Mom loves Christmas, but the whole family can't afford it this year...
November 25, 2008 9:04 AM   Subscribe

My sister and I want to do a gift-free Christmas. What rules should we set? And how do we break the news to our mom? She's big on bargain hunting and spoiling us, so we're sure she's not going to take this well.

My spouse and I are doing well, but my sister and her husband are really struggling financially. We talked a few weeks ago and I mentioned the idea of having an "Imagination Christmas" and she was really enthusiastic. I think she was really dreading a Christmas where she would be unable to afford the type of gift my family usually gives to one another. Luckily, neither of us have kids yet.

My mom definitely loves Christmas shopping and there is a good chance that she already has a hallway closet stuffed full of gifts for us. How do we tell her that we want to keep Christmas simple? It is likely that she'll be upset that we don't want the gifts she picked out for us.

What's more, my sister will have to deal with this on her own once Thanksgiving is over. I live in another state and I'll be spending Christmas with my in-laws. Sis is not looking forward to a lonely, one-sided Christmas with my parents.

I would love to do a handmade Christmas, but while my mother and I share a gene for making handmade goods, my sister never got beyond hand turkeys. In addition, she has school, two jobs and no time for herself, let alone knitting or wood-working. I would be happy with a card, but I don't want to unintentionally show up my sister or make her feel bad. I love her and this has been a stressful year for her.

So, first, we need to set some ground rules (Is charitable giving okay? Can we give small gifts? Handmade?). We would love to hear any advice or experiences you have with this.

Next, we need to get Mom on board. My dad abdicates to her on all matters Christmas related, so her participation will make or break the occasion. She might be on board with donating gifts to charity, but it will need to be her idea. Any advice on how to bring this up or keep her happy would be appreciated. We'll just have Thanksgiving break to get this right, so I hope it all goes well.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
there is a good chance that she already has a hallway closet stuffed full of gifts for us.

If this is the case, then you are sort of out of luck for this year, maybe you need to start earlier next year. I don't really "celebrate" Christmas gift giving, though it's not for any particular reason just because I don't like to shop and/or fiil my life up with extra stuff. Not having a religious reason sometimes makes people think I am not serious. However, I have as a partial goal, not making other people's holiday season [including family, even people who I have deep psychic disagreements with] more onerous because I walk my own path during the holidays.

So, I pick my battles and suggest you pick yours. Have a nice talk with Mom [and you and your sis can even play good cop/bad cop if you think that will help] and tell her about what you'd like to do. Do not chastise her or her approach to the holidays if you possibly can unless you really want to fight about this, which I do not suggest. Work on some variant of "How can you and I work together to solve this problem?" where the problem is stated as you wanting to save money, not go all-out for the holidays and not make your sister feel uncomfortable. Your Mom's response to this can help you determine how to move forward.

I don't want gifts and my parents and some others insist on getting them for me anyhow. When I try to think of what I really want -- less stuff, less obligation -- and what I don't want -- pissing off people I care about on the holidays -- I generally either regift, pass on their gifts or return their gifts depending. I get people small tokens of "I was thinking about you" during the holidays, often food or books (I am a librarian) and sometimes I don't get anyone anything and I just have to feel okay about being in a gifting situation with nothing to hand out.

I focus on the parts of the holidays that I do like -- doing good things for other people, fellowship, eating meals together, eggnog, whatever -- and realize that in a big way I can't change other people's deeply ingrained approaches to the holiday, even my own family and I try to find genuine [as in works for everyone] solutions to the problems that seem to annually come up. Best of luck to you.
posted by jessamyn at 9:12 AM on November 25, 2008

There are actually ways to do "handmade" things without the need for a lot of "crafty" talent. Plus, having fun with the presentation for some things could also satisfy a bargain-hunter.

What I'm thinking of are things like food items -- pre-mixed-up spice mixes or soup mixes. They're a snap to put together, and they are BUTT cheap, so your sister would be able to handle them -- but, also, your mother could have fun looking for the perfect jar/crock/plate/etc. to give them in.

Or, go with kooky gift baskets/boxes/etc. Themes make even the cheapest kinds of things work -- a $2 jar of mustard seems lame, but throw it into a basket with a $3 hard sausage and a $1.50 box of crackers and some other snacky kind of things, put a bow on it and call it "a snack basket", and hey, it's a gift! It's friendly enough for the "craft timid," but would also let your mother be able to go on a quest for the perfect sausage/cheese/etc. (I've had a lot of success with the "random things collected on a theme" approach -- I had a handful of movie passes I wasn't using, and all it took was a trip to a 7-11 to get some random candy bars and a box of microwave popcorn packs to make up "movie night baskets.")

So maybe suggesting the "basket" approach is an idea, because you may be able to satisfy both urges.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:17 AM on November 25, 2008

In my family, we switched to doing a white elephant exchange (usually at a certain limit, can by funny, along a theme, or kitchen stuff) and/or a secret santa (can join in by couples, individually, etc). We still do stocking stuffers. If anyone is doing particularly well that year, then they're free to make a charitable donation for the family, or give a card with money.

We emphasize the importance of spending time together, bring something to share at the meal (coffee, a song, etc). Also since we're far apart we can emphasize how it's more important to spend our resources to see each other/call each other more often. Then we do gifts for birthdays, where it's easier to individualize by budget without the pressure.
posted by ejaned8 at 9:19 AM on November 25, 2008

Sometimes it's ok to accept gifts and not give them. You and your sister can explain your decision yet not expect your mother to "buy into" (no pun intended!) the same choice. A lot of it is being willing to accept, yet not feeling an obligation to reciprocate. In the end gifts are about giving, for the giver, and receiving, for the receiver. Reciprocation is an entirely separate event. And I concur with Jessamyn that it is late too late in the gift-buying/making season to expect Mom to make the same decision you two are, were she even inclined to do so at all, which from what you say, isn't likely. (I'm a mom of adult children, and I NEED to give to my children!)

That being said, several friends of mine give gifts they collect at garage sales and secondhand stores throughout the year, wrap them beautifully and give them with love. They spends VERY little, and enjoy the process. That sounds a little like Jessamyn's way, just giving as you are moved to give, from your heart, and not out of obligation. Those are the gifts I love to receive. Thoughtful, inexpensive, or something baked, found, or nothing at all, just enjoying time together. It is a letting go on my part of the need to give as much...or at all, as someone gave to me...eschewing the kind of tit for tat that serves none of us in loving well.
posted by mumstheword at 9:30 AM on November 25, 2008 [3 favorites]

Do your sister and husband have children? After going through our budget for many years now, we end up having just enough for kids presents, but end up having to skimp on other family members -- and we typically give nothing or something small to each other. The kids are definitely the most important ones in the situation.

Because of this, we've devised a strategy that makes everyone happy: Photos we've taken ourselves or had done on the cheap, decorated with nice frames. Additionally, you could find old photos of family and create montages or special settings.

These end up making great gifts: They don't put us out financially, they're created by us for that extra amount of effort, and they're meaningful to both the giver and the receiver.
posted by thanotopsis at 9:32 AM on November 25, 2008

This year my family decided that we would just put all of the family members names in a hat and everyone would draw one person do give a gift to (babies are excluded: everyone wants to get something cute for babies, though this isn't yet a consideration for your family). Spending limit of $50 for the presents. It's a great idea for us, because it keeps the gift giving element, which the family is not ready to give up, while saving a lot of time and resources. Might not work this year, if your mom has already done a bunch of shopping, but perhaps something to consider for the future.
posted by otolith at 9:36 AM on November 25, 2008

Here's what we did this year: We all decided not to do gifts, and instead picked a time to get together and do something together to really celebrate the holidays. For us, it is going to see the Nutcracker, but other options on the table were a bowling night, caroling, etc. There is no reason at all that you have to buy anything to celebrate the holiday. The important thing is to be really open as to the reasons for doing so. If it is a money thing, that will make everyone understand it more than if you just say that you don't want to do gifts.

If your parents aren't willing to do this, or something similar, than you should have a discussion about why they feel they need to buy gifts for all of you. The holiday has become so commercialized that for some people it is hard to imagine a Christmas without gifts.
posted by markblasco at 9:59 AM on November 25, 2008

Id guess that Mom would be unhappy if asked to forego gift-giving (and also that she's probably bought a lot of gifts already), but that she'd be perfectly happy to give out her presents without getting anything in return. A lot of older people already have a house chock-full of stuff and don't really want anything more, so receiving lots of gifts can be more of a burden than a pleasure.

Tell Mom what you told us; she'll probably understand your sister's financial situation and won't want to add to the stress and anxiety. Let Mom do her happy holiday thing and enjoy herself, and in return give her one or two small gifts. Consumables like gift baskets are good - the food/soap/whatever doesn't hang around to clutter up the house forever. Home-made gift baskets are cheap, too, as Empress C says. Small things with sentimental value, like photos, are also a good bet.
posted by Quietgal at 9:59 AM on November 25, 2008

I've been in the same situation with my sister. What we did was give a joint gift (either a physical gift or, better yet, and experience gift like going to the panto) that we said came from both of us but we paid according to how much we could afford instead of 50/50. I actually paid upfront and my sister gave me her contribution after Christmas (even if she is cutting down on gifts Christmas is an expensive time of year). One gift I am hoping to make for my parents is an advent calendar out of felt, (google for something that appeals to her) and she can fill the pockets with little doo-hickeys she probably has lying around her home (or jokes she copies from a book). You said she isn't crafty but what if you bought her some partially made easy ornaments from [Big Name Craft Store] and she assembled them herself as gifts?
posted by saucysault at 10:24 AM on November 25, 2008

If your mom loves shopping and giving, then that might just be the part of gifting that she enjoys the most (rather than receiving). Your sister could write your mom a nice handwritten letter? Or bake some cookies? Help your mom with cleaning for the holidays or some other "chore" part of it?

I say that over Thanksgiving, when you are all fed and happy and your mom is in a good mood, just tell her - "Mom, we don't know what to do about Christmas. It's not the best year for us to buy presents - [(if you want, add that sis needs to focus on paying for school/saving for a house/whatever and I need to save too)] - but we love you and want to celebrate with you. Would it be okay if we just did small gifts this year?"

I suspect your mom would be happy to be helping you guys by not having you get her a gift - most times I get my parents gifts despite them telling me they need nothing and I should save the money or buy something for myself. I am not sure it matters so much how you say it, just tell her the problem and ask her if it would be okay to solve it by having a smaller gift exchange. And your sis could sort out writing mom a nice letter and helping her out as she can.

For her part, your sis needs to accept that your mom will give too many gifts, no matter what you guys all agree to. She probably can't help it. Part of your (unmentioned) gift to your mom can be accepting that and not making it a point to fuss over it - let your mom do what she likes to do, which is give you gifts and make you happy.
posted by KAS at 1:33 PM on November 25, 2008

Maybe to make that more clear - my mom would be fine with me saying I couldn't/shouldn't afford to give gifts. She would so, so, so not be okay with me "not wanting" her gifts.

Maybe you could ask mom that if she has already bought a bunch of gifts she could save some for birthday time?
posted by KAS at 1:38 PM on November 25, 2008

I don't always have money. I love gift giving. I try to give gifts to all the children in my family. Christmas is the one time of year when I know I'm going to let my brothers and sisters know I love them and think of them, blah blah. So they get a card with a heartfelt message and a gift, even if trivial. One year I got everyone really nice dishtowels. This year, I think I'm sending fridge magnets, some homemade, some from a craft fair, all easy to ship.

Get your sister to join you for an evening of baking cookies or pumpkin bread, or making easy crafts, or writing holiday cards. I have a great word doc with holiday carol lyrics I'll send if you like. Your sister's gift to you and your Mom could be her time, spent singing, baking, Wii bowling, or doing some other fun holiday thing. If somebody would come decorate my house for the holidays, it would be the best gift ever. Include the kids.

Be gentle with your Mom, and try to get her on board with a frugal, non-materialistic Christmas. Consider helping her return any purchased gifts. Ask for her help and creativity in making Christmas about family, cookies, warmth and love. Make sure she gets the message that you understand that she buys gifts because she loves you, and loves the gift-y part of Christmas, but this year, you'd like to try another way of celebrating.
posted by theora55 at 3:33 PM on November 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Even though my family and friends are all gainfully employed this year, we're all taking this season as a time to step back and have a realistic gift exchange. What's working for us? A gift exchange that's limited to things we already own.

We all have small apartments and too many things, so this year we're brushing off the dust and exchanging small and sentimental items from our personal collections of Cute Stuff. This could mean books we want to share, decorative items that have gone stale in our homes, little trinkets, handmade and heirloom items. I'm sure your families could sort out something similar. You mom likely has a whole trove of things she's set aside to pass on, and you and your sisters likely have fun things to pass up to her.
posted by cior at 5:57 PM on November 25, 2008 [2 favorites]

I've long tried to follow a principle that gifts should be consumable & shareable.

This way, it normally comes down to nice wines or fancy foodstuffs; the kinds of things that people appreciate but wouldn't normally buy for themselves. Often, both giver & recipient get to enjoy them together, and best of all, you avoid cluttering peoples' places with stuff that they didn't really ever want or need.
posted by UbuRoivas at 7:14 PM on November 25, 2008

Communist Christmas: each gives according to their ability and receives according to their needs. This is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it's basically the informal principle my family has used for Christmas for many years.

Our parents like to buy us stuff, so they buy us stuff. It makes them happy to be choosing gifts for their kids, and to be making our lives a little happier and easier. Us, though... well, we are poor grad students and were previously poor undergrads, so our gift to our family is our presence at home at Christmas. We live 10 hours away, and make the trip every year. Our family understands that our gift budget paid for the gas, and is happy enough to have us there that there are no further expectations.

We tried doing the white elephant gift swap and it was a bust - worst Christmas ever. There is nothing like finding a perfect and inexpensive gift for Sue, but not getting it for her (or giving it to her on the sly and feeling guilty about it) because your cousin Marley, whom you've rarely ever met, is the relative's name you drew. Awful.

Really, though, if your mom likes to give you gifts, let her! If it is something she enjoys and doesn't find a burden, then having a gift-less Christmas would almost be a punishment to her. Don't make her forego something that is a pleasure to her. As long as everyone understands that gifts are given by those who are able, and that they aren't under strict reciprocality rules, there is nothing wrong with some not being able to give.
posted by arcticwoman at 11:12 AM on November 26, 2008

Your sister could write your mom a nice handwritten letter?

This is such a great idea. A nice, handwritten letter, on nice (but not expensive!) paper, talking about how much you love and appreciate someone, describing all the things you like about them, recounting an anecdote or two about happy times you've shared... If I got something like that, it would be the most treasured thing I ever received.
posted by arcticwoman at 11:18 AM on November 26, 2008

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