My birthday is coming up (it’s June 21st!), and it’s a day I LOVE. I am as far as you can get from those people who hate their birthdays, those with age paranoia, or those who “don’t like to celebrate” (yeah, if you’re one of those, I’m not sure we can be friends. Celebrating anything = life). I usually start planning my birthday celebrations around February, and really care about each birthday being different from the next – from a candlelit dinner at a vegan restaurant to dancing until 4pm or a day-trip to Amalfi, it’s always a thrilling day.
Since I was young, presents have been a huge part of my birthday celebration. Our family tradition was for the rest of the family to bring the birthday boy/girl breakfast in bed, and shower him/her with presents. As a kid, I started looking forward to the moment when the mass of wrapped packages tumbled over my bed months before the day. I grew up used to the first event of my birthday being 1. cake, and 2. a mountain of gifts.
Fast forward twenty…ahem, something years. While cake remains very much a constant in all my celebrations, my expectations and perceptions around presents have shifted a lot. First of all, I have realised that if one of my main tenets in life is to not acquire too many products, asking people to give me tons of stuff for a specific day of the year is out of line with my beliefs. Especially when – I am sorry even as I write this, but I would be willing to bet that this is the case for most of us – approximately 90% of all presents I receive end up unused, because very few people (for me it’s pretty much only my husband) are able to “get” my taste to the point of blindly, without any guidance from me, choosing something that I will actually use.
It was while moving house – it’s amazing how many epiphanies pop up while you are putting your entire life into boxes – that I had the realisation that the sheer amount of stuff I owned, so much of which gifted and never used, was holding me prisoner. From the vast amounts of vegan recipe books that we are given each year that end up collecting dust (I have never used a recipe in my life!) to colourful, painted jewellery (I love sleek, stark, minimalist designs) and patterned clothing (the only print you will ever see me wearing are stripes, and not even those too often…I am also partial to the odd star pattern), these items kept following us with each house move, only to stay in their boxes and never come out again, ready to tag along to the next place. I am not the type of person to ask a friend or a family member if I can exchange a gift – I could never bring myself to do that, and would probably be hurt if someone did it to me, even if I understand the reasons behind it. So I end up responding with a cheerful, enthusiastic “oh, thanks!!” and holding onto the never-used gift for years before I give it to a charity shop.
So, this year, I told my family and friends that I did not want any gifts. I tried expressing it in a clear manner and explain my reasons, as to avoid sounding like someone who tried to appear gracious, but who in reality very much did want gifts. I explained that I was coming to my hometown for just a week, with a carry-on luggage, and would be unable to bring home any presents. I explained that I own more things than I use. I have reminded that the restaurant where I will be having my birthday dinner is not cheap, and I wouldn’t want my guests to spend any more money on the day. I stopped short of mentioning that getting my taste right is not easy, but I might play that card if presents are insisted on.
The reactions, of course, have been exactly as expected:
“Yes, but you can tell me: what do you really want?”
In a world where our worth as people is mostly measured in the material things we own, it’s incredibly hard to convey the concept of Not Wanting Free Material Things. Most people I know won’t even take into consideration that I am actually meaning what I say. Their general conclusion appears to be that I want to take myself out of the process of gift-choosing and leave it up to them, or that I am wary of appearing greedy by asking for what I want. And I don’t blame my friends and family: presents, and wanting them, are deeply rooted in the customs of our society. But the truth is that things, clothes, jewellery, makeup and stuff just don’t hold the same appeal over me as they used to. What I want are experiences. What gets me excited these days is not something that can be wrapped up in a box: it’s seeing new places, exploring my surroundings, or just spending a beautiful day with the people I love. Or a tattoo. If you are my friend and you’re in doubt, a tattoo will always work.
If you, like myself, are struggling with explaining the concept of minimalism to your guests, here are a few tips:
Ask for experiences. I told one friend that if she REALLY wanted to “get” me something, she would plan for herself and our other friends to have free time and arrange childcare so that all of us could hang out while I am in town. For me, spending time with people always beats being given stuff.
Ask for donations. I’m not doing this because I would feel guilty if my guests spent money. But I’ve been given donations in my name before and it really is a beautiful gift. One that won’t take up space in your home.
Make a list. I actually appreciate being told what to get when it’s my turn to be the gift-giver. Last Christmas my mum got me a blender, because I needed one and asked for it. So much better than her running around in shops trying to guess what clothes I’d like (pretty much mission impossible). And now I enjoy smoothie bowls thanks to smooth gift-giving!
Stuff you can eat and drink. Anyone who wants to give me some Booja Booja truffles or a bottle of vegan Bailey’s will be my new best friend. Food and drink are amazing gifts! Some of my best birthday presents have been bottles of Prosecco happily enjoyed at sunset on a warm summer’s evening.
Tattoos. Still the best gift ever.
This month I am watching… season 2 of Dear White People on Netflix
This month I am reading… A Life Less Throwaway by Tara Button. Fantastically eye-opening. Read it now.
This month I am listening to…Prophets of Rage, in preparation for going to their gig in Sweden
This month I am planning…my birthday, duh
Header photo by Jess Waters via Unsplash.