The Present Trap

The Baltimore Sun

When did it get so stressful, something that was supposed to be so much fun? When did the joy of finding just the right gift for someone and wrapping it in bright paper and ribbon turn into such a chore?

Maybe it was after your sister had her third child, or you gained new in-laws when you remarried. You realized you were going to have to find the right gift not just for someone, but for many more people than you ever imagined. And the number seems to be growing every holiday season. Not to mention the fact that for many of those shopping for gifts this year, money is getting tighter as the economy worsens.

Although consumers are still planning to spend more this year than last this holiday season, the National Retail Federation reports, they say they will be more conservative in their shopping than last and on the lookout for bargains.

This may be the year to have the Conversation, the one you've been dreading.

Probably everyone finds it difficult to talk about cutting back on gift-giving, and with good reason.

"It's hard for people not to do what they have always done as a family ritual," says Peter Smith, a Baltimore psychotherapist. "But sometimes others in the family are waiting for someone else to say it. It can create the opportunity by getting the focus off the ritual and onto the relationship."

Terri Lewis, a dental hygienist who lives in Bel Air, decided to put the brakes on her gift-giving when she realized that with her ex-husband's and new husband's families, she was buying presents for four sets of grandparents, as well as her sisters and their families.

"I was lucky," she says. "Everyone in my family was OK with it. Christmas is supposed to be about kids, so we decided to limit our gifts to them."

If you want to cut back on gift-gifting this holiday season, say etiquette experts, the most important thing is to talk your family and friends right away -- especially if they are early shoppers.

"Put that in big block letters at the top of your story," says etiquette expert Peter Post, director of the Emily Post Institute. "DO IT EARLY. That's rule No. 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5."

"If you know your mom has already spent time shopping for everybody in September," agrees Lesley Carlin, one of the Gen-X duo Etiquette Grrls (, "it's not nice to sweep the rug out from under her feet on Dec. 1 and tell her you want to draw names from a hat."

Carlin suggests finding at least one other person who agrees with you before you have the conversation with a larger group. "Then you can say something like, 'Lily and I were talking, and we thought it might make everyone's life easier if we cut back on exchanging presents this year.'"

Kim Siriporn, a business manager who lives in Parkville, got her family to stop exchanging presents by saying, "'We don't need anything.' You have to tell the truth. It was a relief to everyone. We were ending up re-gifting or giving things away. It was a waste of time, energy and stress level."

Make new rituals

It's good to offer an alternative ritual, suggests Post. In other words, think of another way to celebrate.

Siriporn's family for instance, gets together for a Christmas Eve hors d'oeuvre party. Everyone brings his or her best and fanciest hors d'oeuvres, while her mother contributes a turkey breast.

"It's very competitive," Siriporn says with a laugh. "We hand out a ballot at the end of the evening and vote for Best Tasting, Best Presentation and Best Overall." The job of buying the prizes for the contest rotates each year.

Present a couple of options, suggests Carlin. "Maybe it's that everybody draws a name out of a hat and buys one semi-significant present for that person, or maybe you continue to exchange gifts with everyone, but keep the value low or homemade. If it's a group where everybody has kids, you can suggest that you only exchange presents for the kids -- most parents would be thrilled with that. I know I was!"

Just make sure the alternative is something that's fair for everyone. "Just because you and your sister like baking doesn't mean you should force everybody to switch to a cookie swap. And, similarly, you can't suggest a 'kids only' policy if only you and your brother have kids and your three other siblings don't."

Stick to the rules

Whatever you decide, Post advises, stick to it. Don't break the "rules" by buying a gift on impulse that you think would be perfect when you've agreed not to exchange presents.

If you're lucky, others will be ready to cut back, too. But don't count on it. John McComb, a local psychotherapist in private practice, and his wife faced a delicate problem: His sister-in-law loved to shower extravagant gifts on his family and had the money to do it, sometimes putting the presents they had bought their own child to shame.

"We didn't want to diminish her joy or cast a pall over her delight in the season," he says. "If someone glories in Christmas, it can be a very tricky thing. There are a lot of touchy issues, and I think that would be true in any family."

When it comes to friends and co-workers, putting an end to exchanging gifts can be as simple as not giving a gift to the person who gives you one.

As Post says, "It's not about giving to get in return." He hates it when he feels like buying something for someone who doesn't have a present for him, and the person says, "Oh, oh, I'll have something for you in a few days." That's not what the holiday is about.

For family members and close friends, however, that won't work. You need to talk. Try to pose it as a problem to be jointly explored, McComb suggests, not as an ultimatum. (Don't, for instance, start off by saying, "I don't want any presents this year" or "Bill and I aren't giving any gifts this Christmas.")

Anticipate the feelings of the other person and acknowledge them. Put it in concrete terms of your own difficulties (with the cost of things, for instance) so it won't sound like an accusation. (You're too extravagant.)

"The discussion shouldn't be abstract or philosophical," he says.

Take a deep breath, and don't focus on getting people to agree with you, adds Smith. Focus on getting people to start talking.

"For Americans, everything has to be bigger," he says. "We get buried under presents. But holidays can be a time of gratitude. They can be a time to celebrate having a connection with others."

Having the conversation

Tips from etiquette experts, therapists and people who have successfully convinced their family to cut back on gift-giving.

Do it early, before presents have been bought.

Focus on getting the conversation started, not on getting everyone to agree with you.

Present the problem, not an ultimatum.

Acknowledge the feelings of others, particularly those to whom the gift-giving ritual is a big part of the joy of Christmas.

Put it in terms of your difficulties.

No accusations.

Don't be abstract or philosophical.

Present other options for celebrating.

Make sure the solution is fair for everyone.

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