How Do You Handle Extended Family Gifts?

We’ve talked about sibling gifts and Santa gifts and how many gifts is too many. Today, let’s shift the conversation a bit. Let’s talk about gift-giving with our extended family now that we’re all grown up. Do you rotate siblings? Draw names for cousins? Donate to charity in someone’s name? Do the grandparents organize it?
Do they participate? What works well for your family?

This is how my family handles it. I’m one of 8 siblings, and we have a rotation that we’ve been doing for over a decade. In fact, I think we might be pretty close to 2 decades now!

It began when most of us were married and starting our own families. With so many of us, it was getting overwhelming. Should we choose something for each of our siblings? And each of their spouses? And each of their kids? Just do one big family gift?

We decided to start a family rotation to keep things more manageable. The first year we gave to the sibling (and their family) who was just older than us, with the oldest sibling giving to the youngest sibling. Then the next year, we gave to the sibling two ahead of us in age. Then three ahead of us in age. Then on and on in a great big circle.

In our rotation, there aren’t really any rules beyond who you are assigned to. There are no budget suggestions. You can give one big family gift or you can pick out something for each individual in that family — we’ve done both depending on who we are giving to and what sort of ideas we come up with. Gifts can and do vary widely. One year, my sister Sara’s family made us a set of Nativity Story costumes we could use each year on Christmas Eve. Another year, my sister Jordan’s family gifted us tickets to Cirque du Soleil. Another year, my brother Josh’s family gifted us a collection of musical instruments — like egg shakers and a cowbell — to supplement our jam sessions.

We all have different traditions about where we spend Christmas, so this gift giving almost never happens in person, and is usually shipped instead (or given over email/text depending on the gift). Oh, and my mother doesn’t participate in the rotation.

What I’ve loved about this rotation is that I get to think specifically about one particular family and really come up with a thoughtful or special gift just for them. As my own kids get older, they help in the decisions and I think it increases the bond they have with their cousins. I also love that it’s pretty low pressure. This tradition has never stressed me out, and everyone has very low-key expectations about the whole thing. It’s mostly just a gesture — Merry Christmas! We love you and are thinking about you!

It’s worked quite well over the years, and I don’t remember any drama or hiccups around this tradition at all. Interestingly, we may be reaching a new crossroads. Some of my siblings have grown up children now. The tradition still works if those grown ups kids (my nieces and nephews) are spending Christmas at their parent’s house, but if/when they start their own families, it probably won’t work as well. It will be interesting to see if we retire it at some point.

What about you? How do you handle gifting with the grown-ups in your family? Do you gift individually? Do you pick names? Do you have a rotation that works for you? And how far do you extend the family gift-giving? Aunts & Uncles? Cousins too?

Here are some earlier gift-giving discussions you might have missed:

How many gifts do you get your kids for Christmas?

Tips for figuring out a gift-giving tradition.

How to avoid too many Christmas gifts.

Budget-friendly gifts for kids.

32 thoughts on “How Do You Handle Extended Family Gifts?”

  1. My fiancé is the youngest of four and everyone is married (except us!) so they’ve been doing Secret Santa for a while. That way you’re just buying for one sibling/in-law instead of everyone, which works out nicely.

    We typically celebrate Christmas Day with my mom’s family and now that all of the cousins are older (the youngest is mid-20s) we do a white elephant exchange with cousins and aunts and uncles. Everyone has a $40 limit and we have so much fun seeing what everyone comes up with each year!

  2. My wife comes from a family of four kids, all of whom are adults and three of whom are married now, some with kids. The Christmas morning present-opening went on for hours until three years ago when my mother-in-law instated secret santa. Now we nine adults each draw a name. It’s de-emphasized the presents part and turned it into kind of a fun surprise finding out who drew your name.

  3. My husband’s immediate family seems to really be all about buying stuff for some reason (and we are not). We don’t live close and I wouldn’t characterize our relationships as close either, so it is always a bit stressful for me coming up with gift ideas for each of them. I also feel pressure from them each year to provide them with ideas of things to buy us. It all just feels so silly and unnecessary. To add to this, I’m pretty unwavering in my decision to celebrate Christmas morning in our own home with just our kids, so we always travel to visit them several days later, which makes all the obligatory gift exchanging seem even more superfluous.
    I would love to skip gifts altogether, or at least just only focus on the kids but somehow I think they would not go for that idea. Would love some ideas on how to approach this topic with them. Or do we just continue on uncomfortably? I’m realizing this sounds very scroogy, but the pragmatist in me can’t stand all this unnecessary spending, shopping, hauling, etc.

    1. I am in the exact same scenario. For the first 10 years, I just got stressed and anxious each Christmas as I felt I had to buy gifts for everyone in my husband’s family, and I had to graciously accept a number of gifts we didn’t need. We’ve slowly made changes… we started giving very specific gift requests for gift cards (for stores we know we’ll use such as sporting goods and home repair). This year I finally said “I’m opting out.” My husband’s family doesn’t know yet, but every adult is getting a card saying “In your honor, we donated a gift bag to a shelter with basic personal hygiene supplies.” We’re giving 15 full backpacks to shelters, and the contents are reflective of the family member (e.g., male, female, favorite color for the bag, etc.) I cannot imagine my husband’s family will be able to complain ;-)

      1. DM – what a brilliant solution!

        Caty I hear you! I don’t think I ever had an actual conversation with my family about it, but the year my niece was born I just stopped buying for my brother and SIL. If there were any hard feelings I don’t know about them, so I can certainly recommend leading by example! But I’d say it’s absolutely worth a feeler email, who knows how many others are continuing the gifting only out of tradition?! Good luck!

    2. Oh my goodness I could have written this! My scenario almost to a t. In contrast, we don’t buy a single present for anyone on my side of the family (21 includingy parents, siblings, their spouses, and kids). I just want to say to everyone in his family “PLEASE don’t get us gifts I am begging you!”

      1. OMG same on my side as well! Or sometimes some gifts are bought just if someone happens to find the exact right thing and feels moved to buy it. There aren’t expectations either way. It’s more about somehow getting together at some point (we live super far away from my side too).

        We are youngish (30) with young kids so I feel like all this gift giving among the adults is leftover from just a couple of years ago when there were no kids at all. Like we’re in a strange transition period where my in laws still feel that they are parents and we are the kids, even though we’re not! I would love to all be adults on the same plane and say, hey let’s either trade names or skip gifts or whatever. I don’t imagine there is any hope of getting them to let up on the grandkids gifts.

        Maybe as the years pass things will adjust?

    3. Why are gifts for and from your husbands family your responsibility? Gracefylly hand that responsibility back where it belongs, and you might see hour problem solved quickly by an unwilling husband :)

  4. My family is tiny, with my parents, his parents, his brother, and my brother’s family (brother and wife, and their two kids), so I just buy presents for everybody. It helps that his family has very low-key gift expectations (a thoughtful gift in the $20-$30 range is totally acceptable), so I don’t feel too fussed or stressed out about the process.

    We might revisit if/when there are more kids in the family besides my brother’s two.

  5. We decided several years ago to only buy gifts for the kids of the family and to only buy experiences (concert tickets, airfare for a visit, etc.) for our mother who needs nothing. This cuts down on the superfluous ‘stuff’ and stress of buying for family members that you aren’t as close to. We started talking about it at a family gathering in June and solidified the decision in August that year.

  6. Pingback: Wednesday Updates 12/6/17 – Second Gen Homeschooler

  7. On my mom’s side, we don’t give gifts (except to the one child who is 11, or sometimes someone will send chocolates or something small). On my dad’s side, we get a gift for each child (under 18), and everyone who’s over 18 — my parents, cousins, cousins’ adult kids, cousins’ spouses, aunts/uncles (my grandparents are deceased) — goes into the name draw. We draw names at Thanksgiving, and everyone gives a list of gift suggestions, and the budget is $30. Your rotation idea sounds fun!

  8. On my dad’s side, we do a huge secret santa.
    When we were younger it used to be that every family drew the names of two or three nieces & nephews, so only the kids got gifts. Now that we’re all older we wanted in on the fun so now everyone draws a name (and gets to exchange it if it’s a parent or sibling).
    It’s good fun, but this year I got a lot of people asking what to give my brothers/father/cousin’s bf!

  9. Thanks for this post and discussion! We did your same style rotation for about a decade with my six siblings–it finally fell apart when one brother got divorced, and with older kids no one really cared that much to continue. Over the years it varied between family gifts, a book theme, experiences/tickets, a $40 limit, etc. We all agreed mutually this year to opt out of gifts to each other and donate to charities instead.
    My parents just request updated family photos/photos of the grandkids every year and a report on meaningful service we’ve done recently, which is manageable.
    On my husband’s side (also the oldest of six, with thirty grandkids), things have just been nuts since his mom’s love language is gifts and she feels like we don’t love each other if we don’t give to everyone (now that the grandchild generation is getting married this makes over 40 people, and even drawing names it’s way too much stuff/time when we gather). We are all secretly thrilled that his parents are out of the country this year on an LDS service mission and we can skip it.
    I’ve admired a system my cousins have where they draw names for each of the family adults (grandparents and in-laws are in there too, but it’s not done by couple) and get that person something really nice and personalized (they have a higher budget than we’ve done–like $100). The gifts/experiences that I’ve heard about are quite thoughtful and interesting.
    It’s always tricky being the mom, though, because at least in our house, I’m in charge of all the gifting so if my husband was assigned someone I’d still be shopping for them–that mental work of the household discussion from recently comes to mind!

  10. My husband only has one brother with grown children, so we give him and his wife a gift, they seem to enjoy receive each year.

    On my side of the family, I am the youngest of 5 and our two boys are the youngest of all the cousins. We do not give any gifts to my siblings, but we reserve a weekend during the holiday season and get a block of hotel rooms downtown to enjoy all the festivities the city has to offer – department store window displays, city lights, shopping, symphony/ballet performances etc. It is also nice to – sleep in, have someone else make your bed, kids swim, eat out etc. One of the first questions my boys asked after realizing Christmas is coming, was when we were going to the hotel with everyone validating how much I love this tradition and the memories we are making.

  11. We had a gradual slowdown on gift giving with my siblings, and my husband’s siblings. When we all first had kids, we said, let’s just get gifts for the kids. Then a few years later, let’s just exchange until kids are 10. There were 1-3 years of “family” toy gifts like puzzles when one kid is 11 and one is 9, but now, there’s no exchanging! It was great: magical piles of presents when they were little and now they have allowance and fewer, more expensive wants—which are usually covered by our three gifts: one small, one medium, and one large.

  12. We have a small amount of family but decided several years ago (on both sides) that only the kids should get presents. It’s worked out great! None of us need anymore “stuff” plus it completely takes the stress out of the holidays.I can’t recommend it enough!

  13. My siblings and I decided a couple years ago that instead of getting gifts for each other we would have a couples night out in December instead. We all get babysitters and go out to dinner together. We follow up with dessert and games late into the night at my house, and it’s so much fun. I’d much rather have a fun night as family instead of more stuff I don’t need/want.

  14. So far, despite all being in our 20s, my siblings and I are all unmarried and childless, so we each buy the other two a present. Nothing particularly expensive, though we try to make it something meaningful. Growing up and even now, we’ve always gotten gifts from my mom’s side of the family. My maternal grandparents keep saying they’re going to switch to gift cards or money but keep end of buying presents. We also each got one gift from my mom’s oldest brother and his wife and sister and her husband. There are only 5 grandkids total on that side and we’re all right around the same age, so we exchanged gifts with our cousins. On my Dad’s side of the family, he and his siblings sometimes exchange gifts but not always and don’t give to the nieces and nephews. My paternal grandpa and his wife usually give something small to the grandkids, but I’m not sure if they give to all of them or just the ones that live close by.

  15. Love reading all these comments. We have had a slow down in gift giving over the years, thank goodness. When we were all young and childless there was a secret santa, and then when we all had kids it was only the kids did the secret santa so the cousins bought for only one other cousin. And this year there are so many grand kids on my in-laws side that we have decided to rent one of those indoor kids play spaces on the 26th and do a couple hours there instead of the kids secret santa exchange.
    The only thing about this time of year I dislike is the labeling of people. It seems like if you are not a gift giver/hate to spend money/would like the gift exchange to stop you are automatically labeled a Scrooge. It’s unfortunate.

  16. both sides of our family did a gift rotation since we come from such large families. After a couple years, it seemed that the majority wasn’t putting any thought into it and just gave gift cards, so I declared we were opting out. that was over a decade ago and i’ve never looked back. We give a gift to my parents and my in-laws and that’s it. We’ve also requested no gifts, though that hasn’t been received as successfully.

  17. The last thing that I have given to my husband was a coffee grinder. It’s portable so that he can bring it to his office, It was three years ago. I always forget to buy him a gift. But he never forget to give me. I felt bad about it thinking that I’m not even a good wife for him. But the coffee grinder is still alive until know. Hopefully this coming I can make it even with him. Do you have any idea on what specific thing I can give to him for Christmas?

  18. I just heard of a wonderful tradition today that we may adopt. My neighbor’s family has taken six ideas from Matthew 25 (feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, take in the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and help the prisoner) as their family’s direction for how to celebrate Jesus’ birth. She has six kids (grown now), so they rotate and each has one of the categories that they are in charge of doing/organizing for the family/reporting on that year (depending where they all live). They have caroled at jails together, helped with refugees, donated to charities, and so on. Inspiring.

  19. A gentle caution from a grandmother: Be careful about stopping all giving traditions, especially if you don’t live near each other. Simplify but keep it going.

    As the years pass, connections can thin out all too quickly. Those obligatory gifts themselves mean little but the ties mean everything.

    We get the same brand of toffee from my SIL every year, and homemade peanut brittle from another. No surprise, but it keeps us in touch.

  20. On my dad’s side of the family (step siblings, etc), all of the grandkids choose names and their budget is $20-25. So if you have three children, you are buying three gifts, etc. For the adults, it’s a white elephant/dirty santa exchange and participation is completely optional. This works for us because we are all local and together for the holiday, which in itself is the most fun.

  21. We have a big (25+) gathering on Christmas Eve and have for the past 40 years. Absurdly everyone used to buy for everyone but once we were all grown and it became prohibitively we started doing a Yankee Swap ( aka white elephant). Now we have a wonderful new tradition and great activity for the party!

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