Pick a card, any card…

This complaint to Amy Dickinson is amusingly timely, since it was published over the weekend, as I was having this exact experience myself:

Dear Amy: I found out that my husband’s side of the family is yet again having a “gift exchange” in which we give a gift to the person whose name we’ve picked out of a hat.

There is one rule — no gift cards. I am not fond of this idea, but in past years I’ve exchanged a gift despite my objections, and kept quiet.

All relatives are adults, and I can’t see the purpose of giving a gift to a person whom I do not really even know and see only once a year.

I would much rather pool our money or donate it to someone in need. I’ve made this suggestion, but no one wants to mess with their tradition. I understand that the grandparents get joy out of seeing all of us open our gifts and then pass them around, but we are adults. Isn’t this a bit childish, or am I just being selfish? How can I get out of this silly tradition?— Bothered


Dear Bothered:Not only do I approve of your in-law family’s gift exchange tradition (especially the “no gift cards” rule), I am tempted to try to marry into the family myself in order to participate in it.

Drawing names is a great way to cut down on the number of gifts exchanged; it also gives you an opportunity to get to know the person whose name you’ve drawn.

When you draw “Aunt Myrtle’s” name before Christmas, you have an incentive to do a little research with other family members to try to figure out what she would like to receive. When Aunt Myrtle opens her gift in front of others and expresses her delight at your thoughtfulness, this forms a connection between the two of you that will last beyond Christmas Day.


Bothered’s wish to donate the money to an organization or people in need is certainly in the right place. It’s a worthwhile thought at a Christmas (and any time of course) where every person is buying for every person, the floor is covered wrapping paper, the bellies bloated with pie, and the excess of it all starts to get a little nauseating. But I agree with Amy that drawing names so that each person buys only for one other person is a great way to drastically decrease the madness, while keeping the “silly tradition” (that goes WAY beyond Bothered’s husband’s family) of placing gifts under the tree and opening them together. Indeed, often the idea of such a name draw is to ease the financial strain on each family member–leaving enough in their pockets to make a charitable contribution that season, if they choose to.

Bothered seems to be missing the point that, typically, a name draw gift exchange isn’t an add-on to a gifts-free Christmas, but a welcome relief from every person bringing a present for every other person. Would she find buying gifts for 17 people she doesn’t know well and sees only once a year preferable to buying for one?
If even a single gift seems wasteful to Bothered, certainly she could mention to the person who has her name, “I think the efforts of the ASPCA are so important and underfunded, and I would be honored if you’d make a contribution to their organization as a gift to me.” She could even find out what causes are important to her assigned recipient, and make a contribution to that group (though in this case it’s important to honor the recipient’s cause, not the giver’s pet project).
I spent this weekend in Ohio with SK’s family, where they have virtually the same tradition. They, too, have only one rule, but it’s a different one: there’s a $35 limit on each gift. Unlike in Bothered’s family, in SK’s, gift cards are allowed–though I wish they weren’t. Basically, everyone winds up trading $35 gift cards (another explicit rule of the game is that you don’t have to spend $35–or anything–on your gift, but when all you’re giving is a piece of plastic that required no thought or effort, it seems cheap to go under the limit, and no one does. SK’s brother received a $25 gift card and a $10 bill.)
I’m not excusing myself in this case–I wound up with the name of SK’s uncle, to whom I’ve barely spoken before. At his wife’s suggestion, I got him a Home Depot gift card. Were gift cards “outlawed,” I really have no idea what I would have gotten him instead–but it would have been neat to learn more about him: what teams does he cheer for? what does he do in his spare time? What projects is he working on around the house? Having spent just a day with him and his family, I have several ideas of things that might have made funny or useful gifts–what might I have come with if I’d actually tried, instead of taking the easy way out?
Then again, of course, the reason many givers turn to gift cards in the first place is that recipients are hard-to-please, and letting them shop for themselves turns out to be the best gift. How sad, though!
There were enough creative, thoughtful, and reasonable gifts in our mix (most of them rule-breaking, going above and beyond the name draw) to make opening gifts a lovely and festive occasion: homemade soaps, adorable sweaters craftily plucked from the thrift store, a book of wedding photos, a pine cone Christmas ornament put out by the national wildlife foundation–for every ornament purchased, a tree is planted, etc. I rather wish they’d ALL been that way. Shopping can be overwhelming and exhausting–not to mention a huge financial burden!–but when you’re only buying for one, I think it’s worth taking the time and making the effort to get to know something about that person, and trying to come up with a gift that will show you, um, care.
And to get back to Bothered’s question….no doubt, Christmases can get way out of hand–but her husband’s family sounds like they’re doing a decent job of keeping things reined in, and focusing on being thoughtful and family-minded at the holiday. (Bothered doesn’t mention what her own family’s tradition is re: gifts).
Claiming silliness and overkill when the tradition is to give and receive a single gift once a year seems excessively self-righteous and Scrooge-like to me.
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2 responses to “Pick a card, any card…

  1. i recently heard of a friend who wanted to opt-out of the family gift exchange and had asked that whoever drew her name donate the allotted amount to a charity of their choosing. unfortunately, because she was living away from home and couldn't relay this request herself, she asked her mother to tell the family – only mother wasn't down with charitable contributions. mother made up a list of gifts she deemed appropriate and submitted them instead.

  2. wait, was it you? ;)I think the charitable donation is a great idea, if you present it as what you'd most like to receive. Just think it's a bit snooty to judge everyone else for choosing to exchange one present apiece.

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