One of my most memorable Christmas gifts was an apple, an orange, and a crisp two-dollar bill. I’m not sure why, but when my great-grandpa handed us fruit, I carried it to the car, tucked my cold feet on the heater, and compared the crisply scratched apple with the spicy rumpled skin of the orange.

A small gift, but it stayed in my mind.

Now that we’re grown, I and my peers are considering how to give among grown siblings, nieces and nephews, and friends.

I know this post is rather long, but I hope it’s a useful read with ideas you can take away.

… so why give gifts?

Well, it can be fun to find things you know someone will enjoy. Some folks need what you give. Giving makes you feel closer together. You can give to your community or those who are financially struggling. Maybe giving is your “love language,” how you give and receive love. And most of all, opening prezzies can be fun!

… and why not?

It can also be wise not to give one physical object to every person in your circle:

  • Some people can give along, while others struggle to pay their bills, or are saving for college, a house, or retirement.
  • Anxiety and stress can make gifts feel less fun, and more like a chore.
  • We spend $680 billion on holiday gifts, yet claim we want to spend less money and more time together.
  • Many gifts soon end up in a landfill, with more pouring into the market. As VDB says, “I have recently purged a massive amount of stuff from my house, many of which were gifts that I had never used.”
  • What you spend on passing gifts for each other could support a community cause, as in this lovely white card story.
  • Exchanging gifts distracts us from the gift of listening, having fun together, or talking and getting to know each other.

I know, I sound like a downer! But below are some interesting options for giving. I’d love to hear your experience as well.

… non-physical gifts

One option is to only give non-physical gifts:

Take them to lunch. My grandma takes each of her grandkids out for an individual meal, which helps her stay connected as we grow. If we’re not home at Christmas, we can do it the next time we see her. This could also work for your nieces or nephews, siblings, or other adult friends. (Ice cream or coffee, or serving hot cocoa and cookies at home, could all be a more affordable option!)

Pay for an outing. This year, my parents paid for Amos and I to visit the Dickens Fair near San Francisco, a costume fair set in 1850s London. I’ve once been invited to a lovely opera, and my friend Lauren reports enjoying show tickets and a massage.

Buy recurring gifts. Lauren also reports that her family gives experiences, like an annual zoo or parks membership, or museum or aquarium passes. (When giving, Nicole makes colorful if unofficial ‘membership cards’ for each kid to open and hold onto). Providing/sharing a Netflix, Kindle, or Audible subscription could also be a gift that’s used all year long.

Buy lessons. Your community may have starter courses in guitar, singing, ice skating, parkour, yoga, cooking, or art, whether it’s one lesson or a series. This supports local business, and can spark a new hobby or passion. I once received a lesson in aerial silks, a challenging sport that had me appreciating the poor feet of those in Cirque de Soleil!

Letters and videos. You can compile appreciative letters to family or friends, or even a birthday video with encouraging messages from friends near and far.

Time spent together. Invite folks over and provide supplies to make cookies, ornaments, cloth gift bags**, or in one case, dumplings! A movie, game or caroling night is also a good way to connect.

… Giving to Kids

Before kids receive, get them into the practice of sending gifts back to Santa. As kids donate any toys, books, or clothes they don’t love, it makes cleaning up easier. They learn to give. And cutting how much stuff they have helps simplify their visual world, letting them play longer, learn more deeply, and have more fun!

Four gifts. One circulating idea is to give your own children something they want, something they need, something to wear, and something to read.

My folks did this with pajamas the night before Christmas, a wrapped “book on the bed” to read early on Christmas morning, and one or two gifts on Christmas day, often a craft or hobby.

If you’re tight on money, many of these can be bought second hand. …And if you’re, *cough*, my grandma, you may actually give library books with the due date stamped to return three weeks later!

For nieces and nephews, you can draw straws and each give to one kid, especially as you accumulate more and more of them. But honestly, fun activity gifts can be just as memorable and loved:

  • One aunt sent us all quirky snacks from abroad, to share.
  • An uncle sent us hot chocolate, snacks, and a board game to play on Christmas.
  • An uncle gave all ten niblings silly string to run around Grandma’s house with (Grandma may not have appreciated this…)
  • An aunt folded dollar bills into balloons and gave us darts to pop them. A pinata or plastic wrap ball would be a similar group game, which again could involve inexpensive candy or trinkets.

All of these worked well for a range of nieces and nephews at different ages.

If you do give to individual kids, Jill suggests you transition from individual holiday gifts to a shared group activity, perhaps at age 7 or 8, and perhaps then to join in adult evenings at 16 or 18.


… Giving to Adult Siblings

Ahh, adult siblings. Many families only give group gifts to children, or draw straws for adult gifts. But families vary widely on this, and it can change over time:

Give the same thing to each person. My aunt once gave each couple a book of things they enjoy together, while my baby sis-in-law painted each of her brothers a family portrait… starring herself, of course.

Stocking stuffers. A variation is to get each person in the family a handmade or $1 gift in their stockings. As your family grows, you get more gifts without overspending. This does tend to involve more sweets than your waistline needs, however!

Inspector gadget. You probably bought a cool tool on impulse, and never used it. Rather than buy a new banana slicer (see Amazon reviews!), ice cream maker, cake ball maker, heart-shaped waffle iron, or soda stream, why not let someone else try it without shelling out $40 themselves? Elegant accessories, house and yard tools, DVDs, or board games could similarly be offered and accepted at a party, or raffled off with proceeds going to folks in need.

Drink exchange. I’ve participated in a tea exchange before, sending out unique teas to five people and getting their favorites in return. You could mail a light box with snacks and cocoa, cider, or tea to family far away, as something warm for the winter months.

Help a fellow out. Depending on your skills, give a gift certificate offering to take family portraits, repair a house or sort a closet, research a career or major, change car oil, review essays, mend clothes, tune up a computer, babysit, cook a meal, or offer free haircuts. If you don’t know which someone wants, consider giving skills gift certificates in a yankee swap. It costs little but helps a lot.

Help someone else out. Instead of trading gifts, this year my siblings and I may work together to make kits for folks in need. Homeless folks, cash-strapped young families, or older folks might all appreciate gift baskets. Let someone with money bring the goods, and work together as a family or friend group to make and share your gifts.


… Ways to make giving more fun 

Finally, if you do like gift-exchange games, there are better options than the traditional Secret Santa (“what do I get them?”) or white elephant swap (“she stole my gift!”). Try some of these alternatives:

Treasure hunt. On Christmas Eve, my parents hid our gifts around the house and wrote riddles as to where they could be found. We’d each get the clue for a sibling’s gift… then find, swap, and open them. It encouraged us to help each other, move around, and solve a puzzle.

Julklapp. If you live near friends and family, try this Swedish tradition (meaning “Christmas knocks”) in which you leave surprise gifts at the door, then ring and run away:

“a gift-giver would knock on his friend or relative’s door on Christmas Eve, quickly toss a present inside the opened door, then sprint away before the recipient had a chance to ID him. The mysterious packages were wrapped in many layers, one box inside another. Sometimes the only thing inside the final box was a clue to the real gift’s location. The more time the recipient spent on figuring out who gave the gift and where it was, the more successful the julklapp.” (Source: RealSimple).

Cobweb party. Finally, there’s a Victorian party game in which you tie a roll of colorful yarn or ribbon to each (hidden) small gift, then weave the threads in a giant cobweb around the room. Each person picks a color and unravels it to find their gift!


** One easy change is to invest in fabric gift bags instead of wrapping paper. Fabric bags are fun, colorful, easy, less wasteful, and simple to open. You can make (and give!) these easily, or buy from Etsy here, here, here, and here. And if you want to feel creative, try these fun ways to wrap gifts in fabric from Japan.

Giving alternative gifts at Christmas

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