Ending Gift-Giving in My Family

by Erica Taddeo

It all started last year, when our Christmas Eve gift exchange suddenly got Grinched.

Let me explain: My mother’s side of the family usually spends Christmas Eve together. My parents, siblings, grandmother and I will pile into two cars loaded with gifts and drive to the suburbs to see my aunt and uncle, their two daughters, and their families. Christmas is predictably stressful, but we’re not a family that spends much time together outside of special occasions, so I try to make the best of it. I’m one of those people who loves giving gifts, and the gift exchange is usually the only thing we do at Christmas other than eat, so I was happy to hand everyone their gifts — including hand-painted ceramics I picked out for everyone on vacation in Mexico and carefully brought home in my carry-on luggage. One of my cousins seemed unimpressed with hers. Something was definitely up. I thought she was in a sour mood for no reason at all until she interrupted my opening a gift I received from another cousin with, “This is the last year we’re doing gifts.”

My mother decided to join her chorus, leaving me confused and not sure whether I should thank my other cousin for the bracelet she gave me, or ask her if she knew what the hell was happening. Instead, I just listened while my family complained about how complicated and unnecessary gift-giving was — in my mind, it was one of the least complicated aspects of our family get-togethers. There isn’t much else we do as an extended family, spanning four generations and three languages and relatively few common interests.

Everyone has their own reasons for wanting or not wanting to exchange gifts: My cousin doesn’t want to give gifts because she finds it too stressful. She works a lot and doesn’t want the hassle of shopping. Last year, she gave me a bottle of wine that she had at home, and made a point of telling me she just took it out off a shelf and wrapped it, and that it wasn’t even a good bottle. (As if I was going to complain about free wine.) I don’t know if there are any budgetary concerns on her part because she never talks about money unless she just bought something cool like a new TV.

My mother thinks that gift-giving in our family is some kind of strange social test that she doesn’t want to fail. She doesn’t want to spend money on peripheral members of the family — new stepchildren and boyfriends — but is concerned that the family will think less of her if she doesn’t give them lavish presents. I don’t think that anyone will be too hung-up over receiving presents from someone they’re not close to. (Commenters, feel free to jump in here: Would you expect a gift from someone in your girlfriend or stepmom’s family that you see maybe twice a year?)

I was, and still am, fully ready to ignore the no-gifts rule and give gifts to whomever I please, even if I have to hear a chorus of complaints that it looks bad to give someone a gift when they don’t have something for you. (My family is somewhat concerned with keeping up appearances. These are people who changed my diapers when I was a baby, and yet I still have to worry about appearances.) I love buying gifts! And I recently got a raise at work, which is a rarity, and am really happy that I have an income that allows me to give people gifts and not worry too much about other expenses. I’m able to do that in part because I don’t have many other expenses, so things will probably be different for me after I buy a house or start a family. But for now, I just want to enjoy finding the right gifts for the people I care about. I know it’s just stuff, but when you see your cousins only once every couple of months, it’s kind of nice to know that your hard-earned money bought them something they can use on the days you don’t spend together.

Erica works as a subtitle editor and moonlights as a hockey blogger. She’s still learning how to do money.

Photo: Morgan

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