My Own Ground Rules for Giving Holiday Gifts

Holiday excitement hit early in these parts. We started our annual Christmas puzzle in October (I know, I know) and have gone through no less than three sacks of flour since. The garden rosemary is dwindling; the cinnamon restocked twice. For two weeks now, I’ve passed the hallway and smiled at the quiet glow of Bee’s room as she sleeps next to her own personal Christmas tree.

I have, in the past, felt Grinchy about Christmas. I’ve never been a shopper or an entertainer or a caroler, and I’m certainly no hustle-and-bustler. I’m ever-prone to the winter blues if the sun goes into hiding for more than a few days, and it’s often felt as if the season called for a different version of myself than I could offer.

But this year, I started early. Eased into it. Gave myself some time to think about the things that do come naturally to me: affirming words, creative gifts, thoughtful interactions. Eating pie.

(Christmas doesn’t sound so bad this year.)

And behold, a short list of gift-giving ground rules emerged that I can’t help but notice are infusing this particular season with more magic than years past:

No More “What Do You Want For Christmas?”

When it comes to extended family, I’ve always asked for specific gift suggestions from my sisters on what to give their kids. We’re not lucky enough to live closeby, so the ins and outs of their daily lives are mostly lost on me. Is he a Pokemon guy, or is Legos his thing? Does she prefer sparkly lotion or craft supplies? Both? Neither?

But inevitably, their helpful suggestions turned into a simple search on Amazon, a click of a button, a quick fix in cardboard. The whole process felt neither loving nor thoughtful, and now that the kids are older and gift cards are their main request, I’ve lost the will to dole out envelopes like a far-removed ATM.

And so, the new question for my nieces and nephews is simply this: What are you loving lately? What are you into? Where do you go in your free time? What do you like to do with your best friend? Tell me about you.

It has brought back every ounce of fun in the gift-giving department, and I have an inkling it’ll do the same for the gift-receivers, as well.

No More Online Crowd-Sourcing for Ideas

No Google, no Pinterest, no blogs. The best ideas are the ones born out of our own uniquely complex scenario. The best tools are in our own shed; the best supplies in our own junk drawer.

Last week, I burned two candles down to their melty wick and re-purposed the jars (I know I said no blogs, but this gal’s simple method was foolproof for removing that pesky wax). I’ve been saving them for neighbor gifts to fill with my favorite candied pecans “recipe,” or perhaps tiny star-shaped sugar cookies.

I know there’s no shortage of suggestions or ideas. And yet: no one knows your 82-year-old neighbor from Georgia who, whilst mowing his lawn, witnessed those treacherous sounds the day you gave birth in your bedroom (sorry, Bob) quite like you do. There isn’t a gift guide in the world that could contain the many personality quirks of the beloveds in your life.* Go at it alone first. If (and only if!) necessary, call in reinforcements from the rest of us strangers.

*One exception: I’ve yet to meet a young kid who does not find endless delight in this.

No More Gift Comparisons

Bee’s getting a handmade gift that Ken’s been working hard on for the past few weeks, so while inexpensive, it’s fairly special and of high worth. But the same sort of gift doesn’t translate for our dear boisterous Scout, who wants little more than to push buttons on old remotes, put lids on sour cream tubs and chew on vitamin bottles.

So we’re going with it. Scout’s grandparents are hard at work saving bottles/containers and I’ll be scouring thrift stores for old rotary phones, remotes or all things button-y. Sure, Bee’s gift is more sentimental this year, but they’ll both be getting precisely what they love and what they’ll use.

Yes, More Random Generosity

Many of our gifts are creative and homespun within our own family, so there’s room for some wild extravagance elsewhere. Last year, Bee and I delivered a number of random gifts to everyday strangers, like hot coffee for jovial crossing guards and gift cards for kind grocery clerks. I love how it teaches both of us to stay attuned to the joy of others, to be on the lookout for a daily miracle, a need fulfilled. Manna passed along.

And I suppose that’s the heart of it: that I’m thinking less about the wisemen who traveled afar toting riches and gifts, and I’m thinking more about the innkeeper. The one who quietly served those nearest, day in and day out, and who – in the end – stretched out a bit of creativity to make room for something altogether lovely.


Tell me, do you stick to any gift-giving rules in your life? I’d love to hear!

  • Thank you for this post! Several weeks ago we sat down with our kids (11, 12 & 14 and all adopted as older children from foster care, therefore bringing a variety of experiences and expectations). We explained that we would not be asking for wishlists, and that they were not to ask each other for wishlists either. We talked about true generosity, which comes out of love for God and people, and encouraged them to think about how they can give meaningful gifts. My youngest, who is on the autism spectrum, is struggling to see how we can possibly know what he might like if he doesn’t tell us (textbook autism trait), but we’re determined to help him see outside of himself this Christmas!

  • I love the idea for nieces and nephews of asking what they’re loving lately instead of just, “Here’s what my kids want. Click on it and buy.” I don’t want Christmas to be about that. What you described is what I enjoy most about buying birthday presents. I can think about the person (young or old), what they like, what they enjoy, and then find something I know they’d appreciate. But Christmas always seems so different. I guess because you’re buying for so many at one time. Somehow we’ve decided it’s easier to just be handed a list or a link and mindlessly purchase. But to me it seems like in all that consumerism we miss what’s most important.
    As far as our family goes, we try to follow the old:
    Something you want
    Something you need
    Something to wear
    Something to read
    for our two kids.
    My husband and I have always tried to build or buy things that will foster our children’s creativity. As they get to be teenagers I find that’s a wee bit harder, but still doable. It’s worth the effort. We try to avoid the whole “play with it for a day or two after Christmas and then it sits in a corner”, heaped up with all the other stuff you were inundated with on one day.
    As always, I’m enjoying ruminating on what you’ve written. It’s always good food for thought for me during the day!

  • There are lovely guidelines; great reminders to see the holiday a little differently. Christmas is my mom’s jam, to excess really and she finds great joy in spoiling us all. But I’m finding that we, in my household, need very little and have a lot, so I’ve cut down greatly on Forrest’s gifts for sure, and I’m considering suggesting Matt and I save for a vacation instead of giving to each other. It’s a little messy right now with where and how presents are opened (Sis does it all at Mom’s house, we want some time at home as well) so I’m stepping lightly so I don’t trod on everyone’s joy and traditions while also trying to have a holiday that feels more like us in our little family of three. It’s tricky. But it’s family so all will work with love.

    • Perfect Perfect Post!

      I also got sooo tired of sending the nephews gift cards and meaningless gifts. So this past year I tried something different, I bought a blank notebook … and every time we talked to their family on the phone or were lucky enough to visit in person, I had a page for each nephew and I jotted down everything each one of them told me they were into right now. Even the smallest of details I wrote down, and I dated it. Of if their parents mentioned something on Instagram or Facebook, I jotted that down to. And now here I am at Christmas time with pages of notes that show me the progression of each one of them throughout the year, it is as close as I will ever get to being involved in the daily. So now I get to sit down and study it and really find the perfect gift for them without having to call and ask!

      As for my own three boys, we are trying to (and by we, I mean I am trying to get the hubby on the same page … because you know … different upbringings) give the gift of experience. One small toy or item that will make their eyes light up, one stocking full of goodies from Santa and one experience to be used in the months to come. It might not be as fun for a 6,4 and 1 year old to open up a gift that they can’t use right away on Christmas … but well I am going to give the delayed gratification thing a shot!

      • OMG Jenn – you sound like such a loving, present aunt and mother. What a blessing you are to your family!!!!! Thank you for sharing this idea. :)

    • “All will work with love.” You’re exactly right, Jamie — always love your perspective. :)

  • So thoughtful, as always. Love the last bit about the innkeeper versus the wise men. Sounds more like me, too. Thanks for sharing! 💛

  • Loved this post! I’ve always resisted Christmas before thanksgiving, but this year I started decorating the day after Halloween. My husband was out of town and decorating felt like a good way to entertain the littles. :) But I’ve actually loved it. I’ve finished so many of the items that make me feel rushed this time of year (ordering Christmas cards, wrapping presents, etc.) and now I feel ready to embrace the nights of Christmas movies and hot chocolate without the stress of knowing I need to make a target run. And I needed this today especially. The grandparents are all here and with them came so many presents and treats. It’s been stressing me out, but I just need to step back and focus on the joy it’s bringing both the givers and receivers.

    • SAME! I’m right there with you in the slowness of the season – it really did help to start early. :) So much love your way, Mary!

  • Beautiful reminder of “what’s important “.

    We started a Christmas tradition when our kids were young…
    We had gotten caught up with keeping up with the Joneses regarding Christmas gifts for our kids. Too many gifts while forgetting the true meaning of Christmas.
    An acquaintance suggested giving our kids 3 gifts just as the Wisemen gave Jesus. It was a great suggestion and we’ve done it ever since.
    It brought the right meaning back into Christmas.
    Happy Thanksgiving Erin! Enjoy your family!

  • What a beautiful post. I absolutely love the idea of asking distant family (or anyone!) what they’re into instead of what they want. Gift-giving could be so much more than we tend to allow it to be. It can be an exchange of stories, of dreams, a vulnerable dance of generosity and opening up to one another.

  • I know it might sound religious, but when I give gifts or letters or anything, I make sure I whisper a prayer for the person who will be receiving my gift. My present may be a delight to them but God’s surprise for them is much more awesome so I pray that besides the gift I’m giving, they’d be surprised by God in a way that they’d feel His love and goodness. Works every time! :)

  • Thank you for this! So many wonderful ideas that are so personal.

    This year instead of giving impersonal gifts, we´ll try giving something that will become a memory… For example, I remember when I was young, my parents gave me for Christmas a VHS tape of a movie. I don´t even remember which movie and it doesn’t matter, What I remember is that my parents, my sisters and I spent Christmas morning all cuddled together in our pjs, on my parents’ unmade bed eating popcorn and sipping hot chocolate. I remember I was so happy.

  • We used to do the :
    Something you need
    Something you want
    Something to wear
    Something to read
    Something to listen to (My husband is a musician.)
    Something to watch (I am an actor.)

    Haven’t done that in a while since we’ve had tumultuous moves in the past couple of years. Might be good to get back to that.

  • That’s so nice, that you just ask what they love and like to do and not specific what they want! I’m remembering this for next year. I do always ask what people want, because I don’t want to give anything they’re not going to use (minimalism right?), but this year I also feel like there’s not much fun in that. Then why give presents anyway?
    And I love the idea of random gifts. Going to think about that too.

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