The Courage to Change Holiday Gift-Giving

There is no way I can list all of the various family situations and dynamics that come into play around the holidays. But a common family angst springs out of the matter of gift-giving.

We are faced with unreasonable expectations, guilt and hurt feelings. The solution? Courage. Courage to give as you want to give, not out of guilt or expectation; courage to spend what you are able, not what others say you must. Courage to get creative and to try something new.

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My family has a tradition that has been going on for more than thirty-five years. When our boys were toddlers, we and our best friends—who have three children about the same ages as our boys, decided to have a family Christmas party early in December. We had such a great time we decided to make it an annual event. 

Things have changed over the years. That first year there were a few gifts, mostly small gifts for the children. The kids are grown, many have children of their own, and grandparents have died. Still, we party and every year the problem arises: what to do about gifts?

We switch hosting every year, and several years ago instructions were mailed for how adults would exchange gifts that year. The host drew names for everyone and the instructions stated that we were to shop and “buy” for that person as if we had all the money in the world. How? Find a picture or other visual representation of the object.

I got a call from my mother-in-law, Gwen. She was livid! “What on earth is this all about?” she queried. “Has Kathleen lost her mind?” She was happy with the person’s name she drew, but not happy with this ridiculous non-gift way of giving.

The night of the party there was an air of cautious anticipation, but no one was more visibly excited than my mother-in-law. As people opened their gifts, the fun began. A flying enthusiast got a new jet, framed with a complete list of amenities. Others received beautiful new homes, golf courses, domestic staff—the sky truly was the limit.

And then Wendy opened her gift from Grandma (my mother-in-law). To my surprise, Gwen had spent days preparing a small scrapbook filled with beautiful pictures she’d found in magazines and catalogs, carefully selected just for Wendy. It was a moment to remember as Grandma gave Wendy all the things she knew she would love.

I learned something important that night. Buying a gift is way too easy. Creating a gift—even if it is cut from the pages of a magazine—requires the giver to think about the recipient and open his or her heart to that person.

What a memorable exchange it was. No one overspent and no one went into debt. There was no guilt, or unmet expectations. And no one enjoyed it more than my mother-in-law, whom all agreed was the best gift-giver of all.

QUESTION: Are you doing things differently this year for gift-giving? If so, share it here.


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  • in my husband’s family, the parents bring a wrapped gift for their own kids and put it under the tree from Santa. that way, the kids get something they really want. it also helps when your own kids are grown and you have to shop for a different age group whose wishes are far different each year!

  • Just Me

    My children are grown but not married. We have started giving stocking stuffers so we have something to do Christmas morning. It just has to be something the other person would like. No price range, no pressure.

  • Junia13

    I have 5 siblings. As adults we gave gifts to each other; as we married we added the spouse; then came the children; finally got to be so many that we drew names; the children got married and along came grandchildren and we continued to draw names but it was just getting to be too much money (even with limiting the amount per person). We dropped giving to siblings and their families about 10 years ago and 3 years ago we decided to stop exchanging gifts between our children and grandchildren. Some just didn’t have the money, and some had everything they wanted. Instead, we celebrate birthdays big and on Christmas we gather for a soup or appetizer meal in the evening and just enjoy the gift of family. With the stress of shopping gone, the Christmas season is now a wonderful time! My husband and I exchanged gifts up until 2 years ago and now we take what we would have spent on ourselves and give it to those truly in need.

  • Suzie Q

    My father in law was very difficult to buy for–not only hard to please, but also seemed to have very little that he wanted or expected. One year I purchased two very, very inexpensive books (same book, just two copies). I donated one to the library in memory of his deceased brother, then gave him the other with a note explaining what I had done. I think he was very touched, and I repeated the act the next year, only making the donation in his honor. He passed soon after, and this memory is very special to me.

    • California Karyn

      I like this!

  • Maryann

    One thing I had done in the past when my sisters and cousins were small was to buy them ornaments every year. It all started when Macy’s began offering a plush “stuffed” star on a golden cord in 5 different colors for $5 each. I had 3 sisters and 3 cousins, so I bought 4 different colors and 2 of the same 5th color, put them all in a large bag, and had the kids “choose” by putting their hand in the bag. Whatever color they got was what they kept, even if the same color ended up in the same house. After people got married and had their own children, I continued the tradition with the children and their parents, buying unusual ornaments every year and doing the “grab bag” thing. Everyone was happy with their selections most of the time, and if they weren’t they were free to exchange with each other if they wanted to. My favorite place to shop was Pier 1 Imports, where ornaments could be had from around the world for no more than $5 or $10 (my upper limit) each. I don’t do this anymore, but everyone tells me that they still have their “collections” and put them on their trees or around their homes every Christmas. No sizes or colors to remember, no crazy days spent at the malls, no last-minute frenzy because I forgot someone, and no giant credit-card bills in January!

  • June

    This year due to circumstances we are cutting back to stay within our budget. I am giving to my grandchildren, as their special gift, a large picture album of pictures I have taken of them over the years. Both my husband and I are going to give to others those things we know they would like to have…so we can see the joy on their face as they receive it. To each of my grandchildren I am going to give a large cushion made from their mother’s clothing. There mother will be spending her Christmas with Jesus in Heaven. Also, I am making table clothes and aprons from linen calenders that have been given to me over the years. Each one will receive one with their birth-date on it. It is going to be fun.

  • jadeets

    I am giving homemade cookies, as well as homemade laundry powder detergent in pint jars, along with the recipes for each.

    • Melissa Matej

      I’ve thought about giving the laundry soap . . . I’m glad you posted this, gives me confidence to follow through!

  • Debbie Sue

    What a brilliant idea. I really like that the core of this was to think about the other person. Being acknowledged, being made to feel valuable and feeling understood are the things that make a gift so special. This ticked all of those boxes. We don’t need to overspend. That is about pride. We are meeting some inner craving of our own. Some of the best gifts are homemade cookies or personal photos, or CDs of that person’s oldie favourites that you both enjoyed together. Thanks so much for sharing this. I am definitely passing it on.

  • Jenn

    1) My brother and I are both in our 30s. I’m married & have an almost-toddler, he is/does not. Our gift-giving family is relatively small but we’re all on budgets. A few years ago our family decided to take the burden off our parents (aka Santa) for stockings and instead we each buy a few things for the stockings of every member of the family. It’s fun to guess who gave which token item.
    2) I am an avid knitter and do it for the joy of creating something beautiful. I tend to make items for my loved ones. It serves dual purposes: it first provides me with entertainment during the making process and later gives me enjoyment seeing the recipient wear/use it. High quality yarn is expensive and hand-made does not equate to cheap.

  • California Karyn

    Yes, I’m so happy to share this…there are 3 sisters, we are all married (and our mom is still alive; only one sister has children, so we buy gifts for them); we rotate couples, so each year a couple gets for another couple, then we switch the next year. Well, this year, one of the sister/brother-in-law lost their home on the New Jersey shore in Hurricane Sandy, so not only are they in financial straits, they just don’t have time to shop So instead of the couples doing gifts, we are going to take whatever money we would have spent on our assigned couple and giving that money to a Hurricane Sandy-related charity. I’m a pet lover and rescuer, so I am giving to a small charity called Kinship Circle that has been on the ground around the clock working on rescue calls for distressed animals in the affected zone.

  • Joan Wyatt

    I got to dread trying to come up with a gift for someone just because that’s what is expected every year. Now that I’m 60, what do I really need anymore? I dislike buying a gift just to buy a gift. Last year we started sending the money we would have spend on gifst we don’t really need to World Vision’s Christmas program where they buy goats, water and other things that help people who really NEED these gifts for their very survival. Our usual yearly gift we buy for each other just because it’s Christmas might move to the back of the closet or end up at next summer’s yard sale. How many of us can even remember what we received last Christmas? We might exchange one little gift but we feel so blessed to be able to give a gift that really makes a difference in someone’s life. I highly encourage it!

  • Alex B.

    In my family, we only get gifts for the kids, and only our own kids. For our nieces and nephews, each of us puts money in our child’s 529 college fund that we would have spent on gifts. So, instead of me getting a gift for my nephew, and my brother getting a gift for my son, we each give money to college funds to our own kids instead. Then, we get 1-2 small gifts for our children, and that’s it. Our children understand they won’t get big things, but know they won’t have any debt after college. At the end of the day, what’s more important?

  • Rich

    The adults in our extended family spend all year looking for the perfect ‘white elephant’ to contribute to the anonymous Christmas gift exchange each year. This costs almost nothing and gives us a hilarious game of ‘who gets what’ as we either take an unopened gift or ‘steal’ someone’s previous selection. At times the exchange becomes quite spirited.

  • Deb

    Instead of participating in the office gift exchange & getting something I may or may not want I use the money I would have spent on a gift & give to the homeless shelter in our area. That way someone who really needs something is helped and I don’t have to deal with more “stuff” to clutter my iLife.

  • Nursedeb1966

    I have 2 grown daughters and my Grandchildren are teens, pretends and one has 2 two children of her own now. With ball games and other school activities the families often have a hard time arranging ” get togethers”. This year there is a Christmas ballet coming to our community. I have decided to take all the girls out to dinner and to the ballet as a gift of time for all of us. I think the boys will have dinner with us but I don’t think they will enjoy the ballet so I am trying to decide what to do with them…. The babies will be the only ones to get gifts this year…. So many times we get people things they don’t need or like. Christmas is. About time and family so that is what I am making it this year!

  • Nursedeb1966

    I just made a suggestion that I am doing this year but my daughter does something that I really like also. They give 3 gifts, like the wise men brought to baby Jesus…. Gold is a ” big” gift, the one thing the person really wants, frankincense is a needed thing, clothing or something like that. The myrr gift is for the family. A game or something they can so together. This keeps Gift giving at a miminum and keep Christ in Christmas!

  • liannallama

    What a wonderful and touching story! I love this idea of gift-giving!

  • Grammy

    Several years ago when I was a single mom with four teenagers I determined we had to make Christmas what it was all about….thinking of others. I suggested written gifts to be given in stockings instead of expensive wrapped gifts no one had the money for. The written gift had to include three things. A praise (for a quality of that person you admired( A prayer (written specifically for/about that person) and a promise (Something you would do or not do that you know would please the other person). Grandparents got promises for yard mowing, weekly calls, monthly visits, written notes etc. It was especially meaningful for the recipients and the givers had a new experience of really thinking about the other person. The stocking gifts are still the most precious to us but now come anonymously. A giving lesson my kids still treasure.

  • prospero1501

    My family calls me the ‘Crafting Queen,’ so this year I have put my skills to good use and have made the majority of my gifts. Now I only have two people to shop for!

  • Debra

    yes i have changed my gift giving to less is more and completely cutting off my spouse’s family who never sends cards nor shows any respect for MY children. Any suggestions anyone for an impossible in-law situation?

  • Susan T.

    When I was a graduate student, funds were low. We wrote to our family and explained that we could no longer manage buying gifts for every person. We explained that we would purchase gifts for children only and our daughter would craft something for each adult/couple as their gift. This has developed into a wonderful tradition of family time for us as we assist our daughter in 1 or 2 days of crafting homemade gifts. We get time together despite the busy season, family receives gifts from the heart, and stress is much reduced! Ideas: make ornaments, dip mix, cookie mix, soap, candles, decorate picture frames, make candies, jelly (can be done ahead in July!), and the list goes on. . . . .