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Want to change your family’s gift-giving tradition? Don’t do it

The question

For 10 years, my parents, brother and I, along with our spouses have participated in a Christmas gift exchange whereby you provide a list of items you'd be delighted to receive to the person who has your name and you get them gift-wrapped under the tree. Last year I was royally burned by my sister-in-law and received various unwanted items, something she has certainly done before. I am over this tradition and really feel that this idea is one whose time has come and gone. My brother is not taking the idea of cancelling the tradition well and my parents are caught in the middle. How do I extricate myself gracefully?

The answer

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Have you really thought this through? Why on earth would you want to extricate yourself from such an excellent system?

My wife Pam's family has a similar system. They draw names from a hat or bowl, and whoever's name you get you have to buy that person a present and whoever gets your name has to buy you one. And they only get "table presents," i.e. nothing too extravagant (to be opened at the table).

It's a good system, promoting such time-honoured virtues as frugality and thrift, and is an excellent antidote to the prodigality and wastefulness that seems to be a hallmark of the season.

Since you only have to give to one person, you can really take your time, think about that person and try to get the perfect, thoughtful gift. As opposed to my family, where (no offence, family) everyone gets something for everyone, and the result is chaos, anarchy – and horribly expensive, to boot.

In my family, everyone goes into a frantic pre-Xmas shopping frenzy (except my Dad, who does his shopping in May). It's exhausting. Compromises are made. Or should I say approximations? Hope springs eternal, especially when you're standing, shopped-out, in some crowded department store, listening to the same jingle-jangle, dashing-through-the-snow-type music, staring at (say) a green cashmere sweater on a pile of picked-over cashmere sweaters: "Would this suit Pam? She might like this. Anyway I can't take it any more, I'm rolling the dice and getting it."

Then you have to brave the post-Xmas hordes to try to return everything, which is a nightmare.

A while back, I tried to impose a system on my family: "consumables only" – e.g. red-pepper jellies, gourmet olives, Scotch. It worked so beautifully for a while – but then someone cheated, then a couple of other people cheated and it went back to chaos again.

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Now it's to the point where my sister and her family of three kids will mail stuff to us from Virginia. Are we supposed to mail stuff to them? Their dog gives a present to our dog. So do we need to get a present from our dog to theirs, then mail it? Who has time for that?

It's a nightmare! And now you want to be the one who breaks a perfectly good system. Fine. You want to do it gracefully? E-mail everyone, tell them you're opting out, and this year you're getting everyone a present. It's up to them whether they want to reciprocate.

That's "graceful." It will be chaos but at least you'll have made your point.

Are you detecting a little sarcasm/resistance to the idea of you deep-sixing this system? Basically, I think it's better if you let the current system reign. And if you want to be "graceful," learn to graciously accept your sister-in-law's not exactly-what-you-were-hoping-for presents.

Try this in front of a mirror: "Thank you! I love it!" With a big smile.

Look at it this way: It's only one person giving you crummy presents, as opposed to multiple people. Less stuff to return.

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And do I really need to say that Xmas is not about what you get, that it's about spending time with your family, having fun, taking a break from the rat race?

Anyway, 'tis better to give than receive, right? And also, as you could gently remind her, if she keeps going off the grid of the system, 'tis easier to return items if she includes a gift receipt.

What am I supposed to do now?

Are you in a sticky situation? Send your dilemmas to Please keep your submissions to 150 words and include a daytime contact number so we can follow up with any queries.

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