By Omar Khaled Abdelrahman and Claire McCamley
Christmas is a period for celebrating our relationships with family and friends—a time filled with nostalgia and sentimentality.
Of course, for many people, it’s also a time of conspicuous consumption, even if this year, in the face of a cost-of-living crisis, spending is expected to fall. But in times of uncertainty and anxiety for the future, feelings of nostalgia often come to the fore as people look back fondly on happier times.
Perhaps then, this Christmas is the time to move away from the tradition of splurging on new, box-fresh presents and give your loved ones the gift of the past.
Research shows that people like to receive sentimental gifts that remind them of cherished times and relationships. People appreciate gifts that remind them of treasured memories and help them relive meaningful moments.
Second-hand shops and markets are filled with objects that have value not because of their price but because of their connection to people, places, and times past.
We interviewed a number of vintage enthusiasts to explore the relationship people have with purchasing old objects. We have found that an item’s history, whether real or imagined, is what makes it a meaningful purchase. This is one reason vintage items would make great Christmas gifts.
Old objects have a history—a previous “life” before we come to own them second-hand. This might inspire consumers to think about the lives of previous owners or imagine the journey the objects have been on.
Part of people’s fascination with second-hand items is the associations and stories they develop around them through imagining their past. As one vintage enthusiast told us:
I think that filters down into why we buy second-hand stuff because you envisage all these fancy things, you imagine this certain world, and you can attach it to them.
This fantasy can be a source of fun. When buying old things, we might get some details from the person selling them, but we rarely get the whole story. This allows us to fantasise about the objects’ history to fill the gap—usually by mixing facts with imagination, creating a romanticised image of the past.
Consumers also develop their own narratives around an item, including the story of how they came to buy it, which they can share with others.
Storytelling is a part of Christmas too. Just look at the television adverts, which compete for consumer attention by creating emotional or sentimental connections with viewers. Talking about the history of the presents you give and receive could be a great dinner table topic.
Buying second-hand is also a way to consume more sustainably. Not only does it give items a second life, it might inspire you to take better care of the things you have.
Curatorial consumption, a concept from the field of consumer research, reflects a responsibility to preserve old items that hold some sort of significance that might be missing in contemporary times, such as craftsmanship.
This is often done by acquiring, using, or displaying the items, and then selling or giving them to others who can get the same pleasure from them. Many of these items are well-made and durable, in contrast to today’s throwaway culture, so they can be passed on to others again and again.
Sometimes, the recognition that an item has been cherished by a previous owner might encourage some consumers to “continue loving it in the same way," as one participant told us.
They have belonged to other people, and they have been important to other people, and I think that’s really important to acknowledge. Most of the time, they have been very well made because things in the past were not made to be thrown away, and there’s craftsmanship.
It’s been well made; it’s been well maintained until you got it; that means it’s been loved until the point at which you got it, and I think you have a responsibility to continue loving it in the same way.
Our research suggests that this circular way of consumption allows people to not only consume more responsibly but also to connect with others with similar interests, helping build a sense of community and contribution.
As pre-holiday sales get under way, think instead about gift shopping at a local vintage shop or second-hand website. You may even start a new tradition by buying something old.
Omar Khaled Abdelrahman, lecturer, University of Huddersfield and Claire McCamley, senior lecturer in marketing, University of Huddersfield.
*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites.