Families celebrate by giving presence instead of presents
Christmas alternatives to the traditional gift exchange emerge as a trend, especially with baby-boomer parents and offspring eager to spend time and travel together

December 21, 2005 | By Jack Cox

Insurance broker Matt Coleman and his wife, jeweler Luisa Graff-Coleman, are calling it their “alternative Christmas.”

In lieu of the traditional gift exchange, the Colorado Springs couple—empty nesters with five grown children between them—have begun opting for a simpler, less daunting celebration.

They’re gathering their clan at a weekend retreat they own in the mountains west of Woodland Park, but except for a few modest items such as framed pictures, they aren’t buying consumer goods. Instead, they’re footing the bill for ski tickets and airfares to bring in loved ones from Illinois and North Carolina.

There’s no telling how many families may be waking up on Christmas morning with nothing under the tree on purpose, either in Colorado or other parts of the country. But some experts say it’s an emerging trend, driven by aging baby boomers who tend to value “quality time” over material possessions.

“As your kids get older and move away and get married, you get to the point where you’re not sure what gifts they either want or need,” says Coleman. “And you realize that it’s not about gifts anyway. It’s about getting the family together.”

While it may be too early to make broad generalizations, Robert Wendover, director of the Aurora-based Center for Generational Studies, predicts that “over time we’re going to see more and more emphasis on experience, partly because it’s becoming more affordable.”

The Colemans, whose youngest child is 21 and a senior in college, certainly aren’t alone in forsaking presents in favor of merely having everyone present.

Denver public relations man Pete Webb and his wife, Ginny Williams, who have five grown children between them, are putting money aside to take them all on a holiday cruise next year.

Denver real estate broker Bev Groth and her husband, Dave, meanwhile, are savoring memories of a beach-resort vacation they enjoyed in Mexico last year with their three grown sons, spouses and two grandchildren—and are planning a similar holiday excursion next year.

“We saved having to do all the Christmas shopping and buying too many things for people that they don’t need,” Bev Groth said.

Such departures from tradition aren’t about to unravel the time-honored rituals of hanging stockings, opening boxes and sitting down to a big family dinner at home. But social scientists say new ways of celebrating will become more common as the nation’s 75 million-plus baby boomers, now all in their 40s and 50s, move deeper into midlife.

“This has a lot to do with the relationship between the boomers and their children, which is—surprisingly—powerfully positive,” says Brent Green, a Denver marketing consultant exploring changes wrought by the new demographics.

“The boomers were the ‘Baby On Board’ parents,” Green says. “They gave their kids a lot of enrichment—soccer games, piano lessons—and spent a lot of time with them.”

Neil Howe, a Virginia-based demographer and co-author of “Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation,” notes that the boomers’ children—also known as Generation Y (or the millennials)—grew up feeling much closer to their parents than did the kids of Generation X, whose parents were mostly in the Silent Generation.

Another consultant in this field, Chuck Underwood of Cincinnati, founder of The Generational Imperative, adds that unlike the Gen X’ers, the millennials—whom he describes as “the most adult-supervised generation in American history”—are very comfortable in the presence of older people.

To them, “the thought of a Christmas holiday with their parents and grandparents is a joyous proposition,” he says.

“What’s going on now is a desire by parents and grandparents to rebuild the nuclear family, and one of the ways this is showing up is to have more meaningful holidays,” Underwood says. “It seems to be a growing trend, coast to coast, as families realize they want to spend more hours together and have shared experiences.”

Green, the Denver consultant, says another factor involved in giftless, family-focused holidays is the boomers’ preference for experience over mere possessions—a phenomenon that could spark an increase in the nearly $650 billion spent annually on travel in this country.

“At a certain level, how many sweaters do you need?” Green says. “A lot of my boomer colleagues are talking about taking European trips with their children—not necessarily in lieu of exchanging presents, but sometimes—and this is an emerging trend in the travel industry.”

Alternative Christmases aren’t for everyone, of course. For one thing, they require planning, which can remove the element of surprise—an aspect of gift-giving that many families value.

Big family excursions also can get expensive. Groth and her husband, a retired University of Colorado administrator, spent nearly $15,000 to take their kids, spouses and grandkids to Mexico last year, or roughly $2,000 per adult.

Webb, a former television newsman, says he and his wife concluded last year that picking out presents during an already busy time of year was becoming too much of a drain on their time and energy. So, “trying to eliminate the hassle factor,” they got their kids together and broached the subject of taking a cruise. The response was entirely positive.

“This year, they’re not getting any gifts, and the money we would normally spend on gifts is going toward a trip next year,” Webb says.

“It preserves the tradition of having the family together at Christmas, and gives our kids the benefit of being with their own families, plus the reward of being in a warm environment with things to do. And it certainly creates memories.”

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