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I Did NOT Want to Exchange Gifts This Christmas

I have a difficult relationship with gifts. I love discovering special gifts that the recipients might enjoy but not find or buy for themselves. That takes quite a bit of thought and research. I collect ideas throughout the year and tuck them away in email folders reserved for different family members and friends.

But I don’t particularly enjoy receiving gifts, especially not material things. For my birthday each year, I ask my husband to plan a getaway for us. I’m usually the travel planner so it’s a joy to not be in charge. He usually treats me to a long weekend in the Caribbean but this coming January, with Covid, a spa day will be wonderful.

In a few weeks, our extended family of 16 is getting together in person for Christmas in Santa Barbara, where my parents live. I haven’t seen most of them since Covid began so I’m looking forward to our reunion.

My mother is Danish and loves a traditional Jule complete with dancing around the Christmas tree and finding the hidden almond in the rice pudding (and winning the marzipan pig!). She and my father always have loads of gifts awaiting us under the tree.

But with 16 of us, that’s a lot of people to buy special gifts for! Not to mention the supply chain issues this year… And honestly, we are fortunate that none of us really needs more stuff. On the contrary, we’re all trying to downsize.

Since our kids are grown (and no grandkids yet), might there be another way?

My three siblings and I discussed the situation on Zoom and agreed to suggest that this year, while we might exchange gifts (privately) with our immediate families, we won’t buy gifts for our extended family members. No big gift exchange! Instead, we’ll focus our group time on fun experiences.

In our family, that usually means playing loads of games, and especially one we grew up with that we call “the Danish betting game”—because we have no other name for it. It involves playing hands of cards and placing bets with matchsticks. I’m also going to entice the group to play a favorite of mine, Celebrity, a Charades-like game.

There are always lots of sweets at the ready for these game-playing sessions, including tins of my mom’s Danish and Greek home-baked cookies and boxes of specialty chocolates.

We also came up with an ingenious and fun way to address the “gifts under the Christmas tree” dilemma by deciding to try a new tradition this year: The White Elephant.

Here’s how our version will work. We’ll each contribute a wrapped gift (value no greater than $25 and no gift cards allowed), then sit together as we take turns opening a gift or stealing the gift from a past recipient (who will then get to choose and open another gift). We’ll start with the eldest (my mother) and work our way down to the youngest (my teenage nephew)—so he can get last dibs.

I’ve played this before and it was loads of fun; I’m looking forward to trying it with my extended family. And this means the Christmas tree won’t look bare as we dance around it, with 16 gifts under it.

Ever the planner, I’ve already secured the gifts we’ll contribute (for the 4 of us attending) and was so excited about one of them I had to buy it for myself!

YOUR TURN: What’s your attitude about gifts? How do you handle them over the holidays? Any creative solutions you can share or try? Please let us know your own clever ideas or novel gift traditions in the comments!

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  1. Gretchen Cherington

    So what’s the one you bought for yourself!? We’ve done this sort of exchange with a group of friends not visiting kids at Christmas. It’s been super fun and fills the need to get something while being responsible consumers! Have fun!!

    • Hélène

      Haha well I can’t divulge this in case my family members see this but I’ll email you privately Gretchen!

      • Dora

        I love this idea! I’m pretty sure I had the same type of exchange at a holiday party with my coworkers in the 90s. But I wonder if you could mix up the order a little and let your mom have last pick? After all, she is baking so many delicious things for everyone! I wish I could join your party!

        • Hélène

          Not a bad idea Dora! We felt kinda bad for the youngest one and my mom never wants ANY gifts but we’ll see what everybody thinks. There’s still time for you to create your own low-key party!

  2. Catherine

    I live alone and can buy everything I need for myself. I have asked my family to buy me things that are disposable because I do not have room for any more possessions. So shampoo and conditioner, body wash, candles, wine, food, fruit, etc. are all things I can consume and dispose of. It works for us!

    • Hélène

      Yes! Very smart. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Laurie Thompson

    Hi Helene – thanks for sharing so personally. It so lovely to hear about your family traditions and plans. Im so envious. We used to have these kind of Christmas’s, with so many lovely traditions. It was the highlight of the year. But as you said, Christmas is family, and now all our family are scattered all over the world. So our Christmas this year is just my hubby and I, with no fuss at home. Instead, we booked to go out to a lovely game park for a Day Safari, and a lovely Christmas Lunch in the bush with the animals. How different is that? I hope you have a wonderful and very special Christmas with your loved ones.

    • Hélène

      Laurie that must be so hard to have everyone so far away. We’re only scattered in the US and that feels far enough! But what a great idea to come up with a fun outing. Maybe a new tradition! Enjoy the holidays!

  4. Karen DeBonis

    Helene–I’m weird about gifts, too. I love finding the special gift for a special person, and I love receiving similar gifts. But I hate obligatory giving. And I don’t need any more stuff. But with my 2 sons, I do feel special when they buy me something. So this year for Christmas, I requested small, token gifts like my special brand of hand lotion and shower bombs. Whatever else they would have spent, I asked them to buy toys for a children’s hospital or pjs and underwear for a homeless shelter. Not just a monetary donation–that doesn’t feel the same. I’d like to know that they shopped and delivered the items–that makes it meaningful. For me, this feels perfect. Enjoy your holidays!

    • Hélène

      What a lovely idea Karen. And love that your boys are game! Merry Christmas to you and yours!


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