Could you have a one-present Christmas?
No need to splash on money on Christmas gifts
With middle-class families spending hundreds if not thousands of rands on gifts for their children, Kate Graham talks to well-to-do parents bucking the trend with a minimal Christmas
Turkey with all the trimmings and a tinsel-festooned tree are hallmarks of many childhood Christmas memories, but nothing stays wedged in the mind more firmly than those giddy moments spent ripping the wrapping paper off a tower of presents.
When Dusty and Albert O’Dare, five and four, wake up on December 25, however, there won’t be a pile of gifts waiting for them under the tree.
In fact, apart from the small stockings at the end of their beds, there won’t be any presents at all. And that’s just how their parents like it.
“We’ll be staying at my mother-in-law’s in Scotland in a magical house by the sea,” explains Aimee Leigh Smith, a 36-year-old therapist from Somerset.
“Instead of buying the boys presents they don’t need, she is creating a treasure hunt.
“And the treasure won’t be plastic rubbish, it will be things she’ll make out of leaves and picture books with photos of them inside.
“They love gardening so she’s going to plant something for them to learn about. Everything made with love.”
Leaf-based presents are unlikely to trouble too many households this Christmas, though, as UK parents are splashing the cash like never before; a survey by safe.co.uk found that in 2016, the average festive spend on each child was an eye-watering £204 (R3,700).
Christmas Day is now about slowing down and just playing togetherRachael Smith
Online forums are currently filled with anxious posts (nearly always by mothers) asking if they are spending too much, or not enough, on their little ones.
It’s a question that vexes even the wealthiest, with actors Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis opting for a more radical solution – no gifts whatsoever for their three-year-old Wyatt or one-year-old Dimitri.
This is one celebrity trend that can’t spread soon enough for Aimee and her husband Andrew, 43.
“For a long time, I’ve despised the way Christmas has lost its true message, and become greedy and materialistic,” she says.
“Buying things and having things just for the sake of it is a mindless way of living.
“We want to teach the boys that Christmas is about magic, joy, playfulness and being with those you love.”
When their children were born, the pair set a budget of £50 (R915) per child. That includes a small stocking, which might contain chocolate coins, a book or story CD (“always educational, nothing expensive”) and a few craft items.
But more importantly for them, it also covers things the family do together.
“We focus on experiences; we go to the panto every year at the local theatre and take a trip to the ice skating rink.
“We watch the reindeer walk down the high street. It’s these things that really make Christmas special and magical. Not presents.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Rachael Smith, 33, a photographer from Swansea. She and her husband Simeon have been buying Morgan, nine, Noah, seven, and Ezra, three, one Christmas gift each for the past five years.
“So much of what’s bought for children these days is lucky to get five minutes of play time before being overlooked for the next gift,” she explains.
“We try to ensure that what we do buy them is something they either need or really do want, and that they’ll actually enjoy and play with a lot.”
Last Christmas, that meant a climbing wall for Morgan, which university lecturer Simeon built in her bedroom, and a drum kit for Noah that Simeon’s colleague was giving away.
Rewind five years and things were very different. With money tight, the pair would spend £50 per child, buying as many presents as their budget would allow.
But when Ezra was born, Rachael was inspired by posts from other mums on social media, whose homes “were so tidy and clean, I honestly thought they’d Photoshopped out all of their stuff”, she recalls.
“Our house then was small and every space was crammed. The idea of reducing really appealed to me and slowly we began to live with less.”
When Christmas came that year, the pair decided to apply their newfound appreciation of minimalism to the festive period, too.
“You want to spoil your children, it’s completely natural, but I asked myself ‘why do I want to do that, is it helpful in the long run?’” Rachael says.
“We decided that instead of spending a set amount we would only buy the children one thing, something they really wanted.”
Creating a year-round one-in, one-out, toy policy has had a positive impact on the entire family.
Streamlining their possessions (Noah has just two toy boxes under his bed, Ezra a three-box Ikea tower and Morgan a sewing machine and fabric drawers) has meant the children are more appreciative, focused in their play, and within 10 minutes the house can be tidy.
So what does Christmas Day actually look like without the pile of presents?
For the O’Dares, play is the focus, as is enjoying their local surrounds.
“We live in a beautiful area and are very outdoorsy people. For us, Christmas is a day with no expectations other than to be with each other.”
The Smiths opt for a walk on the beach and watching a Christmas film in their pyjamas, before taking turns to slowly open and appreciate the few gifts they do get.
There are additional presents from family, although the parents are trying to steer relatives towards experiences instead, like a yearly pass to the nearby botanical gardens.
“The children honestly do leap around the room when they open an envelope and realise they can go to the local castles but some feel they need to buy them a physical gift as well. So we have a small online gift list to make sure they are things the kids actually want.”
And this can be the fly in the minimal Christmas gift ointment, because not everyone is on board with the notion of sparse offerings beneath the tree when it comes to children.
Some people tell Rachael they wish they could do it this way, but feel trapped into giving lots of gifts. But she’s also heard on the grapevine that a mutual friend thinks her one-gift idea is cruel.
While Aimee’s brothers have agreed to ditch the presents (like Mila and Ashton, they’ve asked family and friends to dial back the gift giving, again encouraging buying experiences like the theatre instead), her mum is less keen.
“She definitely thinks I’m being a killjoy. In my family I’ve always been seen as the Grinch.
“But I really do feel like the tide is turning, that my family can finally see why we’re doing this.”
As for what the children themselves think, both mothers say fewer gifts actually heighten the magic.
“Christmas Day is now about slowing down and just playing together,” says Rachael.
“We’re not overwhelmed by stuff and it’s never chaotic or crazy. As they get older they may want to keep up with friends and trends, so we’ll reassess. But at the moment, it works well.”
Aimee, however, is confident that their no-gift philosophy won’t change.
“The kids absolutely love Christmas, they are spoilt with love and experiences, and spending time with people who adore them. That’s the magic of Christmas, which no present can replace.” – The Daily Telegraph