tell You One More Time," said that some families, like the Sabeys, incorporate experience-type gifts for their families rather than physical gifts.

"For families who have kids that are older, I know a lot families who are not giving gifts at all. They might rent a house in the mountains and go away as a family for four or five days together," she said.


The Time and YouGov survey also found that 51 percent of Millennials, 39 percent of Gen X, 28 percent of Boomers and 33 percent Matures said they are planning to take a special trip during the holiday season as a gift for themselves or their families.

About 60 percent of the survey participants in 2013 said they focused on traveling to increase their quality of life. In 2014, that number increased to 64 percent.


Wendy Middlemiss, an associate professor at the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of North Texas, also said that some families have a desire for their children, both young and old, to think about the holidays differently.


"People who are buying gifts might just buy one big gift, and I have seen a lot of families that are going some place as gift. Which kind of incorporates that family time together," she said. "You can provide something that creates memories and provides something for you as a family."



Homemade gifts


Many homemade gifts are made at a child’s elementary school, McCready said, but parents can have their children make homemade gifts or projects at home, too.


“You can just Google homemade gifts for kids, or go to Pinterest," she said. "There are a million ideas there. Not only are you creating this wonderful gift, but you are creating it together where you are helping him make something special for grandma.”


Sabey's son, David, liked growing up with his family's unique homemade gift tradition. When looking back at his childhood Christmases, David, now 27, believes that the time commitment and dedication put toward making the gifts made his family holiday more meaningful.


"I always enjoyed making Christmas presents. And on Christmas morning, we were always most excited to see what our homemade gift would be, and to give away the one we had made," he said. "Even though these gifts were not as sleek as something store-bought, they mattered more to us, probably because we had spent hours working on them in an often cold garage. That time was a part of the present."