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The first time I attended a “giftless” birthday party I was visiting a friend whose youngest child was turning three. Excited children scampered about the yard, playing games and shrieking with delight as the water hose sprayed anyone in its path. A few songs and a birthday cake later, my friend’s youngest sister arrived with the highlight of the day: a cardboard box.

I looked askance at the birthday girl as she approached this dryer-sized contraption. Apart from two closed doors cut into its front, the box betrayed no sign of its contents. It also didn’t look all that interesting.

“What is that?” I asked my friend, who looked on with a smile. “A gift?”

“More like entertainment,” my friend replied, adding, “Watch.”

Within moments, the birthday girl and her assistants had pried open the flimsy cardboard doors to reveal the box’s secrets. From inside, dozens of colorful balloons cascaded to the ground, bumping softly into the assembled children, who instantly went wild with joy. For the next hour, seven three-year-olds giggled uproariously as they bopped balloons around the yard and travelled inside the box and back out again—peek-a-booing anyone in sight. Everyone appeared overjoyed with the “gift.” It was then I learned that none of the other guests had brought anything for the birthday girl.

“You mean none of them brought presents?” I asked, surprised.

“I knew the cardboard box would be enough,” my friend said definitively.

Fast forward several years, and I was starting to get used to this “giftless” birthday party idea. Not only did many of our friends insist on the concept, we were embarking on the adventure ourselves. Consumer fatigue had set in, not to mention a lack of time and money. Our children were young enough to start a new tradition, one that discouraged accumulating too much stuff in favor of one or two high quality presents. Additionally, the options for handling giftless soirees were everywhere.

In The Beginning...

Although the origins of birthdays are somewhat murky, scholars believe that Romans were the first to celebrate the birthdays of friends and family members.
While we don’t know for certain if those celebrations included gift giving, historians know the tradition was well established in Europe sometime after the Middle Ages.

At that time, many people believed that evil spirits were more likely to bother you during periods of change, such as your birthday. Family members would gather round, bringing good wishes to help you survive another year. Somewhere along the way these good wishes transformed into gifts.

Today birthday parties range from complicated, pricey affairs to simple gatherings around the family dinner table. Yet in many places, gift giving is still the norm. For families on a budget or those seeking a green alternative to the low-grade plastic clutter that often collects after a dozen children have descended on your living room, the giftless birthday party has emerged.

The Giftless Revolution

Opting out of giving gifts is nothing new. Throughout history, various people and organizations have resisted obligatory gifting in unique and interesting ways. In 1912, philanthropist August Belmont formed the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving (SPUG) in retaliation to the excesses of Christmas. Emerging in New York City, the society counted among its supporters former US President, Teddy Roosevelt.

Today’s popular Story of Stuff Project challenges consumers to “build a society based on better not more, sharing not selfishness, community not division.” The project echoes the sentiment shared by many parents who dislike the excess promoted by some birthday celebrations. Goodie bags, cheap plastic toys, and a plethora of birthday gifts—many which break quickly or are unwanted in the first place—contribute to the more than 250 million tons of garbage Americans generate each year. For anyone interested in pursuing the giftless alternative, there are now many options.

Hosting a Giftless Birthday Party

If you feel the need to streamline family birthday celebrations, here are some popular ways to cut back on the clutter:

1. Start Young
Children between the ages of one and four are not likely to notice the absence of gifts, particularly if they have not become accustomed to receiving them en masse. Many families opting for giftless birthdays begin early, establishing a new tradition right from the outset.

2. Confine Gifting to Family Members
In some families, birthday gift giving is strictly a family affair. Grandparents, parents, or other family members purchased cherished toys or necessities while the no-gift policy extends only to friends attending the birthday celebration.

3. Institute a No-Gift Policy on Birthday Invitations
For parents who wish to eliminate birthday gifts from the celebration equation, careful wording on a birthday invitation can mean the difference between clarity and confusion. Add a phrase such as “Leave behind packages with bows; bring the gift of your presence,” or a simple “No gifts please.”

4. Ask for a Charitable Donation in Lieu of Gifts
For children passionate about a cause, requesting birthday donations to a favorite charity has become de rigueur. And now organizations are making this easier than ever. Some, like Charity: Water, have a special Pledge Your Birthday campaign seeking to provide access to safe drinking water for 100 million people. Celebrities including the popular music group Depeche Mode have endorsed the group’s efforts. Selecting a charity meaningful to your child and listing it on the birthday invitation is one way to share abundance with those in need.

5. Split the Difference
Families seeking to help others while not depriving their children of the joy of receiving can ask gift givers to donate half of their gift price to a favorite charity and the other half to a birthday fund. The birthday fund goes towards purchasing a larger item, such as a bike or building set, that child really wants. Parents in favor of this model say that it eliminates unwanted purchases and helps others to boot. Organizations have even emerged to assist with the paperwork: Echoage partners with parents to handle invitations and charitable donations to a long list of charities. Their motto includes the saying, “because giving feels good, but overstuffed closets don’t.”

Starting a giftless tradition is easiest when others around you share the same values. I’ll admit that hosting a giftless birthday party in our neighborhood was simple because my children rarely attended a celebration where gifts were expected. When gift giving was left open, it was not uncommon for children to bring along a favorite used book, a home baked goodie, or a piece of exotic fruit to share with the birthday child.

Now that my children are older and more inclined to get involved in the decision making, they often choose to share a heartfelt homemade gift with friends or to craft a handmade birthday card. Birthdays are opportunities for learning new skills, for helping others, and for celebrating friendship. Passing on the gifting torch means that they will choose what’s appropriate for the event, but they have a new frame of reference to work within. Growing up without excess means their normal is a focus on celebrating the birthday itself, and isn’t that way it should be?

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