“Is it better to give or to get presents?” asked my seven-year-old son in December, very seriously. I answered that both were good – that getting nice things that you want feels good, but that so does giving to others. On Christmas morning when I saw him carefully watching his father open the gift he’d chosen, and how his face lightened with joy when his father liked it, I asked him what he thought now. He answered that I’d been right, both were good.

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I think I am right, that it’s a balance, but that I didn’t give him the full answer, which is that the balance shifts as you get older. As a kid, I loved the whole Christmas ritual and the excitement and the surprise of getting – more the feeling than specific presents. I liked the giving too, and choosing good gifts for my sisters and parents, but the getting definitely had top billing. But while I still do really appreciate well-considered presents, I have to say that there is now more joy in the giving, especially when it comes to my children, and especially around the holidays.

That’s not surprising. I don’t know of any cultures that don’t have a gift giving tradition – it’s an important part of relationships and is good for psychological health. Giving gifts reinforces our feelings for others and makes us feel effective and caring. It gives us joy to think about what other people want and need and to see them appreciate it.

But though the feeling of wanting to give is good, it’s so easy to slip into giving waste, especially in this season. This is the only time that I feel my normally rather frugal waste-hating self, the one who started on the sustainability path due to a hotdog toaster, turn into the type of consumer who might actually buy such a device, especially if it was something my kids might want. Starting in mid-November with Sinterklaas coming into the Netherlands and filling shoes in the lead-up to his big day on 5 December, and then all the way to Christmas, I feel the madness of wanting to buy, to keep buying, of wanting to ravish store aisles and fill my family’s stockings and shoes with gifts that probably won’t last very long before becoming waste.

It’s interesting that I don’t have exactly the same feelings around their birthdays, both of which are in or close to the holiday season. Then I feel more rational and restrained in my gift giving. While I still want to give them presents that they want and good parties, it’s not with the same ‘buy buy buy’ feeling. And that may have to do with the role of Sinterklaas/Santa. For parents, giving on behalf of the men in red frees us somewhat from the parental role, allowing us to give things that are more frivolous or outside our normal budgets. Since gifts remain tied to the giver, it allows us to give things without parental ties. But it also doesn’t provide a natural limit – we also get caught in the fantasy of limitless giving even though we’ve abandoned the rest of the fantasy.

It also has a lot to do with the ritual of the season and conforming to its roles and requirements and traditions. Our own memories of happy Christmases past shimmer at us and we want to reproduce them for our own kids and link our family together in memories. There’s such a sense of the things we must do. And of course, we’re influenced by the media and advertising. And so, we feel driven to do all the activities and to buy the gifts, to give each other happiness.

Of course there’s the question about whether gifts bring happiness. There was an Ikea commercial making the rounds this year where Spanish kids were asked to write two letters – one to the Three Kings (their Santa equivalent) and one to their parents – the first letters were full of requests for stuff, the second for time spent together with their parents. The second Ikea commercial in the link takes the idea further, reminding us that joy and togetherness outweigh stuff. And that is consistent with happiness research in general, which finds that experiences are much better than things at bringing lasting happiness.

But while the kids, when asked, did want to send the letters to their parents more than those to the Kings, it was a hard choice for them. They also wanted the stuff that the Kings would bring. If the magical gift givers are freeing for parents, they are even more so for kids. Why not ask for a unicorn when the gift giver is magic? And the presents they get, often more than they know their parents would give, only confirm it. Getting presents is magical and fun. And they are an integral part of the tradition and experience of the holiday, along with the baking and singing and all the rest. It’s not something that can be taken away easily without affecting the rest of the tradition. And that meshes with my memories – that it was the surprise and wonder and wish fulfillment that I loved, more than the gifts perhaps, but the gifts were necessary for that feeling.

Which brings an interesting conundrum. If the experience of opening the gifts is important, and the gifts need to be valued in order to provide a good experience, but the actual gifts themselves are less important, what should we do about giving and waste?

I don’t know the answer. I know in our household we’re trying to limit what we give, and that this year we set up a multi-event tracking system in Excel to limit giving across our multiple holidays, and that next year we’ll refine that to include more experiences instead of things, especially as the kids are getting older and are starting to have attention spans longer than those of goldfish. The call to waste will still be in my head, but I’m working on tamping it down while keeping what is important to me.

As for what can be done to influence others? Well, changing what we do ourselves is one thing, but for those campaigning to change others, they, as always need to get ride of the idea that changing attitudes and increasing knowledge changes behaviour. I know the environmental consequences of consuming, and there’s nothing wrong with my sustainable attitude. They just get overwhelmed by the season and sit there simmering under the pressure. And, as this article shows, when it comes to holiday giving, environmental attitudes have very little effect on behaviour.

Instead we should look at the whole picture when trying to change behaviour – not just the individual but everything around them and what’s expected from them by themselves and others. We need to suggest actions that keep the important traditions and feelings while reducing the pressure to waste. The over-consumption around the holidays, especially of throwaway crap and wasted food, does need to change and become less damaging, as George Monbiot wrote so clearly. But it does little good to suggest alternatives like the schemes to give to charity on the recipient’s behalf – these don’t fill the need to give what the recipient wishes and so reflect more the giver’s wishes than the recipient’s and come off as paradoxically selfish (and are at the same time morally impossible to show ungratefulness for). We need to make it about the act of real giving, which is giving what people want and need, not just giving to check a box. We need to give of our time and attention in figuring out what that is. For some that may be something homemade, for some it may be something used, for some it may be something new, and for some it may be an experience. But nobody wants or needs to waste things. Giving is better than getting, but not when it’s wasted.