Has gift-giving at Christmas with your wider family become a little ridiculous or impossible?

Or is Christmas itself with your extended family become too big?

This post is going up a little bit late today because I’ve been under the weather for a few days (I’m still just recovering and not feeling the best).

But I had a few thoughts I wanted to share.

With Rebecca and Connor having a baby now, our family has another generation. So Christmas is no longer getting together with the grandparents and the grandkids (and us middle generation); I’m now the grandma. And that may mean that we want to do different Christmas traditions.

A few years ago we also changed the way that we did gift-giving in our extended family. But that can be a big source of stress at Christmas. Do you still buy siblings Christmas presents when you’re adults? What about parents? What about when the siblings get married? Do you then buy the spouse a present, too? Is there a value limit?

We ran into issues with our extended family because some family members would get gifts for everyone, but some wouldn’t. And then a few years ago we changed up everything. And in the process, I wished I had raised the issue ten years earlier, because we were all thinking it, but none of us knew what to do.

In this post, I’d like to just give some different options for how to do gift giving, and then you can take a deep breath, get some courage, and raise it with your extended families, too!

Ways to do Gift Giving with Extended Family at Christmas

7 different models of Christmas gift-giving for extended families:

The Everyone-Gets-a-Gift

Everybody still buys a gift for everybody. Often this is the default. You grow up as a teenager buying your sister and brother a present, but then you get to be no longer teenagers anymore, but you keep it up. But then you get married. Do you still keep it up? So you do, and just wait to see what your siblings do. They still bought gifts as well. And then this goes on, and on, and on…

The Pros: Everybody feels included. People with gift-giving as their love language feel valued.

The Cons: It gets really expensive, and often a little bit ridiculous. Everybody is buying stuff for each other that we could just buy for ourselves. It can seem a little pointless.

Gift giving with extended family at Christmas

Katie with her cousin Jessica at Christmas

The Everyone-Gets-A-Gift but There’s a Limit

You still buy for everyone, but there’s a limit (say $20 or $40).

The Pros: Sometimes the gifts can be interesting, especially if there’s a lower limit, because you spend all year looking for something really interesting or quirky that’s under $20, and what you buy can still be kind of interesting, because looking for something that’s cheap often means you find some amazing vegetable peeler or some really quirky back massager or something.

The Cons: You’re still shopping for a lot of people, and you’re still spending a relatively lot of money. And do parents only get the cheap gifts? What if parents used to give you great gifts?

The Pick-a-Name

Everyone reaches in a hat at Christmas and picks the person they buy for the following Christmas. There’s a limit (say $50), but you can keep a look out all year. We did this one year, and one sister-in-law bought another sister-in-law a beautiful Christmas ornament with a picture of her dog who had passed away. A sister-in-law bought Becca and Connor a night in the Escape Room in Ottawa. It was actually pretty great.

The Pros: You get a gift that’s tailored towards you.

The Cons: It can be hard to buy a good gift for someone you don’t know very well. Again, what do you do with parents? Do they stop buying gifts?

The Secret Gift Exchange

This one goes by several different names, but everyone brings a gift, wrapped, of a certain value (say between $30 and $50). Then you pick numbers to see who goes first. The first person chooses a gift and opens it. The next person can either steal THAT gift or opens another. If a person gets their gift stolen, they open another gift.  And it keeps going. The rules we’ve always used are: You can’t steal the same gift twice in a row; and once a gift has been stolen three times it’s settled and can’t be stolen again.

The Pros: It’s actually a game, so it’s not just everyone sitting around opening stuff. You can buy pretty funny gifts to make it interesting.

The Cons: Often the gifts are still not what you would have spent money on yourself, and you still run into problems with gifts for parents.

The Children-Get-Gifts-but-No-Adults-Do

You restrict gift-giving to just the kids, and once they hit 18 (or they’re done college, your choice) they stop getting presents. This way adults aren’t spending money on each other, buying stuff that you could have bought for yourselves.

This is what we’ve always done on my mother’s side of the family, and it’s worked great. We’ve combined this with charity giving as well, and it’s just more in line with what we’re like, plus none of us is particularly gift-giving.

The Pros: It’s a lot cheaper, and the ones who honestly don’t have money and who actually appreciate gifts still do get them.

The Cons: The adults with gift-giving as a love language are hung out to dry. And, again, what do you do with parents?

Extended Family Christmas Gift Exchange

Rebecca and Connor on Christmas morning

The Pool-Your-Money-And-Have-an-Event

Another idea is to take the money that you would have spent on Christmas gifts for each other, and pool that money so that you can all do something together as a family and make some memories. Maybe you go out to eat for Christmas at a restaurant if no house will hold you (this also makes it easier to escape if you don’t want to stay all day). Maybe you all go bowling or go skiing, depending on your budget.

This is what the “cousins” in our family have decided to do, rather than presents for each other. My kids’ generation are all very close in age. The five of them are within 3 1/2 years of each other. And now that they’re adults, many have significant others (or spouses). They’re all also short on money because they’re young and they’re all trying to either pay off student debt, get through school without debt, or save for something big. But they’re also quite good friends who don’t see each other very often, and they want to get together outside of just the big family event.

So for the last few years they get together to have a big board game tournament at Christmas, and they take the money they would have spent on presents and instead buy snacks and hors d’oeuvres. It’s actually a lot of fun!

Loving Your Extended Family

Board games with the cousins in 2016!

The Pros: You actually spend time together and get to talk and make memories.

The Cons: It can be hard to find one activity that everyone in the family would want to do.

The Pool-Your-Money-And-Give-to-Charity

If your family is big on giving to charity, you can all get together, throw money into a hat, figure out how much you have altogether, and then look through those charity “gift catalogues” where you can buy 3 billy goats for a family in India or a well for a family in Liberia or soccer uniforms for a team in Kenya and you can all together choose that. Partners International, World Vision, and many other charities put out such catalogues.

The Pros: Your money goes to something important, and you can feel good about that.

The Cons: If it’s not clear how much you should contribute, some may not contribute much and then feel judged; or if you put an amount everyone should put in, some may feel pressured. Also, then no one gets a gift.

Thoughts when deciding which gift-giving method to choose for extended family

The hard part comes when some people in your family really love gift giving and have gift giving as  your love language. I don’t; they’re like negative on the scale to me. But when people really enjoy it, to take away gift-giving can be jarring for them. Also, not wanting to buy gifts for siblings/cousins and in-laws is one thing; but parents can be different, because parents often still want to buy for kids, and still appreciate presents.

In my experience, the younger generation seems much less wedded to gift giving than the older ones, and the younger ones are often eager to dispense with it (though perhaps that’s just my experience). But there does come a time when buying gifts for so many people that you don’t know well at Christmas becomes too expensive and too stressful, and makes it hard to enjoy the season with your own nuclear family. So sometimes you do have to figure out something new to do.

What about the bigger picture of family get-togethers?

This is what we’re also struggling with right now. When we started having the Gregoires all get together for Christmas, for instance, when I first married Keith, there were 7 of us (Keith’s parents, three brothers, and me). Then one by one everyone paired off, adding 3 more. Then the kids came, adding 5 more. Then the kids paired off, so that our numbers are now at 21 if everyone is there. That’s a much bigger production. You can’t all sit at one table. It’s hard to fit everyone in one house!

Not just that, but now with grandkids having significant others, that’s a lot of OTHER family’s schedules that have to be worked around. In our family group, it used to be that the kids would have Gregoire dinner and Wray dinner, plus our nuclear family dinner. But now, for Katie, for instance, there’s Gregoire dinner and Wray dinner and Emerson dinner and then our nuclear family dinner. That’s 4 dinners. (Granted, our nuclear family one is usually leftovers while in pyjamas all day and playing board games, but I’m totally wedded to that. That’s the most important part of Christmas for me!). And at least Katie doesn’t have any divorces in her family. Add some divorces, and then you’d multiply everything by two.

Christmas Board Game Tradition

Playing board games on Christmas!

It’s fine right now, but I can see how, in the future, as more little babies are born, something’s going to have to give. What I’m thinking is that we’ll have a Gregoire get-together in the summer, and at Christmas, Keith and I will still get together with his parents, but the next generation may not even come home. We may go to them.

So those are all my thoughts and ideas. And now I’d love to know: Has this become a big problem in your extended family? How do you navigate gifts? What about getting together at Christmas? Let’s talk in the comments!


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