large family handing gifts to each other during a christmas dinner

When our boys were only toddlers, we and our best friends, who have three children just about the same ages as our boys, decided that we would have a Family Christmas Party early in December. We called it that even though the two families were not technically related. We invited two sets of grandparents and one other older couple as well.

large family handing gifts to each other during a christmas dinner

Our common bond? Five adorable kids and all the grown-ups who love them. Everyone dressed up and the children performed their current talent. We had such a great time that we decided to make this Family Christmas Party an annual event.

That first year there were a few gifts—mostly small things for the children. But somehow over the years, the gifts grew in both quantity and quality. By the time this event passed the thirty-five-year mark, four of the five babies were married with babies of their own. Lots of kids!  Two grandparents had died causing the family dynamic to change tremendously. But still the Family Christmas Party went on. And every year the problem would arise: What to do about gifts?

I give you this background so you can fully appreciate what happened that one year.

The host (we would switch hosting every year) mailed instructions for how we would exchange gifts. She put all the names of the adults into a hat and drew one for each. The instructions were that we were to shop and “buy” for that person what we would if we had all the money in the world. How? Find a picture, photo, or other visual representation of the object. The instructions explained that you should come to the party with your gift properly wrapped and be prepared to give all the reasons you chose it.

The day the instructions arrived in the mail I got a call from my mother-in-law. What on earth is THIS all about, she queried. Has Kathleen lost her mind? For days, Gwen was agitated and quite upset. She was happy with the person’s name she “drew,” but not at all happy about this ridiculous non-gift way of giving a gift. I tried to help her think outside the box of typical Christmas gifting. She was not at all enthusiastic.

There were a few other grumblers, but mostly everyone was willing to try. I did notice a lack of spontaneous enthusiasm, especially in my immediate family and I was slightly apprehensive, too.

The night of the party there was an air of cautious anticipation. But no one was more visibly excited than my mother-in-law. I figured she’d done what she’d threatened to do: Bring a store-bought gift in defiance of this ridiculous idea.

As people opened their gifts, the fun began. One flying enthusiast got a new Lear Jet. Wow, it was a beaut’. It came as a framed picture complete with a list of amenities.

Others received beautiful new homes, luxury automobiles, a complete domestic staff, diamonds, golf courses—the sky was truly the limit! And then Wendy opened her gift from Grandma (my mother-in-law). I tried not to look for fear it was not at all in keeping with the night’s theme. But to my surprise, Gwen had spent days preparing a small scrapbook filled with beautiful pictures she’d found in magazines and catalogs, carefully picked out just for Wendy. It was a moment to remember as Grandma so proudly gave Wendy all the things she knew she would love.

Not only was that the best gift exchange ever, I learned something important. Buying a gift is 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 gift exchange we had. No one overspent, no one went into debt, no one went home with yet another dust-catcher; there was no guilt, no expectation. It was a sweet and carefree time to share the best gifts we could think of—things that would please and delight others.

And no one enjoyed it more than my mother-in-law, whom we all agreed was the best gift-giver of all.

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