That's right, Family, I'm putting our problems on the Internet.
For many years, my family did the traditional "Everybody buys a gift for everybody else" system. This worked for us for many years, until, like in most families, the family got bigger as children grew up, got married, and started families of their own.
[I should pause and note here that I am, in fact, a member of more than one extended family. My parents divorced when I was a kid, so I have the extended families of my dad/stepmom and my mom/stepdad. Then I got married and now have my husband's extended family as well. In particular, the story recounted in this blog post is occurring in my mom/stepdad's family, although the issue came up last year with my in-laws. My dad/stepmom's family celebration just consists of our original nuclear family, so that gathering is small enough that we don't really need to invent an alternative gift-giving policy.]
Anyway, a few years ago it got to the point where I looked down at my list of people to buy for, and there were 40 names on there. Forty. Now, figuring you spend an average of $20 per gift, that's an astounding $800.
And the thing is, I love to get gifts for my loved ones. I love to receive gifts from my loved ones. I love the gift-opening experience on Christmas. It feels so warm and fuzzy and cozy. And, at least in my adult life, I like watching other people open gifts from me as much as I like opening gifts from them.
But sometimes when I have to purchase a lot of gifts, I hit a very negative point that I like to call the Checklist Phenomenon. You see, I have a tendency to just want to get. the. shopping. over. with. And so I get to the point where I no longer care about getting the perfect, cherished gift to suit the recipient's individual personality. And instead I'm like like, "I don't know. Just get him something. We have to check his name off the list. Just get SOMETHING!"
The low point of this was when I got my husband's uncle the Power Squid power cable/surge protector a few years ago. What? I said to a slightly disapproving Bill, I'm sure the man has multiple electrical appliances he wants to plug into a single outlet, and he wants to be protected from, umm, surges.
And so, having hit the insanity of the Checklist Phenomenon, I cried Uncle. (I'm pretty sure the term "Cried Uncle" was actually invented when somebody got his uncle a surge protector for Christmas.) The problem is that as much as we love exchanging gifts, there are too many of us now, and there are certain people we don't see enough to know their specific tastes well enough to pick out a thoughtful, individualized gift.
Since then, debates have occurred among my various extended families as to how to handle the gift-exchanging. And I know many friends whose families are debating the same issues. Now, I'm not going to name any names and get my own relatives so upset with me that they don't even want to have me in their homes, let alone buy me gifts. (Hey! Problem solved!) So, I present the following gift-exchanging options, listed with various pros and cons. Let me note that I see the pros and cons to all of these situations, and I'm not siding with/arguing against any particular person. I actually don't know what system I favor, and I'm open to input from people as to what systems work for their families. Okay:
Gift-exchange Option A: The Name Draw
Also known as the Grab Bag, this is a system where all the adult family members put their names into a hat and each person draws the name of a person to buy for. In some families, people include wish lists of desired gift items on the paper with their names.
- Pros: This system allows for a gift exchange at the family gathering, without the insanity/expense of everybody buying gifts for everybody else. I also like how this might forge a special bond between two family members who might not know each other that well.
- Cons: More and more lately, with the proliferation of gift cards, the Name Draw has just led to "the exchange of the gift cards." This is, more or less, like exchanging money. And I always laugh because there's a price limit of, say, $25, except if you're just getting back the exact equivalent of what you spent, you might as well set a limit of $1,000.
Gift-exchange Option B: Game-style Gift Exchange
With this system, everybody brings a wrapped gift to the party. There's a set dollar limit for the cost of the gift. Then at the party, there is a game wherein people draw numbers to indicate the order in which they get to pick/unwrap a gift from the pile, and then there is the option of stealing/trading a gift that has already been opened. This is sometimes also known as the Yankee Swap, or White Elephant. (Though the latter usually indicates the bringing of an unwanted, tacky item that the person already owns, rather than a store-bought, supposedly desirable item.)
- Pros: This is a fun game to play at a holiday gathering. It really gets people interacting, which is why it's a popular activity at office holiday parties. It's interesting to see what people bought, and the silly interpersonal drama created with the "stealing" is all in good fun (usually).
- Cons: Again, this setup often leads to an exchange of gift cards. And then the big question is whether you'll get a gift card to Target or the Cracker Barrel. Oooh, the suspense! Also, if you bring something that isn't a gift card, it's nearly impossible to come up with a gift that will be pleasing to any recipient. Men don't really want scented lotions or candles. (Actually, most people are kind of maxed out on candles at this point.) The Mormon cousins do not want coffee. Children don't want the Beers of the World set (or maybe they do, but just don't go there).
Under this system, everybody brings a small item (say, a $5 limit) to put in a bag for everybody else. It's kind of like your old elementary school Valentine exchange, but with Christmas gifts.
- Pros: This is an inexpensive way to acknowledge everybody with a little something. It's fun to open your bag and see what people thought up.
- Cons: Sometimes the cost really adds up. Like, say, if everybody gets a $5 gift for each of 20 relatives, that's $100. And in order to achieve any level of girth in the stocking, each individual (rather than each family) needs to bring a gift. So with my family of 3, that's $300.
Clearly the most enlightened of the gift-exchanging options, the system involves everybody forgoing gift purchases for relatives, and instead giving their money to a charity.
- Pros: The pros here are obvious. Your money goes to a needy and deserving charity, rather than to another picture frame for your aunt.
- Cons: If you decide that everybody should give to the same charity, there are going to be fights. And, while I always support the idea of giving to charity in addition to giving to your relatives, when you just do the charity option and don't exchange any gifts, it's kind of a downer at the holiday party. We all saw the "Human Fund" episode of Seinfeld.
This is the system we've all been using for years. You just suck it up and buy something for everybody else. You purchase and wrap 20 gifts, you schlep them all to the holiday party (and let's remember some of us are coming all the way from Illinois), and then Christmas is just a giant gorge-fest of commercialism.
- Pros: Most people have been doing this for so long that it's no longer all that controversial. Nobody gets offended, and you cover the whole "But if I get something for Such-and-Such, then I have to get something for So-and-So" phenomenon. You don't have to give up getting a gift for your beloved mom, just because you didn't want to get a gift for that one distant cousin who you still can't tell apart from his older brother.
- Cons: It's ridiculously expensive. And most of the adults in your family don't really need anything. And if they do need things, they probably want to save their money and buy the things themselves, rather than buying a Target gift card for you.
This is kind of like when two kids are arguing over a toy, and their mom says, "Fine, if you're going to argue about it, I'm just going to take it away!" After awhile when families argue back and forth and up and down about the gift-exchange policy, it's easier to just ban gifts altogether.
- Pros: No fighting. Totally free. No wrapping, purchasing gift tags, or mailing stuff back and forth.
- Cons: Christmas becomes kind of boring. There's something about the Christmas gathering that makes people feel like there should be a gift-exchange portion. (I'm not sure why this is, because we all get together on Thanksgiving without exchanging gifts. But then, that's why people watch football and/or go to movies on Thanksgiving.) And it legitimately feels wrong not to get a gift for your parents (or, I'm told, your adult children). And this leads to, "Oh, but I just wanted to get you a little something," phenomenon, which then sets off a trend of guilt-based gift-exchanging, and the whole gift ban is off. Plus, most families agree that everybody should still get gifts for the kids (cue debate about what age constitutes a kid). And then there is one family with 6 kids, another family with one, and another family with zero, and people grow resentful at having to always fund other peoples' kids video game habits without getting anything in exchange. Or else the people with many kids feel guilty about the childless couple having to buy them so many gifts, and then they get "a little something" for the childless couple anyway ... aaand again the ban is off.
And I know that says "Posted by Shannon," but really The Grinch hijacked my computer this week. But not the Jim Carrey version. That version was creepy.