The Holiday Gift Truce

One of the traditions my family has experimented with in the past few years is the holiday gift truce. At Thanksgiving we agree to terms. In the past we’ve exchanged names and given one gift per person or we’ve just agreed to not do any gift giving or shopping (kids are exempt). Though we haven’t tried it, another option would be to contribute to a favorite charity, say Heifer International, in lieu of gifts.

Economics professor Joel Waldfogel has studied the inefficiencies of gift giving and calls Christmas, “an orgy of value destruction.” The problem? When it comes to gift giving we’re not very good at guessing what people actually want. In a Bloomberg article Waldfogel says, “People value the items they receive as gifts 20 percent less per dollar spent than the items they purchase for themselves. These are items that are not well-suited for their tastes.”

Particularly in challenging economic times it’s hard to justify this orgy of value destruction, not to mention the stress and time spent in mall parking lots. I’m interested in how readers of this blog navigate the holiday season. Do you make your own gifts? Do you think gift giving is important? Do you give cash or savings bonds? Or do you avoid gift giving altogether?

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  1. I don’t mind spending a bit at the holiday season because I’m so careful with money the rest of the year. That said, I do try to make as many gifts as possible. This year, for example, my youngest sister got married, so per my practice I knitted her and her new husband Christmas stockings (I have one really nice pattern and I change out the colors so each is different.) They’ll be filled with home made Christmas cookies.
    My second-youngest sister and her husband had their first baby this year, so my new niece will also receive a Christmas stocking. I did break down and buy some classic board books to put into it, though. Her parents got stockings the year they married, so the baby’s is similar, but in brighter colors. I made my aunt a pair of pillowcases which I had embroidered and for which I had made a bobbin lace edging. (Lace-making is a hobby of mine).
    My sons receive knitted wool socks – we do live where the winters get cold – but I also buy them gifts that they need. After the nasty October snowstorm, for example, my oldest son had no power for a week and, of course, had nary a flashlight to his name. He’s getting a box of emergency stuff: Aladdin lamp, spare parts and lamp oil, big rechargeable flashlight, etc. so he doesn’t need to camp out at my house if this happens again. All of my sons receive several dozen jars of home-canned food: pickles, jelly, chicken soup, chili, spaghetti sauce, etc. because they would never make food from scratch for themselves. (PLEASE use a pressure canner for low-acid foods!!!)
    If I can’t make it, I really try to find useful, well-made things for the people on my gift list, so I end up shopping bit by bit all year. This has the advantage of taking a lot of pressure off me in November and December.
    My husband and I also have extensive family and friends in Europe, so the gifts to them are small and locally made. I’ve bought beautiful tree ornaments from local craftspeople, for example. They were probably a little more expensive, but the money is staying in my community and I can justify that. And our relatives in England and Germany can probably buy Chinese-made stuff just as easily in their own countries, anyway.
    For those concerned about using their dollars to support well paying jobs in the US, I came across this web site: which offers all sorts of things, practical and otherwise, that are made in the US, including union-made clothing. Brought to mind those ILGWU commercials that used to be broadcast on TV when I was a teen-ager . . . am I that old?

  2. Bill and I make most of the gifts we give, taking turns on who will take point on making Christmas gifts each year.

    The one exception is our Christmas gifts to each other. Our tradition is to exchange books we find at the thrift shop.

  3. When we think about gifts for certain people we always go to and buy a cow for a family in their name or some other such thing that will make a difference to a family in either, kenya, tanzania, congo or sudan. We make the donation in their name and send them a card saying so. I think you can do beehives , goats, ect. any number of things. It’s a great idea for someone who really doesn’t need anything other than a reminder that you thought of them and you love them. Have a blessed holiday

  4. This is the first year that I have requested contributions to charities I support, in lieu of gifts. I don’t need more items to crowd my house – I have everything I need. I am also sewing most of the major gifts I will give to family and friends. It feels like a much richer holiday tradition when I put more meaning into both what I am receiving and giving.

  5. Totally off topic, and I apologize for it. There is a very interesting article on the front page of today’s WSJ about heritage turkeys. One of the points in the article was commercially raised turkeys have become so hybridized they can barely walk and without the help of the farmer, can’t breed (don’t ask me how!).

  6. Don’t give ’em, try not to get ’em. This is regarded as weird, but for a lot of the last several years, I haven’t been in a financial position to be able to reciprocate, I don’t like shopping anyway, holiday shopping is even worse than regular shopping, working retail during multiple Christmases (2005, 2006, 2007, 2008) made me never want to be in a store at Christmas time again (the music! The constant, inescapable, infernal music!), and I figure the odds of getting anybody anything they’ll genuinely enjoy and use are pretty slim, considering how often I’ve gotten gifts I genuinely enjoy and use.

    I do like the lights, though. Christmas lights are cool.

  7. My family has also stopped exchanging gifts amongst the adults, for the reasons you cite as well as wide income disparity between family members.

  8. In my husband’s family adults are not obligated to buy gifts for each other. If you find something that just really stands out as “I just gotta get this for so and so” then get it. If not, no biggie. The kids get presents from just about everybody. This year my sister and I decided that we are just doing stockings for each other’s kids and not worrying about gifts for each other. Our kids get so much stuff from other family that we don’t need to be piling up toys and other plastic crap at each other’s houses. I may however, include some cartoon character hats I make in their stockings. They have been asking for me to make them some for some time now.

  9. I have a deep mistrust of anyone who tries to reduce social practices like gift-giving to mere matters of economic efficiency. If we allow ourselves to think of gifting in such a simplistic terms, what else becomes subject to the same economic rationality? Child-rearing? Walks in the park?

    I agree that we need to take a serious look at gift-giving, especially around the holidays, but economists’ tools do the job poorly.

    Anyway, I’m all for the holiday truce. My partner and I are eternally engaged by efforts to simplify our lives. When we first met, we agreed not to let gift-giving get in the way of our relationship by not giving gifts for any holidays. It’s helped avoid some of the emotional turmoil that results. My brother and I, since we don’t see each other much, have decided to set aside time each year to spend together, without spouses or other family members, instead of buying each other things. Finally, because we don’t want more stuff in our lives, we try to help other people out with that, too. We give home-made consumables (jelly, cheese, soap), or nothing. In exchange, we make it clear to everyone that we don’t want anything. If someone insists, we let people know that we only want gifts that can be “used up”.

    Since we’re on the subject of gifts, does anyone have any ideas for how to navigate the inevitable deluge when you have a kid on the way?

  10. A happier (less Scroogish) spin on this are books such as Bill McKibben’s “Hundred Dollar Holiday” … they remind us to make the season about meaningful connections between people, charitable giving, and heartfelt merriment (none of which have to cost much money!).

    More ideas on Greener Gifting at (pdf)

  11. We’ve come to a truce with many of our family members, opting not give gifts. I enjoy making a lot of foodie items for gifts for those that will appreciate them. There are still a few family members that relish the madness of Black Friday and need to shop, but my husband and I have tried to work on need feeling the need to compete with that as it does not fit into our families values.

  12. With no children, my partner and I have cut down on presents for birthdays and holidays. But no doubt we like to have the fun of unwrapping gifts. So, this year its necessities – he needs a new wallet and underwear. I did find a nonsense gift for him though, he has a collection of model cars and so I gave in. To his nieces and nephews we give food. They are scattered about and we use the commercial gift folks for sending them meat/poultry for their holiday dinner. They all are struggling and have their own kids, food always work. For the neighbors its home made. seasoned oils, preserves, relish, and this year have added cotton knitted string bags. Our employees will also get food – usually hams. OR a gift card to the local market.

  13. We started doing the present truce thing for the adults years ago and it is a huge relief. None of us really need or want anything and we all appreciate the break from the mall insanity.

    We will buy small gifts for the niece and nephew this year but they will be choosing their big gifts from the Heifer International catalog. It makes them feel very proud and happy to help other children who are in need.

    For myself, I always give myself a Christmas gift of a donation to Petfinder and maybe one to a smaller, specific animal rescue or charity. It makes me happy and helps me keep the Christmas feeling in the face of all of the crap that comes with the holidays.

  14. I don’t buy presents for the adults in my family, and I try to make presents for the kids. Usually I crochet a hat and / or scarf for each brother and niece or nephew. If I can’t manage that I buy them books. This Christmas I am taking along some homemade preserves and booze for general consumption by the family. I do usually buy something for my spouse, and I don’t always try to make it useful, just something he wants or needs. Both our families give us gifts, to our chagrin, and much of that stuff ends up going to Goodwill.

  15. Last year I made a rule with the kids. They can choose 3 gifts they would like or they can make a list of more but understand that only 3 will be chosen from that list. In order to keep prices in line only one “big” gift. I define the value of “big” depending on my budget. The adult kids receive 1 gift but since they still come home for the holiday they also get a stocking (which usually contains a nice bottle of wine). I buy for my mom but stopped buying for my sister and her kids years ago. I have asked that they not buy for me or mine but they persist and I am just not going to feel guilty about that. Last year as a concession I sent them each a $5 Starbucks gift card. Sometimes I bake for friends and deliver in person. When I was a young married I baked for everyone and included pics of the kids as gifts because we just didn’t have the money to buy gifts. The worst Christmas I ever had was when my sister spent hundreds of dollars each on my children buying them multiple gifts. While I gave them nice gifts they weren’t in the ballpark of what she did. Need-less-to-say the kids were thrilled with her and I was hurt.

  16. i do feel a lot of stress about not being able to give out a lot of $$$$ gifts this year. but i hope to make cards or cookies for my close friends and family. I know they will understand:) i’m also trying! not to be so materialistic:)

  17. My husband and I usually buy ourselves big ticket items pertaining to homesteading that we would otherwise buy at another time of year anyway. That way we have something under the tree, but we aren’t buying something just because.

    For my parents I generally do small gifts that I know for sure they’ll use and enjoy, plus Heifer donations in their name. A few other relatives get baked goods or homemade jam. I get nothing for my nephews, who are invariably buried in toys they won’t be using two months hence.

    We’ve succeeded in convincing my husband’s family to just donate to Heifer in our names. It’s really for the best since the gifts they used to get for us were tragi-comically misjudged. We’re much happier that they donate, and a few of them have asked us to do the same for them. So I call it a big win.

  18. I give a few gifts a year to immediate family and very close friends, and it’s almost always food or booze. A nicely written letter with some home made preserves and home brewed wine. No malls, no wrapping, nothing to be thrown away or stashed in an attic. That being said, I have seen unopened jars of homemade goods collecting dust on relatives’ shelves, leading them to admit that they’re afraid of home canning. I might just stick to booze this year.

  19. Growing up, we got our biggest wish granted at birthdays and xmas, but we had to wait all year to get our needs met so I hated the idea. Now, I much prefer meeting my needs as they arise and treating the holidays like any other day.

  20. I try my hardest with my family, since I’m mid-30s and independent, but they don’t realize that I just don’t need stuff. I find wish lists (yay, Amazon) a little un-emotional, as far as a heartfelt gift, but I have convinced my brother that used books are PERFECT and cheaper to boot. Also, for my parents and grandparents, I wrap their gifts in something reusable – usually fabric for my crafty mother or dish towels, etc. for Gram and Gramps. Better than paper!

  21. We don’t do gifting in our wee family, me and the dood. We’ll save up some shekels to build something for the cats and/or chickens, but that’s about it at this point. Actually, the cats are already taken care of this year. I found a spare doormat made of bristly material, which is going to be their “spa mat”, that we had hidden in the garage for a rainy day, or, rather, as a spare for the one at the front door. They live to rub and roll all over the doormat.

    And then the chickens will get some nice pinatas of bundled-up artichoke greenery since our artichoke is growing back, again.

    In my father’s family, the tradition became to draw names, and the person you drew received a gift, at Christmas. It was easier this way in a family with 15 nieces and nephews, and so many aunts and uncles.

  22. I think my family would really miss some gifts at Christmas, but there are eight of us, and it was getting just ridiculous- the gifts filled up half the living room and took most of the day to get through, what with all of us and everyone’s kids……so a few years ago, we decided to do just stocking stuffers for each other, and the nieces and nephews are their parents’ responsibilities.

    This has wound up being a lot of fun, both in terms of shopping for small stuff, and for opening at Christmas. I’m not done yet, but it’ll be easy to finish up. I wrote up a list of ideas for stocking stuffers: pocket knife, Leatherman, calligraphy pen & ink, pot clips, stamps & ink pads, seals, sealing wax & postage stamps, veggies or flower seed packets, scarves, pedometers, multi-screwdriver kit, headlamps, flashlights, fancy salts, little bottles of hooch (I’m thinking both men and women and brothers-in-law here).

    Anyway- works for us, and it’s fun!

  23. Our family stopped giving gifts more than 10 years ago. We would put everyone’s name in a hat and each person chose one other and everyone spent around $50 on a gift the other person really wanted. Kind of took the surprise out of it….but it was too much stuff and not usually stuff you wanted.
    For the last 5 years or so, we all pitch in and rent a house in Sunriver, near the Mt. Bachelor ski area in Central Oregon and spend a week together skiing and snowboarding. No gifts for anyone (kids are exempt, of course) unless it is handmade or small stocking stuffers. It has been fun and something we look forward to all year!

  24. In my big extended matrilineal clan, we put all the adults names into a hat. For the person you draw, you are supposed to gift something handmade (by you or someone else) or vintage, or a book (because we’re nerds, Grandma was a professor of Library Science, and books are always okay), costing less than $50. It’s like an Etsy Christmas, and since we’re all weird and quirky, the gifts are usually a lot of fun. Often a lot of foodie gifts are involve. For the kids in the family, anyone can gift what they like, but there isn’t an obligation.

    We also do stockings for the whole family, 25-ish adults and children. Each adult contributes 1 small thing to each stocking, like cookies, tea, new pencils, screwdrivers, etc. Last year I made little crochet snowflake ornaments for my contribution. This year I’m thinking of making some little mini sachets of loose tea.

  25. I tend to request, and give, charity presents for birthdays and Xmas. We have a great site in South Africa,, where you can buy someone a present of a poor child’s schoolbooks or a vet for a poor community etc. It’s great and I love it. I also love Heifer, we have one here too. A reasonable present(a CD or a book) costs about R200 (ummm, US$30-ish) and I’d much rather that go to a good cause than get another small present I don’t need.

    We don’t do Thanksgiving but I would definitely say gravy. We like our gravy here 🙂

  26. We have 50 people (give or take a few) at our family get together on Christmas Eve. We have had a grabbag for adults and one for the kids as well (each child gets two or three gifts). We also have an opt out option as well for the adults. However, many “illegal Santa” gifts are now given and some people give to the kids even though they haven’t pulled their names. Gift opening takes hours now. I still get gifts even though I’ve expressly asked not to get them. While I appreciate the thought I’d rather spend the time visiting with family than watching all the gift opening. The immediate family has cut way back and mostly gives consumable or practical gifts. My husband and unmarried daughter and I do exchange stockings. I find free items throughout the year – many amusing ones for my contribution.

  27. What a delightful blog! I just discovered you today…and your post couldn’t have been more appropriate as Black Friday looms over us. Gifts? Except when it comes to the kids, I am for not giving them. Unless it is something homemade that can be eaten. When I announced a few years back to my husband that I wanted to stop giving gifts to adults, he was mortified. He’s a wonderful man who takes great delight in gift giving. He also puts a lot of thought into what he buys. And the gifts he gives are perfect…and much appreciated…I will certainly attest to that. But he is the exception. Most people find shopping for gifts a hassle … And as ou stated, the recipient usually doesn’t really need, or appreciate, the gift all that much. Be done with it. Focus on the kids. And when it comes to the adults, just enjoy some good food. Love, Mary

  28. I tried making stuff for my family, but most of them just don’t care whether it’s homemade or storebought. Because I’m a slow crafter with some physical issues, it just takes too much time and effort to make things for people who don’t appreciate it. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not talking smack about my family. It’s just not where they are. So when I can, I donate to a charity that means something to them, or I get gift certificates for places like or the movie theater, or I happen across a storebought item that calls that person’s name. I love the idea of making stuff, but I just can’t get into making things for people who don’t care that much about having them.

  29. My family played a game where we were matched up with someone from our family and did a time sharing type of thing. It was just getting together a doing anything from going shopping together, playing video games together, cooking, cleaning, babysitting, whatever the people wanted. I am going to be making fudge for my husbands dad, and he is going to clean and patch gutters for me.

    As far as my friends, instead of buying a lot of unwanted useless stuff for each other, we are all going to go ice skating together. Just hanging out together and falling on our butts, because none of us have gone ice skating for many years!!!

  30. My family played a game where we were matched up with someone from our family and did a time sharing type of thing. It was just getting together a doing anything from going shopping together, playing video games together, cooking, cleaning, babysitting, whatever the people wanted. I am going to be making fudge for my husbands dad, and he is going to clean and patch gutters for me.

    As far as my friends, instead of buying a lot of unwanted useless stuff for each other, we are all going to go ice skating together. Just hanging out together and falling on our butts, because none of us have gone ice skating for many years!!!

  31. Also, we do a re-gifting white elephant. It can be something you never used, or something that you were going to donate. Last year I had a bread machine that I bought at a garage sale and never used. My sister in law loved it, and had always wanted one. My husband took a big box of movies, CD’s and books that we were going to donate.

  32. Also, we do a re-gifting white elephant. It can be something you never used, or something that you were going to donate. Last year I had a bread machine that I bought at a garage sale and never used. My sister in law loved it, and had always wanted one. My husband took a big box of movies, CD’s and books that we were going to donate.

  33. I think it is amazing that people are re-discovering the meaning of Christmas and gift giving is pretty low on the totem! Fellowship with family, activities, and traditions. In our family, the tradition of christmas morning breakfast goes back to my grandmother and may soon pass to my daughter. NO GIFT giving! My husbands side included gift giving for years and finally is down to almost none, ti just never defined christmas for me.

  34. The last couple years, my extended family has finally gotten on board with the no gifts for the adults thing. It makes things so much easier! We do still do gifts for the kids but it would just frustrate me, one sibling in particular has a hard time letting go of childhood things and so it took her a few years to come around to the idea that it was truly pointless to buy a $5 token gift for everyone in the family. It’s also tough since not my whole family appreciates a homemade gift, so I was glad when they finally let go of the old gift exchange.

    What we do instead is focus on having good food and having fun traditions, and mostly just spending time enjoying one another.

    When I look back at Christmases growing up, I think about the things I want to pass along and gift giving isn’t a huge priority. Granted, we do give gifts to our kids but we don’t spend that much on them. I mostly remember baking Christmas cookies with my mother, her legendary Christmas breakfasts (which has now become my legendary Christmas brunch), and just having a relaxing, no-pressure time.

    I like the idea of giving gifts to our kids, but we focus on getting them things we’d normally get them anyway like fun socks (my girls LOVE them), coloring books and new crayons, etc.

  35. Very interesting! I favor giving handmade gifts or baked goods, or at least something I know the recipient actually wants! I have to say though, valuing someone enough to give them a gift for no reason during another part of the year for no reason other than being generous seems like it would have more of an impact.

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