Why I’m giving my family nothing for Christmas

Why I’m giving my family nothing for Christmas

We’re a few days post Thanksgiving. The words “hurry now” and “save 50%” have left our fingers twitching towards our wallets. In most cases we don’t even know what we want to buy – we just want to SAVE.

Friends, we’re in the liminal zone – wandering in a post-Thanksgiving haze, headed towards the New Year, just a few short weeks away. The time can easily be spent in a craze of shopping that we hope will somehow transform us into happier, more fulfilled versions of ourselves, but that only ends up dumping us on the other side of the New Year with more stuff. We wobble through the first days of the New Year, staggered by the weight of our new belongings, grappling for a resolution that will make the future somehow more meaningful.

Can we just… stop?

Instead of following the signs – “hurry now” and “save 50%” – let’s slow down and spend 100% on each other.

A family tradition

Why I’m giving my family nothing for Christmas

After my daughter’s first Christmas, when she got a million and one gifts, I realized I’d have to make a serious effort to help her understand that the holidays have nothing to do with how much loot she has under the tree. Now that she’s in school, this is even more critical (yes, even first-graders compare gifts).

I want her to know the holidays are about…

  • Believing in something bigger than ourselves.
  • Taking time to enjoy each other’s company.
  • Loving each other.

Instead of giving her PJ’s or a book on Christmas Eve, I realized I could use this quiet night to celebrate the things that money cannot buy.  That way, come Christmas Day, she would enjoy her tangible gifts with a little perspective – namely, that it’s not all about the object in the box, but the love and thought that goes into it.

And so our tradition was born. We call it Gifts from the Heart.

Gifts from the Heart

Every year since Ava’s first Christmas, my husband and I have marked Christmas Eve with a tradition of getting each other NOTHING. We even pass around an empty box to underscore the point.

Why I’m giving my family nothing for Christmas

Giving each other “nothing” is really about celebrating the gifts that cannot be wrapped – time, love, and intention. It works like this: During Christmas Eve dinner, we take turns passing around the empty box, offering each other something intangible.  We usually do it at the dinner table, after we’ve eaten. We take our time and turn the moment into a sweet celebration.

Examples from our family:

Last year, I knew that Ava wanted to have a lemonade stand. I also knew (from reading stories with her at bedtime) that she was smitten by Amelia Bedelia’s lemon meringue pie. When it was my turn I said:

Ava, I give you the gift of helping you organize a lemonade stand and making a lemon meringue pie together.

I then presented her with the box. In turn, she made a production of opening the drawstring and hugging the box to her heart.

Accepting the gift with some sort of drama is an beloved part of the ritual. It makes us laugh but it also helps us slow down, take a moment to acknowledge each other’s gifts. Rushing through the giving defeats the purpose.

After I gave Ava her gift, then she gave hers – time for me and Keith to play in her cardboard castle together (as well as “wings” to fly together – so cute!).

I gave Keith “7 boxes of donations” to help simplify our belongings. Keith turned around and gave me 7 boxes of donations and topped it off with a promise to take me out on a fancy date night. He gave Ava a fancy Father-Daughter night out, too, along with a night to bake cookies.

In the past we’ve given each other promises to be digital-free at certain times, to close the office door after 5 p.m. (we both work from home), and to eat breakfast together whenever possible.

And so it goes.

Why I’m giving my family nothing for Christmas

We wrote down our Gifts from the Heart in a notebook so that we could remember them from year to year. Plus, things like lemonade stands can’t be done in cold weather, so it helps my fuzzy brain to have a written record of exactly what I gifted my family for accountability purposes.

Why I’m giving my family nothing for Christmas

About the box

Why I'm giving my family nothing this Christmas

Passing an empty box for your Gifts from the Heart is symbolic and fun, though not entirely necessary. If you choose to use one, don’t fuss about finding something fancy.

Ours had a rather humble beginning. I found it nearly a decade ago on a shelf at the local thrift store, on top of a clothing rack near the candles. In fact, I think it used to hold candles. I was drawn to the box because it was so unusual – a lightweight metal frame wrapped in sheer cloth. The cloth pulls together on top with a drawstring, making it as much a bag as a box. I purchased it to transport our rings when Keith and I got married (instead of using a traditional pillow). I tied an “X” across the top frame with some ribbon and dangled the rings from the center. The rings remained visible as the terrified ring bearer walked them down the aisle.

Very cute.

After the wedding, I tucked the box in the back of a closet and forgot about it until we started our Gifts from the Heart tradition.

Why “nothing” is so great

Why I’m giving my family nothing for Christmas


By giving each other “nothing,” we’re actually setting intentions for the New Year – how we plan to spend time together, what’s important to us. It serves as a mini-vision board for family time.

Gifts from the Heart is about slowing down and spending 100%… on what matters.

That way, when the tide of gifts rises at dawn (as it inevitably does), there’s a small life raft of meaning for our children to grab onto. While I’ll always get Ava gifts on Christmas Day, I hope that, when she’s an adult, she’ll remember those intangible Gifts from the Heart most fondly.

Cultivating Gratitude

Another hope is to teach our children to appreciate what they’re given, no matter how small or large, real or intangible. Last year, I knew we were getting somewhere when Ava wrote us these spontaneous thank you notes. She did it late one night, after bedtime stories.

Why I’m giving my family nothing for ChristmasNo one asked her to do it.

She was 5-years old.

What a gift.

Here’s what she wrote:

To: mom

I lov the presets tha yoou gav me. I lov you.


To: Popo

I lov the presets that you gav me. I lov you.

I mean… c’mon.

You’re invited

If you like the idea of giving your family “nothing” this year, remember you don’t need a fancy box. Two cupped hands will do for sharing gifts from the heart. I think doing it around the dinner table is a nice touch, though what night you choose will certainly depend on your family traditions. Again: this is not about replacing traditional gift giving, but about underscoring the fact that the most important things in life can’t be wrapped.

Finally, remember the GTA community is here to support each other. I invite you to share  your photos and stories on Instagram with #GlobalTableAdventure and #Giftfromtheheart. Let’s cheer each other on!


  1. Sasha you hit the nail on the button. I take my hat off to you for this idea. The gift giving thing is stressful for everyone especially the children who have limited means. As a result they become focused on money instead of what is important. Spending time with family and helping those less fortunate is far better.

    Giving gifts to less fortunate is also not the solution. We have to think about helping the less fortunate in far more sustainable ways instead of just giving gifts. Better to give a poor person something useful that they can earn a living with or improve their knowledge or give them life skills. Our family gave up the gift giving tradition many decades ago and are happier for it.

    • Sasha Martin says

      Great point. There are some charities where you can gift items that help communities earn a living (often livestock). This is a great option.

    • Larry Lazzeretti says

      Amen to that.Xmas was originally a celebration of tje birth of christ.the tradition of gift giving was to remind us of the 3 wisemen givong gifts to the christ child.but not many people think of this. Jesus said what you do for the least of my brethren you do for me. Give to the needy instead to keep the original tradition

  2. So fabulous! Instead of Chanukah gifts, my husband and I would take our kids out for dinner. We felt they would remember that much longer than they would remeber the doll or truck (or whatever they wanted). I really think this is even better. You are a fabulous mother. You are really teaching your daughter by example.
    I wish you and your family many happy holidays together.

    • Sasha Martin says

      When they are little, the boxes are usually more fun than the gifts anyway – ha! Happy Holidays to you.

  3. I’m sorry Sasha, but something is wrong with your holiday tradition. News flash: this is 2015. You can’t say “Instead of following the signs – “hurry now” and “save 50%” – let’s slow down and spend 100% on each other.” It’s too late. We as a society already follow the signs. It’s not going away. This is not to say that if I were in your family or visiting you for the holidays I would not follow your tradition, of course I would. But in this day and age, you cannot expect people to follow your guidelines in this post.

    • Sasha Martin says

      It’s not too late for our family. As I mention above, she does receive gifts on Christmas Day… This isn’t about depriving her of a “traditional” experience, it’s about simplifying what she gets … while adding a layer of meaning to the holiday with this tradition. Gifts from the heart is about teaching her something bigger. It might be “wrong” for you, but we love it.

      • AnnieMax says

        Please, people, can we stop with calling “bully” every time someone doesn’t agree with you and states it rather harshly. That is NOT being a bully!

    • The altitude must be thin atop that horse.

      Considering the end to slavery, women’s right to vote, and a plethora of other civil-right and humanitarian changes (some happening in 2015 btw) were led by people choosing to do things differently despite what “society” said, it seems quite reasonable the author can provide whatever “guidelines” she likes, and expect that people may just start to follow them.

      I would suggest some additional research especially with regard to a growing movement among millennials (part of society last time I checked). At least in the US (and most of the western world) are shifting to this exact line of thinking.

      Might be good to brush up on origins of historical change throughout the world as well.

    • There is nothing wrong with Sasha’s tradition. In our family we have also ceased giving store-bought gifts at Christmastime. We make gifts or we create activities for later in the year that we can share as a family. My daughter is 18 and she prefers “activity” gifts – things that we do together like going to a play, or going showshoeing – to getting a bunch of material items that she can’t fit in her dorm room anyway. And my husband and I don’t need anything from one another other than the love and support that bolsters us year-round. I still give gifts to my niece and nephew because they are small and that’s their family tradition – and to friends I give food gifts – pickles or cookies or candy that we make at home. But really, there is nothing wrong with a tradition that keeps us out of the malls and doing things together as loved ones. You are free to spend your money and time as you see fit, but there is a growing trend among those of us who just aren’t interested in filling our lives with things, things, things.

    • I can understand why you’re saying that, but it wasn’t my intention to upset you. I was just trying to say that this is not the way the majority of society thinks.

      • Avery – Thanks for checking back in. If you were nearby I’d invite you over for a cup of tea. Sometimes talking in person is easier than online discussions. As is evident in this comment area, we are all passionate about our family traditions – understanding and respecting our differences is a big part of why this web site exists. Thanks again for checking back in and sharing your intentions.

      • eileen says

        Dear Avery: In my view you did nothing wrong and said nothing wrong and you owe no one an explanation. The simple very clear fact of the matter is you were gang-jumped for sharing your clear view / thoughts on the matter being discussed.

  4. my sentiments exactly Sasha…except for two exceptional women in my life who are getting your book. You gave me my two new favorite words and thoughts……flavaaa (from your Mom actually ) and ‘all is well’ …..thank you ! let us lead with our hearts.

  5. Our favorite gift is time! We make a point of spending time together – cooking a nice dinner, sitting in front of the fireplace, playing board games, and drinking hot chocolate and mulled wine. It’s the BEST present ever.

  6. I love this idea! My mom and husband agree with me that we all prefer experiences to material gifts, but I hadn’t thought about passing a symbolic empty box as we describe the experience we’re giving. Beautiful!

  7. I love this idea! What a unique tradition. Each year our family packs & donates operation Christmas Child boxes, which are delivered to children in 3rd world countries, one year, we had our own shoe box Christmas, all they received was a box filled with toothbrush, toothpaste, a hair brush, a few sparkly bracelets,,, etc. They loved it.

  8. Excellent! I’m impressed to do this. I have been praying for something more meaningful than just what everyone else is doing. I had this idea today. To buy a planted tree and as we learn scripture verses about the season and prayers for others or our family, to hang them on the tree. Then after the holidays, plant it!

  9. I love this idea! Wished I’d read of it earlier as our family always has had the tradition of opening one gift on Christmas Eve. We have three children, two have already left home to college and I have one high school freshman girl left at home whom will love this idea . How would you suggest I introduce this to them and their grandparents? I mean how to let them know to be “prepared” to say a tangible gift at dinner time?

    • Hmmm… I might mention it casually and perhaps send them the link to this post so they can read about how it plays out. The pictures might help clarify. Perhaps since everyone’s older there will be a sense of relief – and surely some real creativity will come from each different personality. Good luck and have fun with it!

  10. Rileysmom says

    Dear Sasha,
    You are such an inspiration! I applaud you and your husband to raise Ava to be conscientious and grateful for the experiences life has to offer!
    Most of us certainly don’t need more “stuff” and time is so precious.
    Merry Christmas!
    P.S. Would you adopt me?

  11. I love your idea, Sasha! Nothing wrong with I a all!! Isn’t the Holiday season abt spending time together anyway!? Great way to be intentional! I love your idea too, Kristen Betts! Thanks for sharing, ladies!!

  12. We do something similar to this. We make each other hand-made cards and draw on the inside the activity we are going to do together. We exchange “memories”, not stuff. (These are also things that we promise to fulfill over the year, they don’t all happen immediately.) Haven’t bought “stuff” in years, and I love it!!! I think it’s adorable that Ava also feels like she can participate at the same level as the adults. She has just as much to give. Well done!!

    We may not be able to stop the marketing ads, but we do have the freewill to make our own choices about how we react to them!

  13. This is a great idea!!!!
    Thanks for sharing
    I love celebrating the true meaning of Christmas rather then the Santa with all the gifts. My children have always got one gift from Santa and the rest from family and have never received any kind of electronic as a gift.

  14. Alison says

    Thanks for sharing this, Sasha. We used to make gift certificates for each other for things like breakfast in bed, baked goods and foot rubs as kids. I love the idea of putting these in a book so they don’t get lost! And I appreciate the reminder that time is still the most precious gift. Time to get off my smartphone and play with my daughters, lol!

  15. eileen says

    The Christmas holiday and celebration in America has always been (for those who choose to recognize and celebrate it) is a very very special holiday. Prettily and lovingly wrapped packages with tangible ‘surprise’ gifts inside is a big part of the whole wonderful time and celebration. Let’s not again try and destroy a wonderful American tradition. I don’t know how other countries around the world celebrate Christmas and at the moment I do not care. I am angry to read these posts…. why (also) because someone was jumped on and no one cared…………… I do! And, please remember the author of this blog is American and lives in America. Now I would like to share a good writing I found on internet about The American Holiday – Christmas:

    Christmas is a most important religious holy day for Christians, who attend special church services to celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

    Christmas is not only a religious holy day, but became one of the first federal holidays in 1870. On this day most businesses and offices remain closed and the greatest possible number of workers, including government employees, have the day off. Many places even close early on the day before.

    Naturally Christians observe Christmas according to the traditions of their particular church. Besides the strictly religious traditions, however, other common Christmas practices are observed by people who are not religious or who are not Christian. In this way, some Christmas traditions have become American traditions.

    Gift-giving is so common at Christmas time that for most stores it means a sharp increase in sales. Stores, in fact, are full of shoppers from Thanksgiving time in late November until the day before Christmas. This situation has caused many religious people to complain that the religious meaning of Christmas is being subverted, that Christmas has become “commercial.” Despite the criticism, Christmas shopping is a major activity of many Americans in the month of December. Gifts are given to children, members of the family and close friends. They are given to people who have done favors to others or who work for them. Some people bake cookies or make candies or other special food treats for friends and neighbors. Many businesses give their workers a Christmas “bonus” – gifts of extra money – to show appreciation for their work. Christmas is also a time when most Americans show great generosity to other less fortunate than they. They send money to hospitals or orphanages or contribute to funds that help the poor.

    Most Americans send greeting cards to their friends and family at Christmas time. Some people who are friends or relatives and live great distances from each other may not be much in contact with each other during year – but will usually exchange greeting cards and often a Christmas letter telling their family news.

    The decorating of homes for Christmas is very common. Most American who observe Christmas have a Christmas tree in their homes. This may be a real evergreen tree or an artificial one. In either case, the tree is decorated and trimmed with small lights and ornaments. Other decorations such as lights and wreaths of evergreen and signs wishing a “Merry Christmas” can be found inside and outside of many homes.”

    Now, for those who are trying to make excuse and helping to destroy yet another ‘good American thing’… admit what it really is: ‘Women want it all’ teaching & way-of-life and thus, ‘not enough time!’……

    • sophia says

      I would love to destroy this blasphemous, destructive ‘American thing’ and, secondly, I believe that both women and men should be able to have children and work and thoughts and convictions and to offer their opinions.

    • eileen says

      God is good, God is great, let us thank Him for our food, life and light and celebrate this happy time of year with great joy and passion.

      amazing to the max: “Il Divo – O Holy Night” on youtube Published on Aug 19, 2014 IlDivoVEVO
      “Music video by Il Divo performing O Holy Night. (c) 2005 Simco Limited, exclusively licensed to SONY BMG MUSIC ENTERTAINMENT (UK) Limited” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5j_XuATgRU

  16. I love your tradition of gifts from the heart. We also have tried to encourage our two daughters to give at least one non-material gift to each person. We used coupons when they were young. A tangible reminder like your list. It does not take away but rather adds joy to our Christmas. l hope as my girls start families of their own, that they will also encourage gifts of time and love in addition to that special bottle of perfume…ect. Marie

  17. Pingback: The Love, The News and The Antidotes - Tumbling the Stone

  18. julie b says

    Thank you Sasha (and the people who have contributed to the comments area) I did not realise how gift focused, money focus and how materialistic I was… Time is precious, family is precious, belonging (as family and friends) is precious. Spending hours trying to spend as little as possible on as much as possible does not increase (for me anyway) my happiness, their happiness, my belonging, their belonging… it increased stress levels, limited time together, encouraged grumpiness and snappiness. Thank you for the new possible ways of thinking, seeing and approaching things. God bless you all xx

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