Is it all getting a little too much? Do you find yourself caught up in a gift exchange that seems to escalate every year? Are you sometimes startled when someone buys you a gift that you weren’t expecting?
I can’t reciprocate
Because I didn’t anticipate
The way that you celebrate
Now I feel like a reprobate
Little ditty for ya there.
A sizable chunk of the population is still paying off credit card debt incurred from buying last year’s Christmas presents. (Do other winter holiday traditions have this same intense social expectation around gifts?) No matter how much you love someone, do you love that person enough to pay an additional 16% interest on top of the cost of their gift? (One of the benefits of being debt-free is that you can give more to your friends instead of your bank). Another relevant question: is this a Gift-of-the-Magi situation? Are we all sitting in the room, sweating our credit card payments, hoping our gifts are elaborate enough to meet the standard, to the point that we hope the gifts we receive aren’t... a little TOO nice?
This is sort of what happened with my own family, and finally I became a wet blanket and bowed out. We talked it out and decided that for the adults at least, we’d rather spend the money spending time together than on gifts. Plane tickets, group dinners out, the occasional family vacation. When you get to a certain age, you pretty much have everything you need. We were at the point where we were deliberately holding back on buying things during the year just so that we’d have something, anything, to add to our written wish lists.
There are a bunch of different ways to restructure gift-giving so that it doesn’t... heh... snowball out of control.
The “white elephant” party. My ex-in-laws did this with their extended family every year. It was a laugh riot! Most people brought joke gifts, although there would always be a few generic items like a scented candle or a box of chocolates. One year, I got a potted amaryllis bulb, which I loved, and evidently so did our neighbors, because a couple of months later they stole it off the porch when they moved.
Drawing names from a hat. This was the first stage of our Christmas gift exchange slowdown. We decided that we would all continue to buy presents for the children in the family as usual. The adults would all put our names in the hat, so that each person would only buy a gift for one other person, and receive a gift from some other person. We enlisted one of the nephews to assign names. Then everyone, kids and adults included, passed around wish lists. The adults had a $100 spending limit, so you could buy either one more expensive gift or a few smaller items. (Equivalent to spending $14.29 apiece on seven people).
Wish lists. This is a time-honored tradition in my family. Several people have told me they wish their own families would do this. Your job is to compile a long list of stuff you would like, covering all different price ranges. This solves several problems. One! Everyone can get you a gift without having to rack their brain figuring out what you might like. Two! They are guaranteed that you will love your present - no disappointed micro-expressions. Three! You yourself are guaranteed to get something you want. Four! You also don’t know exactly what you’re getting, because you made your list too long to be receiving all of it in one year. Five! Nobody has to worry about cost, because there should be a few $1-5 items as well as bigger stuff. Sometimes, several family members will band together to buy someone a larger item off the list, like when we all pooled resources to replace my grandma’s fridge.
Cookie exchange. This is another idea I’ve seen done for friend groups, like book clubs. Personally I am a big fan of the cinnamon roll flavor of Oreo.
Book exchange. I am given to understand that this is a tradition in Iceland. Everyone gives books as gifts and then spends the rest of the day reading them. COZY! I love choosing books for people I know well, and it feels like mega-points when they really like the book.
Gifts of experiences. This is another idea for family discussion. There are so many lovely holiday traditions that can be done with little or no money. One year we took the kids downtown to look at the animated store window displays. We’ve driven around to lighted-up neighborhoods to look at the decorations. My mom sat at the table with my brothers and me for about two hours one legendary night, and we rewrote “The Twelve Days of Christmas” to be all about food. FIIIIIVE ONION RIIIIIIINGS! Now that I live a thousand miles away, and there are often serious weather issues, we have to get together over Skype. We’ve done several games, such as team gift-wrapping using only one hand, or trying to copy a holiday-themed drawing while blindfolded and then comparing results. Still works even when some of us aren’t in the same room.
Charity. Another year, while I was jamming my foot on the gift-giving brake, I suggested that we all exchange charitable donations. Well, I did it anyway... I tried to choose something that would be meaningful to each recipient, and I looked on Charity Navigator to make sure I was picking a good one. We also discussed adopting a family for the holiday, and I did the research on this. Bring food and gifts and meet the family in person. It sounded amazing. Then it occurred to us that there were people already in our acquaintance for whom we could do this, so we do.
(Incidentally, I wish there was a way to connect with people in my neighborhood and share leftovers with them. Like a young couple with kids. “Hey guys, here’s half a lasagna, see you next week.” Right?).
Gift giving should be about love, joy, and delight. Choosing something for someone and watching their face while they open it is one of the best feelings. On the other hand, watching someone open a gift that obviously wasn’t quite what they wanted is a real bummer. Oh, well, it’s the thought that counts. Yeah? If that’s true, what if we just decide to put more value on the thought and less on the trinkets?
One year, my future husband and I agreed not to get each other anything. Then we both broke the promise. I got him a li’l something and he got me rainbow striped knee socks. That gift said that he understood me, that he saw me the way I see myself. Also that he knew I “had cold feet.” If he’d bought me diamond earrings, I would have been alarmed and put off, especially if they were on credit.
What we love about people usually can’t be summed up with a material object in the way that retailers wish it could.
If you love these people and they love you, whoever they are, then everyone will probably welcome an honest conversation about What This Holiday Means to Us. The traditions and the foods and the photo ops that we care about the most probably have little or nothing to do with opening gifts. Who is going to be brave enough to... break the ice?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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