Be afraid. Be very afraid.

It’s here. It’s begun.

My extended family officially voted this year to exchange gifts, much to my dismay. We’d escaped unscathed for a few years–gifts for kids only–although the number of rule-breakers over the years has increased. Last year I was on deadline and didn’t even do any baking; we came more-or-less empty-handed and left staggering under the weight of guilt and loot.

The subject came up in today’s Cary Tennis article in Salon, when someone wrote in bemoaning the fact that kids today (oh does that ever make me feel like the old fart I am)–and some adults too–only want cash and gift certificates. While I find his response inexplicably silly (it’s all our fault as representatives of today’s materialist society) I loathe the idea of both because then the recipients know exactly how much I spent. I’d far rather buy something spectacular, unusual, and dirt cheap (ebay, here I come). But what do you get for the nieces and nephews you see only a few times a year and who you really don’t know? Or the adults who have everything? (My solution may well be Heifer International, a nonprofit I’m very fond of.)

Now I can’t delegate this to my husband, who, once when his workplace had a gift exchange of socks–a foolproof idea, you would have thought–gave a pair of socks that were not only used but stained (oh okay, they had some sort of heating element in them so they were special and oh-so-useful), and the recipient was a bit surprised and my husband is still surprised that she was surprised, and so on. As he points out, at least it wasn’t underwear.

And it’s times like this that I envy people in the past. In very early pagan times you might have given someone special a tree branch as a gift for the New Year (“Oooh, leaves! My favorite!”) which is why there’s so much emphasis on trees and greenery and Yule logs around Christmas. In the Regency, possibly you might have given the odd shilling to the servants and a condescending visit to the poor with gifts of gruel and the promise to see about repairing the nasty leak in the roof, then back home to the mansion to eat and drink yourself silly (much like the rest of the year in fact). And church, of course–my, what party animals they were.

So how do you and your extended family handle the gift problem and are you satisfied with it?

Give yourself the gift that keeps giving all year–a subscription to the Riskies newsletter. Sign up now at riskies@yahoo.com with NEWSLETTER in the subject line.

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Keira Soleore
15 years ago

You sending me a cow for Xmas, Janet? Well, here’s a camel for you!!

Diane Gaston
15 years ago

Oh, do I have an opinion about this! I am so very pro-gift cards. In my family-my two sisters, a b-in-law, a niece, a nephew-we’ve agreed to give gift cards these past few years. My sisters are very creative (last year I got Nordstoms and a make-up store I went to once). Me, I cut to the chase and give everybody VISA gift cards. This year for my own kids (all grown up) I will give cash, because they prefer cash to VISA gift cards. I will do a little something so everyone has presents to open – real creative, like…socks!!! (great idea, Janet, but I will heed your advice and only give NEW socks). My in-laws requested that we skip gifts this year – Yay! I’ll probably give them something…food of some sort, just to have something…

I love buying gifts in theory, but I am really bad at it. Not creative at all. Everybody takes back what I buy.

Elena Greene
14 years ago

No offense, Diane, but do you ever find that you have exchanged equivalent Visa gift cards with someone? 🙂

In my family we came to an agreement (somewhat miraculously) that when we gather at my parents’ house on Christmas morning each person gets just one gift. The rule is spouses get for each other and for their own children, grandparents do what they wish, and we rotate who gets a gift for my unmarried brother. It really cuts down on expense and stress–we have enough of that anyway!

Janet, one thing we tried a few years ago before our current scheme might help. We went with gourmet food items: candy, wine, etc…, things people can enjoy or easily pass on. Except maybe avoid the rotating fruitcake, you might get it back again next year. 🙂

Elena (who actually likes fruitcake despite that comment)

Cara King
14 years ago

I admit I’m not the biggest gift card fan. Let’s be honest, checks are more versatile, but how silly if I gave someone a check, and they gave me one for the same amount! And how embarrassing if we gave each other different amounts!

Which is not to say that I never give gift cards. I do, sometimes, though I more often get them.

Janet, I’m with you — my favorite thing is knowing something someone would like, and keeping my eye open so I can get it on sale somewhere. I love it when people didn’t even know the thing existed, and are so happy to get it!

And Keira, I’ve done Oxfam “gifts” too! And you know, I think they spend a smaller percentage of donations on advertising than Heifer does…

My extended family is way too big to exchange gifts — my mom was one of six kids; my generation has sixteen members, and the one after that has fifteen so far… And that’s not counting people they married! 🙂

So in general, we give to our own siblings, parents, children, and nieces & nephews.


Elena Greene
14 years ago

I just realized my last comment might seem like a criticism of your family’s method, Diane. I’m sorry about that! I just figured that’s what would happen if my family tried it. I doubt anyone would be clever enough to give me a DSW gift card. Sigh…

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

Oh, Cara and Elena, we all know what we are doing! We have a traditional limit on how much we spend and on a gift card (unlike a check) you can’t tell the amount. We are very aware we are giving the same thing we are receiving, but there is always something little to go along with the gift. And then we can all spend money on ourselves, which everyone in my family likes to do.
I know it is a weird tradition, but it works for us.

14 years ago

I made the mistake of suggesting to my husband’s family that we pick names for X-Mas. No go.

So we try and get that thing they’ll love, but I do sometimes resort to gift cards. Amazon.com works for the far-away relatives.

For the young ladies, I’ve discovered Aerie gift cards, which is American Eagle’s lingerie and jammy store. Their stuff’s so cute I’m taking my middle-aged rear shopping after Christmas. But I won’t tell the PYT’s that!

Pam Rosenthal
14 years ago

Gifts. For. Kids. Only. Bless my family for that. I think it’s a Jewish thing, but I’m not sure.

Of course the not-so-nice Jewish part of the season is feeling like you have to load your kids down with 8 days of Chanukah-is-Just-as-Good-as-Xmas-Really presents. But after my son got old enough to be as embarrassed as we were by that one, the season became a delight for all of us.

I’m for cows, camels, and bits of greenery. Most apt present we ever gave our son was when he was 16 — a full-length mirror.

Keira Soleore
14 years ago

Pam, you had me in stitches over giving your teen a mirror. I bet that’s the best gift he could’ve received for the next three years combined.

Luckily for us, we haven’t really gotten into the gift giving, or rather, gift exchange. This year, we took our little one to choose gifts for two kids via the Starlight Foundation and help with the wrapping. We also bought gifts for friends of hers who’re not as fortunate. For her, we’ll donate to Oxfam in her name this year, and we hope we can keep up the tradition of doing something similar every year.

Cara King
14 years ago

Yes, Diane, sorry for sounding rude or critical! I do need to remind myself far too often that everyone has different ways, and whatever works for them is best.

For instance, Todd’s family has a tradition of asking each other what they want for the holidays, and then getting that. I was not comfortable with this for a long time, but even I see that it has definite positives! Especially if folks don’t see each other too often, and so aren’t as likely to know what dvd or cd or whatever someone might like…


Elena Greene
14 years ago

Of course the not-so-nice Jewish part of the season is feeling like you have to load your kids down with 8 days of Chanukah-is-Just-as-Good-as-Xmas-Really presents.

Or how about having to do both? This has been my dilemma for a while. To find 8 (x2) small gifts I was driving to museum gift shops all over the region. Last year I had trouble finding anything new. And then there was an Xmas stocking to fill. This year they are getting just one Chanukah gift. The other nights we’ll just light the candles, play dreidel and eat chocolate.

Especially if folks don’t see each other too often, and so aren’t as likely to know what dvd or cd or whatever someone might like…

Or what used to happen to me. My sister-in-law got my musical taste so well she used to give me CDs I’d already bought myself.

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

I didn’t think you were rude!

Like Todd’s family, my family has had a life-long tradition of asking people what they want and then getting it. As we’ve grown older and tend to buy ourselves whatever we want, this got harder; hence the gift cards.

Oddly enough one of my favorite Christmas memories was going to downtown DC with my aunt, in a snow storm, to buy family members little extra $5 gifts (this was pre-inflation). We had more fun shopping then than ever.

14 years ago

Well, there’s no extended family here, so it’s quite easy. 🙂 Oh, and I love gift cards. . . I mean, B&N and Borders, anyone? 😉


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