Paint a friend’s ceiling, fix their bike, babysit – the best Christmas gifts don’t come from shops | Nell Frizzell

Not every relationship requires a gift. Not all gifts need to be new. Celebratory meals don’t have to be expensive. Affection and love don’t have to be shown through shopping.

As the climate emergency and cost of living crisis finally gain a toehold in the public consciousness, this year feels like the time we might finally be able to push back on some outdated Christmas assumptions. You see, there is so much joy to be had at Christmas if you can somehow pull yourself off the meathook of consumerism. The tsunami of television adverts, magazine articles, radio features and advertising hoardings may try to undercut your resolve, but I promise you – there is another way.

First, giving doesn’t have to mean presents. If you have lots of money, it is probably easier to click and collect something off a tax-avoiding website than it is to spend quality time with another person. (Any reference to “quality time”, if I’m honest, brings back desultory memories of going bowling with a divorced parent.) But there will always be things you can offer friends and relatives that don’t involve shopping.

Offer to fix the worn-out things in their house that they’ll never get round to. Paint their ceilings, do some repairs on their bike, fix the holes in their jeans or buttons on their shirt. Suggest a house swap for your next holiday. Cook them some meals for the freezer, clear the brambles from their garden, dress up as Laura Dern in Jurassic Park and serve them breakfast in bed; whatever you think will float their boat and whatever you feel able to offer.

Speaking as someone who recently spent an evening reading Garfield to a half-naked five-year-old as he jumped off the bedpost on to my neck shouting, “Flying squirrel!”, may I also suggest that childcare or respite care for someone with caring responsibilities is a gift beyond riches? Offer to babysit, take someone for a walk, do their washing-up, push the wheelchair or buggy for a bit. If you can offer something overnight, heavenly. You can always make it feel more gifty by making the offer in the form of a token or written in a nice card.

If you want to keep physical presents as part of Christmas, you can always suggest a price cap or a secret Santa – so everyone only needs to buy one present but everyone receives something on the day. If you have the time and the means (which is not always a given, especially if you work full-time and are living in a small, shared and rented space), you could propose a homemade Christmas. That might mean food, playlists, toys, clothes, shelves, soft furnishings or hard liquor. My friend Jack routinely gives out whisky he’s blended himself over the year with fruit and spices; my parents have recorded my son a whole set of his favourite stories on their phones. This approach is time-consuming but, like all handmade gifts, immeasurably more meaningful.

‘Make this the year you embrace buying secondhand.’ Oxfam charity shop, Islington. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Also, make this the year you embrace buying secondhand. “Gift-giving does not need to be expensive,” says Lorna Fallon, retail director for Oxfam. “Our research shows that ‘cost’ is not what people either want, or value most, when it comes to receiving presents. Secondhand gifts are a great solution as they are better for the planet and reduce waste.”

If you opt for no presents at all, reframe it: you’re not “not giving presents”; you are giving someone back days, possibly weeks of their life they might have otherwise spent Christmas shopping. Weeks they don’t have to spend traipsing around overheated, cinnamon-smelling tat warehouses or overpriced arcades, being served by bored staff on zero-hours contracts, choosing between a dressing gown, a set of egg cups and a portable speaker in the shape of a butt plug. If you say you don’t need to do presents this year then you are saving them the schlep to the charity shop the following week with all the things they didn’t want. You are saving them from the awkwardness of having to unwrap something they neither wanted nor asked for, in front of the person who bought it.

It can be hard to abandon the maximalist vision of Christmas, especially if you have children. But research by Gumtree found that while presents topped children’s list of what they were excited about for Christmas (at 62%), 59% were looking forward to time off school, half were looking forward to eating Christmas dinner, while 48% were looking forward to playing games with friends and family. All of which involve minimal shopping and none of which have to be wrapped in unrecyclable paper decorated with pictures of an old white man in a red tunic.

Taking consumerism out of Christmas might sound about as fun as washing your face with stream water but it doesn’t have to be twee, performative or smug. It can simply mean showing the people you love that you have thought about them. And there are many more ways to do that than with a new pair of socks and a £180 smart mug.

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