How to Avoid a Transactional Christmas

How to Avoid a Transactional Christmas

As a young child, I remember the lead up to Christmas morning.  My parents would buy gifts and then try to hide them so that we would not find them.  But my sisters and I were very clever and loved to snoop around.  

The thrill was in the hunt to try and find the gifts and figure out who was getting what.  Eventually, it got so bad that my parents started hiding our gifts at the neighbour’s house so that we couldn’t find them.

When the gifts were wrapped they would bring them back to our place. My sisters and I would still try and figure out what the gifts were.  We would shake, rattle, weigh and smell them trying to solve the mystery of what was under the wrapping paper.  

As we got more creative, so did my parents.  They wrapped gifts in all sorts of odd-shaped boxes and never put the tags on them until Christmas morning.  The thought was that this would deter us from snooping as we didn’t know which gifts belonged to whom.  

It never did though, the snooping and trying to guess what the presents were was the best part.

Reflecting back on all those holidays as kids, it’s the snooping that I fondly remember best.  I couldn’t tell you what most of the gifts were.  But I do remember all the creative ways we tried to figure out what was under the wrapping paper.

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The Transaction

I have memories of making a Christmas list and then getting everything on it.  I grew to not enjoy making a list as it seemed like a guarantee of what I was going to open Christmas morning.  

Christmas started to feel like a transaction more than a holiday.  My wish list felt like a list of demands.

Eventually, I either avoided making a list or included things that I knew I couldn’t get. World Peace became one of my favourite things to include on my Christmas list.  This guaranteed that I wouldn’t get everything on my list.

What I didn’t understand at the time was that for my family, many of them have receiving/giving gifts as one of their love languages.  As weird as it sounds, by refusing to get gifts I was influencing their ability to show me their love.

Knowing that now, I have come up with a list of ways to not remove all gift-giving from Christmas, but to make it less of a transactional Christmas.  This is becoming especially relevant for me as my little one grows up and becomes more aware of what Christmas is.  

I am very conscious of the lessons we are trying to impart on her.  And I don’t want her to grow up wanting and expecting every toy, gadget, and gizmo out there.

What is a Transactional Christmas?

For me, a transactional Christmas is one in which a list is made and Christmas morning everything on the list is received.  

It is feeling like you have to buy someone something because it’s the holidays. Or because they bought you something, or you work at the same office.  A transactional Christmas is about giving gifts without meaning.

How to Avoid a Transactional Christmas

White Elephant Gift Exchange

Some people hate white elephant gift exchanges but I love them.  If you are not familiar with this type of gift exchange, everyone brings one gift.  All the gifts go into a pile (or under the tree) and then everyone picks numbers.

Number one picks a gift under the tree and opens it.  Then number 2 has the choice to steal the gift from number 1 or pick a gift from under the tree. And so on and so on until all the gifts are opened.

Before starting a white elephant gift exchange, it is a good idea to come up with rules around opening and stealing of gifts in each round. At the end of the exchange everyone leaves with one gift.

My husband’s family does this type of gift exchange every year for Christmas and its very entertaining.  It is a big family gathering and the gift exchange has become quite the event.  One of the best parts is only having to buy 1 gift for such a large family.  The price is usually set to gifts under $20 so it doesn’t break the budget to participate.

Not only does having a white elephant gift exchange save you money, but because you have minimal control over the gift you will be taking home (especially if you pick first), it makes it less of a transactional Christmas.

Sometimes there can be themes to the gifts and sometimes it is wide open. There is no wish list of any kind involved.  

Homemade Gifts 

Having a rule of homemade gifts only decreases the potential for a transactional Christmas.  It prevents children from making a long list of all the latest toys, gadgets and gizmos.  There is no point in asking for things from a store if all gifts must be homemade.

Homemade gifts are often more thoughtful and creative. Part of the treasure of these gifts is the time that goes into them.  For me, when someone gives of their time, the gift becomes that much more meaningful.

If you are stuck on what homemade gifts to make, check out Pinterest.  There you can find tons of ideas for homemade gifts.

Another benefit of a homemade gift exchange is it’s a great way to get kids involved.  Kids can often brainstorm things that they can make as Christmas gifts.

Acts of Service

Acts of service is another of Gary Chapman’s 5 love languages.  Instead of Christmas gifts, acts of service for the holidays could mean volunteering as a family or giving each other the gift of time. This could be made into a fun little activity.  Everyone could make “coupons” for each other for different acts of service.

I have received the gift of time before and it was one of the most memorable gifts I have ever received.

Giving someone of your time and talents still involves giving gifts. By doing something for someone else for the holidays, it also makes it feel less like a transactional Christmas.  Acts of service align with the meaning of Christmas.


Why not plan a vacation for Christmas?  The vacation doesn’t have to be at Christmas, as that can be one of the most expensive times to travel.

Leading up to Christmas there could be conversations around where everyone wants to go.  Children can research different areas and select their favourites.  They could make a pitch to the family as to why their location should be selected for the next vacation.

On Christmas morning the next vacation destination could be revealed.  

Parents can set whatever parameters they want on the vacation.  Destinations don’t have to be far or expensive either.  As a kid, I loved taking vacations to visit my grandparents.  They were within driving distance and we loved staying with them.

A vacation is a gift that keeps on giving too as everyone looks forward to the upcoming vacation in the months after Christmas.

Education or Future Fund

One thing we have done with our nieces and nephews is contributed to their education fund every year for their birthdays.  Sometimes we might also get them a small gift to open on their special day too.

What if at Christmas, everyone took the money they would normally spend on gifts and put it into an education or future fund?  That gift would have the power of compound interest to grow until the money needs to be used.  That $20 gift would be worth a lot more than $20 in a few years.

This doesn’t have to be just for young kids either, teenagers or young adults could be saving for a car, wedding or their first home.

When giving someone cash though it does take the element of surprise out of the picture.  If you are someone that enjoys watching people open gifts or are a snooper like I was giving money may not be as satisfying.  You may need to seek out different traditions for that purpose.

Donation in the Recipient’s Name

One year for Christmas instead of buying gifts for my immediate family, I made donations to an international charity in everyone’s name.  I never did repeat this, however, because I went a bit overboard and it turned into being a very expensive gift idea.

But that doesn’t mean it has to.  Giving to a charity can be in any amount that you are comfortable with.  The bonus factor is that because you are the one making the donation, you receive the tax credit for it.

There are a ton of charities out there that could benefit from monetary assistance.  Before donating, do your research to determine which charity is the best fit for you and your money.

If donating to a charity is something that you are going to do annually at Christmas, you can make into a fun little game on Christmas morning.  Have everyone try to guess what this year’s charity is.  That way there is still some surprise under the tree.

No gifts

I know that for some this may sound extreme.  And if your love language is giving/receiving gifts than this may be a bit of a non-starter.  This is okay, but not giving gifts is still an option.

If you have a lot of people on your list maybe have a conversation with some of them and deciding not to exchange gifts with everyone. 

Sometimes this can work really well in an office or work setting when everyone feels like they have to buy a gift for everyone.  This can get really expensive.  Your coworkers may be relieved to not have to buy gifts for everyone.

Not having a transactional Christmas means buying someone a gift because you want to not because you feel you have to.

I have had conversations with friends before when we have decided not to buy each other gifts.  Instead, we have gone out for a meal together or had a potluck at someone’s house.  In this case, quality time was more of what we were seeking then the physical act of exchanging gifts.

My favourite holiday is Thanksgiving for this very reason.  It is all about being grateful.  As a holiday Thanksgiving has everything I could ask for, good food and lots of quality family time.  I get all of this without feeling the need to give gifts.


The secret sauce to preventing a transactional Christmas is gratitude. Instead of worrying about the gifts and focusing on the transactions, focus on being grateful.

Grateful for spending time with family and friends. Thankful that someone thought of you in some way and bought you a gift.

Changing your mindset around the holidays is something that you can control. Whether or not someone buys you a gift or what type of gift is out of your control. But you can control how you respond to it.

And that is liberating.

How to Avoid a Transactional Christmas – Recap

  • White Elephant gift exchange
  • Homemade gifts only
  • Acts of service
  • Vacation
  • Education or future fund
  • Donation in the recipient’s name
  • No gifts
  • Gratitude
Are you are feeling like the holiday has become too about meaningless gifts? This list provides great examples of how to avoid a transactional Christmas. #transactionalchristmas #christmas #giftideas #handfulofthoughts

Final Thoughts

I am extremely grateful for everything my parents do around the holidays to make it special.  Even as adults, going home for Christmas still feels special.  Although at times opening gifts makes me uncomfortable, it does not mean I am ungrateful for the gift.  

But I could do a better job of showing my gratitude.  This is something that I am going to continue to work on.

If you are feeling like the holiday has transformed into a transactional Christmas, gratitude may be an easy way you can change your outlook.  By focusing on being grateful, it takes the focus away from the “transaction.”

As my little one grows up I aim to create memories and traditions that will last her a lifetime.  I hope that one day she too can reflect on the holidays and be filled with memories that don’t include all the gifts she did or did not receive.

At the end of the day, for me, the holidays are about family, making memories and quality time, not about having a transactional Christmas.

What is your favourite holiday memory?

6 thoughts on “How to Avoid a Transactional Christmas”

  1. I love this post! Last year I opted to open education funds for each of my nieces and nephews. Since we are a big family, they had plenty of gifts to open. I took the older kiddos ice-skating and I gave them each a card with a “check” and listed some of the companies they now owned.

    1. I love that you opened education funds. It’s like a gift that keeps giving and will be worth way more in the future.

      We are looking into getting our little one “stocks” this year for Christmas.

    1. I struggle so much during the holidays with all the gifts. I also get very uncomfortable opening gifts in front of others. There is a lot of pressure to provide the appropriate reaction. That’s why I love Thanksgiving, all the family time, none of the gift pressure.

  2. Great ideas! My favorite is Gratitude… it is central to everything and can enhance your relationships (including with yourself) in countless ways. I have managed to simplify the holidays over the years… no gifts, no cards, just being ‘present’ for friends and family… the greatest gift. Thanks for sharing, Maria.

    1. Thanks for reading. Gratitude is something I keep coming back to. When things become overwhelming I am trying to remind myself to be grateful instead of spending my energy complaining. It’s still a work in progress.

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