Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Extended Family Gift Giving Dilemma

As an extra complication in converting to Catholicism, we struggled with how to pick Christmas gifts for our extended family members. Jon's family, with the exception of one Sister, are all lapsed Catholics. My whole family is Protestant. Everyone, however, is completely 'into" gift giving. Whatever that form of receiving love is called, both our parents and siblings express their love in gifts.

The problem is that both Jon and I rank "gift giving" as the lowest of low priorities. It's why my wedding band is a simple gold ring as opposed to a large diamond. It's why I can't even remember the last anniversary gifts we exchanged. I get irritable when shopping on the internet and even more going into stores. Giving gifts is so not our thing.

So when we dove into Catholicism as newlyweds, we were both excited to discover that Advent & Christmas were about so much more than how many wrapped presents got piled under the tree. We used that "message" to our own selfish ends.

The first year of our marriage, we made handmade glass candles in wine glasses and coffee mugs. I hand sewed a snowflake Christmas tree skirt for my Sister-in-law. For everyone else, I bought a sewing machine and taught myself how to make flannel pj bottoms.

The Homemade Christmas of 2001, did not go over well. All of the wine glasses broke in the mail. My extended family dutifully wore their PJs at Christmas, only to discover that since I didn't know how to sew a proper crotch seam an important part of them was exposed after only one wash.

Christmas 2003 was our first year with Baby Hannah. Swept up in love we decided that giving gifts was a complete "waste." Instead we saved up an outrageous amount of money to buy a water buffalo from Heffier International for each of our parents. The parents didn't actually get a buffalo, rather a donation was made to a charity which sent a water buffalo to someone who needed it. Our siblings got cards that they had "bought a duck" or "a beehive" for someone in need. God bless our mothers who took this gift in stride. Our siblings let us know that buying a gift to give to someone else didn't really "count."

For three years we selfishly nursed our hurt feelings and refused to buy any gifts because "we were too poor." Last year, my husband announced that we were sending good Catholic gifts to everyone. I was a little slow to get on board, unhelpfully pointing out that we were spending far more money on our families than on our own children. My husband insisted on the matter. I'm so happy he did, because our compromise is finding yummy gifts made by Monks and Nuns.

Now spending money feels good. Our siblings get gifts they like to open. We give money to the monastery. We say secret prayers that having a box of Monk made chocolate laying around the house might inspire some curiosity about the Faith. We are also, gasp, seeing an improvement in our relationship with our siblings when we put their wishes ahead of our own. It's win, win, win.

So thanks be to St. Nicholas for changing our Scrooge hearts.

HT/If you want to see some lovely Monk gift ideas, check out "the Anchoress."


  1. Always a tough lesson to learn. There is this great book by Gary Chapman called the Five Languages of Love. He argues that folks generally give and recieve love in five ways: acts of service, words of affirmation, gifts, quality time, and physical touch. The way you tend to give love is also the way you best recieve love. You can read about them here:

    My marriage was really helped by this classification. I tend to give and recieve love through gifts; Andrew through physical touch. The whole situation reached a head in our third year of marriage when I didn't even get a card for my birthday! We had a big talk before the next Christmas. Now Andrew knows how much thought and love I put into choosing gifts for him and that I just need him to think about me as person and make some kind of external gesture of that love through a gift. And I know that even though I'm not a cuddler, that it is important to him to have alot of physical touch.

    I'm so glad you've found a good place on this issue with your family!

  2. I know all about wading through this dilemma! My husband and mother in law are both very much gift givers and receivers . . . but how to manage all this on a budget? Unfortunately (from my point of view) this has meant that Christmas means debt for us . . . we're still negotiating money issues in our home. Bleh. Every year I battle over resentment over how can I "compete" with my mother-in-law? She wants to spoil our kids and can spend far more money on them than we can . . . and wants to spend it on things for them that I consider a waste . . . I think that she's just building the consumption expectation in them, but how can I say that I don't want my kids to get gifts from their Grandma? Sigh.