Reviving SPUG: A New Way to Celebrate the Season

I didn’t shop on Thanksgiving, Black Friday, or Cyber Monday, but I feel like I did. I am exhausted from the overbearing onslaught of emails and posts and ads announcing the big sales. It’s made me feel slightly curmudgeonly, and I am not happy about it. I love the holidays. I love celebrating the season with friends and family, good meals and fun gatherings. Every year there is an incessant push to spend and buy, but this year seems to be worse than ever.

Bear with me here; this isn’t going to be a “remember the reason for the season post,” but indulge me a little, because I think we can all agree that we can use a little SPUG right about now.

For those unfamiliar with that particular acronym, it stands for the Society for the Prevention of Useless Gifts, and yes it’s a real thing, or was. SPUG was started in November 1912 by a group of department store clerks in Manhattan who were frustrated with the expectation that they spend their hard-earned money buying expensive holiday gifts for their supervisors. “The society’s objection was not to Christmas, its founders explained, but to what it had become — a cause that found widespread sympathy in newspapers across the country,” wrote Slate contributor Paul Collins in “The Original War on Christmas.” And that was in 1912!

The group’s message and mission was quickly championed by thousands of other women, and SPUG groups sprang up across the city and the country. Even the New York Times chimed in with a headline the day after the group formed: “BE A SPUG AND STOP FOOLISH XMAS GIVING.”

The following year, the group changed its name to the Society for the Promotion of Useful Giving and began encouraging people to give to those in need. By 1914, as World War I began, SPUG was pretty much defunct.

I say we need a little SPUG right about now. As we enter the season of giving and the 102nd birthday of SPUG, there are many reasons to champion a revival of SPUG. For starters, we’ve all received those gifts. You know, the ones we open with a smile on our face, express massive gratitude for, and then wonder where can we store it in the basement only to be retrieved before said gift-giver comes for a visit. Second, we’ve all experienced the stress of the season. With a to-do list longer than our arm, we rack our brains for something unique and memorable for person X, Y, or Z. In the flurry of seeking that perfect gift, we lose sight of why we might be buying that person a gift in the first place, or if it’s really necessary. Third, many of us have experienced the post holiday stress associated with the exceptionally high credit card bills that come in January. And finally, do we really need more stuff?

Don’t get me wrong: I love presents. Who doesn’t? But lately, I fear we live in a world gone mad. Ours is a culture of excess, a culture of perpetual stress, a culture of doing rather than being. Too often in our quest for “doing it all” we lose sight of living purposefully, and this time of year that’s especially true, as we buy to much, spend too much, eat too much, and do too much. We are too stressed or too exhausted to really be, to really enjoy each other, to really participate in the joy of the season.

And that’s why I suggest we resurrect SPUG. Let’s reclaim the joy and fun of the holidays, reconnect with what it means to be, and reengage with the possibilities of a new way of being. Why can’t we live and celebrate with clarity, purpose, and joy?

We can start by repurposing SPUG as the Society for the Promotion of Unique Gratitude, and vow to do the following:

1. Ban or limit gifts. Create experiences instead. I remember in horror when my family did away with Christmas stockings. My parents decided my two siblings and I didn’t need all the little useless things they put in our stockings. They decided to spend more time with us instead. Our holidays became filled with bowls of popcorn by the fire, games, conversations, and togetherness. Today I can’t remember one thing that was in my stocking, but I remember the nights by the fire with my family playing Monopoly.

As we got older, the quantity of gifts slowly diminished until my parents announced that we would each receive an “experience” instead of a present. This took many forms: lift tickets, fabulous dinners out, fabulous dinners in, trips to spas, etc. As with the board games by the fire, I can recount what I received every single year as an experience. The gifts? Not so much. The memories became the greatest gifts of all.

2. Make it personal. Some dear friends have a wonderful family tradition of making homemade gifts. Each year, the family makes one thing (caramelized pecans, beeswax wood polish, etc) and spends one day together creating the gifts and another day packaging and delivering them. It beings them so much joy to be together and to give such wonderful treats. And it brings the recipients just as much joy to receive something personal and lovely. It fires on all cylinders.

3. Refuse to succumb to the useless gifts. All too often in the stress of the holiday season we just grab items, however useless or meaningless, to give as gifts. But what if we refused to succumb to the useless and instead tried to imbue our gifts with more meaning and real love? In The Five Love Languages, Gary Chapman, explains that there are five different languages that people experience love. Sure there can be joy in receiving beautiful gifts (which is one of the languages, but there is also amazing joy in acts of service, quality time, physical touch, and words of affirmations. What if you took the time to find out what love language your recipient speaks, and give them a gift accordingly?

Think of the family that created homemade gifts. They had quality family time, acts of service in creating a useful gift, and many words of affirmation about who they were making the gifts for and how they loved them and were loved in return.

We can reclaim our sanity and find the true joy this holiday season by exercising a little SPUG, being more thoughtful, and slowing down a little.

Originally published on The Huffington Post