The Art of Giving Without Guilt

How do we avoid the cultural mindset that sees giving as a social transaction?

My family was never into the whole gift-giving thing for Christmas. In fact, they dreaded receiving presents because that would mean they were “in debt” to someone else.

When it came to my family’s annual Christmas gift exchange with our relatives, our presents weren’t always the most creative.

I remember opening our neatly wrapped Christmas cards and out would fall a shiny $50 gift card from a relative. My sister and I would squeal with delight, whereas my mom would frown at her package, saying, “The gift card we bought for them was only $30 though.”

Through this, I quickly learned that gifts — for many in the Asian community — was an unwanted transaction. They were given in return only to save face. There are Asian parents who would be happy with eliminating gift exchanges from their Christmas list, rather saving the money for something else.

The idea of gift-giving is always somehow filtered as transactional, where one only gave if they were expecting to receive something of equal value. This is no exception during Christmas time where we feel the immense pressure to give; however, that lack of spontaneity to give is more than just a stingy Asian mindset.

Too often in our honour-shame culture, we get so caught up with ensuring everyone on our list gets a present for fear that we might offend someone important. But this takes away from the whole point of gift-giving, which is to show appreciation for the other person.

But what if we could honour our parents, family, and friends without draining our bank account? What if we gave not for the sake of a social transaction but out of authentic gratitude for the recipient? What if we could give because we wanted to?

Taking the material exchange aspect out of presents, here are four simple gift ideas for you to do, instead of give, for your friends and family this holiday season and beyond.

1. Cook for them

All Photos: Stock

Yes, you read that right; it’s time to put those hibernated cooking skills to good use. There’s a reason why your mother wants you to come home for dinner despite you rather going out every single night.

A home-cooked meal is always priceless because it represents your hospitality for the other person while the effort of opening your home to friends and family, and inviting them to share food with you, is a way to genuinely care for them.

2. Treat them to dim sum

We Asians can never have enough food; just look at the number of restaurants we open. The act of eating together — especially at dim sum — is not only a great way to include everyone, from your grandmother to your nephew who just started Kindergarten, but it shows that you’re willing to give up your time in a busy holiday season for them.

Just remember to keep those cellphones silent to avoid it being a distraction.

3. Share an experience

What can be better than creating happy memories with people you love?

Whether it be going to a local Christmas concert or checking out the holiday events around town, there’s always something fun to see and do. Rather than giving them something substantial, give them an experience; one that they’ll share with you and keep for years to come. It also gives you an opportunity to take photos — a great way to have something to look back on in the future.

4. Help them out

Giving your own time can be more valuable than giving gifts. This could be in many different forms, such as helping someone move, or even just setting up for that big Christmas party. Maybe they need someone to decorate their house with them, or even to take down all the ornaments and lights after the season is over.

Whatever it may be, appreciation doesn’t always have to break the bank.  

These four examples are ways to give without needing a huge gift list and having it take a toll on your mental health. While we may feel pressured to give because someone else gave us something first, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Christmas doesn’t have to be the only time to give to those we care for, just so we can match their present to us — or even try to better it. By learning to genuinely give or serve in a way that also brings us closer to each other, the idea of gift-giving as being only transactional can hopefully be a thing of the past.

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