For a fairly cynical person, I’m pretty into Christmas. If you looked at my living room, you’d think a Christmas monster ate the holiday section at a dollar store and then came to my house to throw up. But there is one thing about the holidays that I’ve become a bit of a Grinch about: the gifts. As the parent of a 1-year-old trying to juggle freelance work while sharing child care responsibilities with my spouse who also works, time and money always feel in short supply. The thought of squandering both on shopping when I might not even get the right thing for him is very stressful! Even receiving gifts gives me anxiety. (Is there anything more uncomfortable than opening a present you’re not psyched to receive? I mean, sure, yes, many things, but it’s pretty high up there, is it not?)
And yet, I can’t bear to give up the tradition completely. A conundrum… until last year, when I hit upon the perfect solution — one that keeps the fun, the festivity, and even the surprise element of exchanging gifts but requires no spending and no new stuff.
A shoulder massage? Yes, please. An offer to pick up my prescriptions? I’ll take it!
What led me to this idea is realizing that I (gratefully) have little need for stuff. What I need, I often prefer to pick out myself. I do, however, have a great need for help. All kinds of help. I need child care help, cleaning help, errand help. I need help figuring out why my computer is suddenly working so slowly or what to do with all the old electronics I feel guilty about throwing in the regular trash but don’t know how to recycle. A shoulder massage? Yes, please. An offer to pick up my prescriptions? I’ll take it!
Last Christmas, I decided to implement a new tradition in our family, which at the time comprised me; my husband, Dave; and our 3-month-old. Instead of traditional gifts, Dave and I planned to exchange “coupons” for various acts of service that we knew the other would really appreciate. It was something I’d done as a kid when I wanted to give my parents a gift but alas, had only $3 to my name. I got to thinking: Why should only children be allowed to do this without shame? For those who consider “acts of service” their love language, it’s the perfect solution.
The prior holiday season, Dave, my sister-in-law, and I had gone all out on gifts in a frenzied attempt to make merry amidst a bleak, unnerving winter. It was the pre-vaccine pandemic era, and we were hosting my sister-in-law in a cramped, cold Brooklyn apartment. The three of us filled each other’s stockings with overpriced novelty items from local shops like overgrown children who’d gotten into their parents’ wallets. We exchanged fancy puzzles, fancy socks, a suggestive coin purse emblazoned with the words “high on life.” Things that brought some much-needed delight but that absolutely no one needs.
Fast-forward a year and we now had a 3-month-old baby in tow, meaning that that same cramped apartment was now stuffed to the gills with our charge’s seemingly endless accoutrements. The footprint of this 10-pound person was so many times bigger than her body that it boggled the mind. Still, we crammed in holiday decor, hanging dollar store stockings on the exercise bike. In this environment, the thought of accumulating yet more items felt akin to someone suggesting McDonald’s after consuming Thanksgiving dinner.
“Enough!” I thought.
My husband and I established some guidelines. We would each write each other four coupons:
- One small item, like a quick errand or breakfast in bed
- One medium item, like an evening off of child care
- One large item, which had a lot of room for interpretation but had to be something that the giver would rarely do otherwise and which would be deeply appreciated by the recipient
- One “blank” item that the recipient could fill in himself/herself
The coupons had a strict expiration date to avoid becoming empty promises: We’d redeem them each within about a month. In addition, we’d each give one coupon to our baby. To make them, I cut rectangles out of red and green construction paper and drew borders so they’d have a less perfunctory feel. We divided them up, filled them in, and then into the stockings they went. (One loophole: I can’t resist stocking stuffers, so we filled each other's with edible treats.)
What proved almost more fun than the coupons themselves was the charm of seeing what we’d come up with. I suspected that some deep cleaning would make it into my haul, so I was delighted to have that confirmed in the form of a coupon for full day devoted to chores and child care while I relaxed. My husband’s other offerings were a home spa night for me with massage after he put the baby down, a promise to add in one new recipe of my choosing to his usual cooking rotation (a response to a recent complaint), and a family reading night (to address another complaint of mine — that we watched too much TV). Meanwhile, he was amused that I considered promising an “entire day of no complaining” so challenging that it was worthy of being a medium-level gift. I told him I’d almost made it my large one.
Ultimately, the “reveal” of the coupons was no less exciting to me than exchanging physical gifts. On the contrary, it was freeing.
The best part was opening the coupons we’d written for our baby, only to discover that we’d each broken the rules and granted her the exact same three gifts:
- Baby massage
- A whole day without using our phones around her (sadly, a tall order)
- One contact nap (aka letting her sleep on our laps, which we were in the process of trying to move away from; “But it’s actually unlimited,” my husband winked at her)
Ultimately, the “reveal” of the coupons was no less exciting to me than exchanging physical gifts. On the contrary, it was freeing. I felt no need to feign excitement about something I wouldn’t have picked out myself or to find room on our shelves to store it. Our favors to each other may have been humble, but they showed that we’d paid attention to each other’s grievances and saw what we each craved most. That mattered to me more than any piece of jewelry or cashmere sweater could. Sure, one might argue that vacuuming is something people should be doing anyway, but we were both exhausted from splitting nights with the baby. I knew I had no intention of doing it despite having daily stare-downs with dust bunnies every time I stretched into downward dog. Most of all, forgoing spending freed me from financial anxiety at a time when our budget was lean. Why fork over $150 for a massage when Dave was willing to do it for free and I could comfortably boss him around about his technique?
While we still bought some small gifts for extended family, that was mostly because they were located far away. Now that we’re closer to some of them, I just might offer them an act of service or two (and make it known that promises of babysitting are always a very welcome gift to me!).
Within my immediate family, we may work small material gifts back into our lives, but I’ll keep up the tradition of coupons going as long as my husband and daughter will entertain it. When I imagine the concessions this might get me, I’m downright giddy.