How To Bow Out Gracefully From The Family Gift Exchange

by Mackenzie Siders
Originally Published: 
Christmas gift family exchange
loreanto / Shutterstock

The holidays are the most wonderful time of the year: parties, cookies, school concerts, family traditions, and of course, shopping for that perfect gift. I enjoy it so much more now that I don’t have to buy 75 different $15 gifts for my parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, cousins, aunts, uncles, neighbors, the babysitter, the mail lady, the garbage man, my kids’ teachers, and the hipster barista at Starbucks who keeps writing “McKinley” on my nonfat-triple-shot-grande iced-caramel macchiato.

We bowed out of the family gift exchange several years ago and never looked back. It was awkward at first, but we eventually got comfortable with just buying gifts for our kids. I’m not a Grinch. I usually do baked goods for the neighbors and teachers and those who play a supporting role in my little community. I give loaves of pumpkin bread because I’m good at baking shit. I give the gift of carbs because it’s not expensive, so people don’t feel like they need to reciprocate. But it takes some effort on my part, which is a hell of a lot more meaningful than a $15 gift card to Bed Bath & Beyond.

Gift-giving is about investing in important relationships. Picking out a good gift is an art form, and it requires thoughtfulness and insight. Of course it’s fun to get new stuff, but the real joy on the receiving end comes from knowing that someone paused and thought about you and then parted with their hard-earned dollars just to tell you how special you are to them. That’s powerful. The best gifts usually aren’t the most expensive or extravagant but the most well-thought-out.

That’s why compulsory gift-giving sucks. If the joy is in the thought behind the act, why do we buy gifts for people who have to tell us what to get them?

Obligatory gift-giving has nothing to do with relationships but rather crossing a task off a list so nobody will think you’re an asshole. It’s exchanging presents for the sake of exchanging presents. And as your social circle expands, it becomes excessive and burdensome on both your time and finances. Escaping the retail carnage is no trivial feat, especially in families, because of the principle of mutually assured destruction: If you buy for my kids, I buy for yours. It’s like an unspoken pact.

Breaking the cycle is easy-ish. It’s like getting a Brazilian. At first, it’s uncomfortable, and it’s gonna sting like hell for a day or two, but you’ll never feel so free. Here’s how we did it:

1. Have the Talk, and Be Diplomatic

I called my sister-in-law and explained that I love her and her children, and I acknowledged that she loved my kids. Then I told her that my family would not be participating in the gift exchange anymore and to please not buy any gifts for my kids—simple, straight-forward, and mostly effective. She understood and even seemed to agree (especially since I have five kids to her two).

2. Prepare Your Kids

The last thing I want are tears at Christmas, so we explained to the kids in advance that either Mom and Dad or Santa will be bringing their gifts and that they shouldn’t expect anything at the family Christmas party. This allowed us to deal with any whiny-kid crap out of sight of extended family so our kids wouldn’t embarrass us.

3. Expect Your Family to Not Understand

People cling to tradition and fear change, even if the tradition is kind of dumb. That’s OK. Help them through it by reassuring them that your children are fine just watching and that no one feels left out. If they still feel weird, don’t let them make that your problem. It’s their problem. You have a right to make your own choices, free from the guilt that is inherent in families.

4. Even If They Agree, Expect Them to Buy Gifts for Your Kids Anyway

The problem is that when you tell people to stop the madness, even if they agree, they’ll buy shit for your kids anyway because they think that you’re still going to buy shit for their kids and nobody wants to be that asshole who shows up to Christmas with no shit. Be gracious, say thank you for the gift, give them a big ass-out hug, and then go wreck some pie. Stick to your guns and everybody will eventually realize you are serious and respect your wishes.

5. Serve Dessert While Others Open Gifts

Put something in your kids’ hands and mouths to keep them occupied. Fact: Everything runs more smoothly with chocolate bourbon pecan pie.

6. Make a Suggestion

If just stopping altogether is going to give your Great Aunt Enid a coronary, try a step-down approach. Suggest a new tradition. If you’ve been buying for everyone in your family, maybe this year, you draw names. Or, if you draw names every year, maybe you lower the dollar amount, though if you lower it too much, you’re kind of stuck with gift cards and I think everyone can agree that exchanging restaurant/Best Buy/Target gift cards is asinine. Also, it helps, when trying to change the tides, to recruit an accomplice ahead of time. It’s easier when your favorite cousin supports your mission.

7. Don’t Be Ashamed

It’s OK to want to do everything you can for your own kids for Christmas with limited resources. It’s OK to not want to be tits-deep in debt come New Year’s. It’s OK if you just flat-out can’t afford it. It’s OK if you just don’t want to wrack your brain to find the perfect gift for your 5-year-old nephew who you see once a year during the holidays. If it’s between your kids or theirs, send a detailed update on every person in your family on holiday-themed stationary, aka the annoying Christmas letter.

8. Don’t Rub People’s Faces In It, You Sanctimonious Prick

Don’t make people feel like shit. It’s the holidays—save that for their birthday or the Fourth of July. Unless they probe your deepest thoughts on the subject, just keep it simple and don’t try to persuade anyone to follow your lead. Some people will go with the crowd forever because they just can’t bring themselves to rock the boat and that’s OK, too.

9. Always Give to Those In Need

Most of us do something for needy families around the holidays, but if you’re going to give your family—your blood—the shaft, at least try to redirect some of that time, energy and funds to those who would otherwise go without. I know of several families who will adopt a family and provide presents and a meal in lieu of exchanging gifts, and for my money, that’s one hell of a consolation for not getting Isotoner slippers from T.J. Maxx.

Of course, not every family gift exchange is a chore. Plenty of friends and families love their gift-exchange traditions and have fun with it, and everybody looks forward to it. If that describes you, then just keep having fun, sister. But, if you are just polling your friends and family for a list of crap to buy for them, and you just don’t see the point, get out now!

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