Rethinking Our Family Christmas Gift Exchange

by Joe Plemon on December 29, 2010

The Plemon family Christmas, which has traditionally been a meal and a gift exchange, has gradually grown as our children have married and started having children of their own.  This year, as we took turns opening gifts … and gifts … and more gifts, the gift giving side of our celebration seemed, well, indulgent.  Some spent money they couldn’t afford while most received gifts they didn’t need.  Even my grandchildren (ages 8 and 10) were disturbed about so much stuff, voicing wishes that Christmas would be more fun if we focused on simply spending time together instead of piling up gifts.

Janice and I agree, so we have been contemplating some changes for next year.  Here are some thoughts:

No Gift Exchange

I realize this sounds extreme for all who love to give Christmas gifts – and we wouldn’t discourage gifts for the kids — but we would like to try a “no gifts for adults” Christmas just to see if we can put some sanity back into the holiday.  Of course, we still want to celebrate Christmas … just in a different way.  We are hoping that the following ideas will not only enhance the Christmas season, but will make the entire year more meaningful.

More Emphasis on Birthdays

For those who love to give gifts, we will encourage them to do so on birthdays instead of Christmas.   Yes, remembering birthdays is a challenge for many of us, but that is the point.  Who doesn’t love being remembered on their birthday?  Of course we already celebrate family birthdays, but if we emphasized those times, we could have lots of great parties throughout the year.  Sounds like fun.

Give Surprise Gifts Throughout the Year

This idea will also fulfill the giving spirit many family members have.  We will encourage our family to be proactively thinking of ways to bless each other throughout the year.  Whenever those opportunities arise, we should simply buy the gift and give it.  It may be April, August or December, but the gift should always be punctuated with an enthusiastic “Merry Christmas!”   Sort of like having Christmas all year long.

Create Memories Instead of Buying Stuff

Science has proven that life experiences make people happier than stuff.  The experiences actually appreciate in value because of the happy memories that can be shared and revisited many times over.  Stuff, on the other hand, gives a short time euphoria which is soon forgotten forever.  We are considering creating those memories by using our “Christmas gift money” for a family vacation.

Secret Santa

Not having a Christmas gift exchange leaves a void in our family celebration; a void we hope to fill by challenging each family member to give an unexpected gift or perform a random act of kindness.  On Christmas Day, instead of taking turns opening gifts, we would take turns sharing our experiences.  This sharing time would do more than fill  a void – it would inspire us to be more giving throughout the coming year.

Making it happen
As Janice and I have been sharing some of these thoughts with our children, their responses have all been positive.  We plan to have a family powwow soon to solicit their input. Hopefully, as we reach a consensus, we will not only anticipate next Christmas with a new excitement, but will be able to have more fun with our giving throughout the entire year.

And we might just create some memories with a Plemon Family Vacation.

Readers: Have you scaled back on your family gift exchange?  In what ways?  How has it gone?  What will you do differently next Christmas?


{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

krantcents December 29, 2010 at 2:21 pm

I totally agree, memories are the most important part of the holidays, family and life. Sharing experiences together create memories that you reflect on later.


joeplemon December 29, 2010 at 3:36 pm

Our kids are already voicing their strong support for the no gift idea (and family vacation instead) this coming year. So we are already creating some fun times as we start our plans. And we will certainly create some great memories with the vacation.


Darwin's Money December 29, 2010 at 5:20 pm

I’ve tried to curtail the gift giving, especially outside the family, like the kids’ friends or extended family, but it falls on deaf ears. It’s too ingrained in our culture I guess. Maybe I’ll have better luck next year if we get some advance notification out.


Car Negotiation Coach December 29, 2010 at 6:05 pm

Joe, I agree with you! To many people this is a taboo subject, but my family Christmas’s have become a bit over the top as well. I’m all for giving to the kids, but I think the adults don’t need to go over the top.

I’d prefer no gifts for the adults, but a secret Santa would be a good compromise. Unfortunately, not everyone has come around to my way of thinking just yet. Christmas shouldn’t be about excessive gift giving, but instead family, togetherness, and of course the birth of Christ!


Len Penzo December 29, 2010 at 8:18 pm

I wouldn’t mind the no-gift idea at our house. Our family draws names out of a hat each year — I think there are about 14 of us — and we are limited to $30. It’s all so perfunctory anyway, it really is like we’re just going through the motions.

If you ask me, Joe, Christmas gift-giving should be limited to just the kids.

All the best,

Len Penzo dot Com


Dave@50plusfinance December 29, 2010 at 8:56 pm

We also have scaled back Christmas with only giving to the kids. But we have grown so large in family members, financially it was a burden on some of us. Even our visiting other relatives have been scaled back. I don’t like the amount of focus the presents have been getting in our family, it doesn’t feel right. Even though the adults don’t exchange presents, there are some family members I would like to give a gift to because during the year they did something nice for me. I feel I would have to hide the gift from the others or it could cause hard feelings. What to do?

That photo is great. It absolutely represents how I feel when it comes to gifts. Sometimes I think its better to have no gifts, but the kids would greatly miss them.


Tim @ Faith and Finance December 29, 2010 at 10:24 pm

Man I hear ya – This year I felt the same way. I spent Christmas with my wife’s family and they’re all really generous, but I felt like everyone got a little too much. Don’t get me wrong, I like to open a gift or two, but it just felt like piles and piles of gifts.

I like the idea of beefing up birthday gifts and making Christmas more of a memorable family time. The vacation idea is great…I might steal it 🙂


joeplemon December 30, 2010 at 8:03 am

We have the same problem with my wife’s family. That gift exchange takes two or three hours and is exhausting. But, even though it is deeply ingrained, we hope to get it scaled back next year.

@Car Coach,
Taboo is a good word. Some of our extended family will put their fingers in their ears and say “nananananana” if we broach the topic.

Based on what I am hearing from my kids, I am pretty sure that we can have no-gifts for adults next Christmas at my house. But…as I alluded to in previous comments…changing things at my wife’s family Christmas is going to be an uphill battle. I would love to do the “draw names from a hat” $30 dollar exchange there.

Yes, scaling back can be a matter of necessity when family grows and finances are tight. I am glad to read that you have done so. For those adults you would like to give gifts to, have you considered beefing up birthday giving or simply giving a gift anytime during the year?

Feel free to steal all the ideas you want. Just let me know how they worked out. 🙂


joeplemon December 30, 2010 at 9:43 am

I like your Christmas celebration! But I must ask: when you said that some gifts may be regifted to others, were you speaking from personal experience or just sort of generically? You know that millions of people (I wish) read this blog, so be careful what secrets you share. 🙂

I, of course, would NEVER re-gift something I couldn’t use. Except for that red, white and blue striped sweater, or … or … or. I had better quit now!


Jenny McGhee December 30, 2010 at 11:57 am

I think we could change our Christmas giftings for next Christmas. I love receiving home-made gifts (special hand painted clothespin magnets, pumpkin pancake mix, one of a kind hair clips). I personally love making jelly for everyone. Yard sale treasures are exciting (and cheap as well). I also like giving/receiving gifts that make everyday tasks easier (new crockpot or big tea pitcher for family gatherings). I will talk to the crew and see what they think.
Love you, Uncle Joe!


Kay Lynn @ Bucksome Boomer December 31, 2010 at 9:01 pm

I know what you mean. My siblings and I draw names and we have a $25 limit. It makes it fun to have to only buy one gift and a challenge to buy something meaningful for that price.

Good luck!


Philip January 1, 2011 at 4:07 pm

I like the idea of no gifts for adults or doing a secret Santa. We have done both with success. I agree that there comes a point when all the gifts seem absurd. I mean, we live in such an advanced, privileged society now. Don’t we have all that we want or need? Let’s give the kids a few things and move on to spending quality time together…or better yet, doing something for those less fortunate. Great post!


Bruce Christensen March 27, 2012 at 10:08 pm


We would like to share your “no-gift” gift exchange idea on our AlbinoPhant gift exchange blog. Would you like to write something up as a guest blogger?

We attempt to share every variation of the gift exchange party and your story should be included. Here is a link to the blog so that you can see if this suggestion would be valuable to you:

Bruce and Sarah Christensen


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