Monday, December 23, 2013

Marriage 601, Lecture 745: Secret Santa

My grandfather and moi, fishing. I didn't know enough when I was 12 to hate my body, although I knew I was a chubby kid, so I wore halter tops and flaunted that Milwaukee Roll.

I have a question for you guys: What is your family strategy on Christmas gifts? (If you do, indeed, celebrate Christmas. If you do not, please substitute the gift-giving holiday of your choice and know that I am not deliberately trying to exclude you, but I do celebrate Christmas and come from a Catholic/Lutheran background, so this is my only experience. I cannot speak to anyone else's experience, just mine.)

Back to the question: When I married SH, I acquired four wonderful nieces and nephews and an awesome sister in law (and her dad!) who are just the nicest people you would ever want to meet. But SH and I have not been in the habit of buying gifts for the siblings in law and the nieces and nephews.

I also acquired two wonderful step-step daughters, their husbands, and their three wee little boys, all of whom have this lush, silky, strokable black hair that I covet with a fierce passion. Plus I love their fat little cheeks and their fat little hands and their fat little feet.

But we do not give gifts to them - nor they to us - during the holidays. Yes, wedding and baby gifts for the steps. Yes, high school graduation gifts for SH's side. But not birthday or Christmas gifts.

Perhaps it is because I come from a big family. I didn't used to think it was that big - doesn't everyone have 26 first cousins? It is a normal-sized family for where my parents are from. Actually, it is a small family for northern Wisconsin. My dad's father had 11 siblings and each of those siblings had at least six children. My dad's cousin Greg came from a family of eight. Greg's dad died before he was 40, leaving a widow with eight children - who remarried a man 15 years younger than she was. She must have been some hottie. My dad's dad and mom - Al and Sylvia, had only three, so they were not holding up the family duties.

But even when I was a kid, family presents were not Done. I don't know if it was a money thing - probably - or because we were rarely together during the holidays - because of my dad's career, we were all over the world. But we did not exchange cousin to cousin gifts or aunts and uncles to nieces and nephew gifts at Christmas. So that's how my expectations were set. And that's how I have acted.

My sister was married last week. She acquired an instant family: a 4 year old stepson, a teenage stepdaughter, and an adult stepson whom I have yet to meet. He didn't attend the wedding. No I do not know why. I want to know. I intend to find out.

And of course I acquired new nephews and a niece.Which is wonderful. The niece knows all the words to "Bust a move," which I may have mentioned or will be mentioning in my post about the wedding, and can dance like a rock star. The nephew is a sweetie - good natured and loving. He loves my sister, he loves my mother. My mother is so happy to have some grandchildren that she can hardly stand it.

At the rehearsal lunch, some of the guests were talking about wedding to Mark, the stepson, and telling him that I was his new auntie. "You know what that means, don't you?" one of them asked. "More presents at Christmas!" Then she looked at me expectantly.

I froze. I am not a good spontaneous liar - I really have to think about a lie and craft it and practice it so I can deliver it with confidence. But caught on the spot, I blurt out the truth unless I can keep my mouth shut, which is not my wont.

So I just shook my head, laughed, and said, "Nope. Not in this family."

Which was not the most politic thing to say. But it was the truth. Not that the truth should always be said out loud. Like if your best friend in the world asks, "Does this dress look good on me?" and it's way too short and totally mutton/lamb, you might not say, "It makes you look like a hot mess." Instead, you remember this is your friend and you love her and try to adhere to these guidelines:

1. Is it true?
2. Is it necessary?
3. Is it kind?

Then you say, "You know, I think there are other dresses that flatter your beautiful (arms/ankles/neck) more. Let me see if I can find something." You have told the truth but not in a hurtful way.

So I have two issues here:

1. I was too blunt, although really, it's not like a four year old would notice, especially a four year old who was already so rattled by the whole experience of flying to Colorado and meeting two dozen new people, including 12 new great-aunts and uncles.
2. Do I get Christmas presents for the four year old? I don't get them for the steps, who are all under three. So I can't use age as a cutoff.

I wouldn't want to say, "But these kids are my sisters. They count more." I don't want to make those distinctions: SH's steps and his nieces and nephews are my family as much as my sister's family. We are all one. Indeed, my uncle's daughter from his first marriage (this uncle is married to my mom's sister) commented to me that my grandmother - her stepgrandmother, never treated her as any less than a full grandchild. Laurie told me how grateful she was for that as a kid.

And another aunt, who had a small child when she married my mom's brother (her first marraige), told me she had been so worried how my grandmother, a devout Catholic, would treat her when she joined the family. "She loved me and she loved my kid," my aunt said. My grandmother was not one to condemn others - all she did was love, which I think is a far more Christian way to live than to tell other people they are doing it wrong. I am not a big fan of proselytizing - people come to the faith far better by watching someone like my grandmother than by being told, "Do this!" by someone who is not conducting a loving, exemplary life.

But I digress. I am not talking about preaching or anything. I am talking about Christmas presents for nieces, nephews, and grandkids. What do you guys do? Does it depend on the number of people? Do you have different rules for different statuses? (Stati? Or is it a Greek word that doesn't take the "us" to "i" conversion for plural? The plural of octopus is not "octupi." It's a Greek word.)

Man I am long winded. I haven't written in a while. There's a lot going on.

Anyhow. Tell me what you do about gifts in your family.


Gaylin said...

I have 42 or so cousins, not close enough to remember how many are on my dad's side, but I do have an aunt with 16 kids.
We did not gift with cousins. On my mom's side (the 6 cousins I know), we got together for Christmas dinner (sometimes) but nope, no gifting.
My best friend has to small children and I do not buy them any gifts, they have a metric tonne of plastic crap, why do they need gifts from me? I gift time and play - good enough.

When my sisters kids were wee, I did buy them presents because they were the only that any of us had! Now that they are adults, no presents.

In my family now, we buy my mom $400 in furnace oil every year and nothing for each other. I consider it a gift that we don't get together and have to deal with each other anymore. We all get along one on one but as a group it doesn't work. (one sister is a b-word)

I celebrate Christmas by myself, in my pj's watching Dr. Who and having the fancy meal of my own making. I rarely buy myself filet but I am thinking that will be what I have this year.

And lastly - you were not a chubby kid, not in the least.

Jen on the Edge said...

You do what you think feels right. If you want to buy the little guy gifts, then go for it. If it's not your inclination, then don't worry about it.

You were not a chubby kid.

Katja said...

I say don't worry about it. Do what you want to do. We happen to get gifts for our own children and our nieces and nephews up till about they graduate from college. Then we don't. But it doesn't matter what we do.

(New reader here, via Privilege - as the liberal side of a mixed marriage, I'm finding your mixed marriage stories hilarious. I, too, Do Not Talk Politics with my spouse.)

sabine said...

This guest was out of line by far. And a possible response would have been: "First of all it means one more person to love him.." or something like that.
Everything else is entirely up to you. I only have one sibling and we give gifts when we see something nice or useful for each other, but being present is the most precious gift. Also true for my aged mother who cares more about seeing us and the grandchildren than getting things.

Also over from Privilege. Have a great Christmas!

Anonymous said...

I feel for you in your regret over your comment, but have to second the other readers who correctly state that it is the woman who made the tacky remark (unless it was meant as a joke though it doesn't sound like it was) who was out of line. In your shoes, I may have responded the same way. I grew up in a small family, so never had to deal with the dilemma of what to do with the extended folks, but in my house Christmas was way over done and there was inevitably at least one annual maternal breakdown from the stress of it all. As an adult, I have tried hard to escape from the trap of all the gift giving protocols, though not without some guilt and second guessing (did I mention that I grew up in a Catholic family in a Milwaukee suburb?). Without all of the stuff, the holiday is as nice, if not nicer.

Good luck with your issue. I'm over from Privilege and looking forward to more insightful posts. Happy holidays.

Kimberlee Stiens said...

I think your response was perfect. Gifting should be special, and getting a bunch of cheap crap isn't what any holiday should be about.

In my family, we never gifted between cousins, aunts or uncles. Heck, I'm only sending my sisters tokens this year, and not because I really intended to, I just saw a couple small things that they needed and/or made me think of them.

I think it's important to stand your ground. If they get a gift from you this year, they will expect it every year thereafter. So I say don't do it unless you're prepared to never stop!

Anonymous Mother said...

When I was a child we exchanged names among the cousins on my father's side of the family. Don't know how that was done, since some of the cousins lived a great distance away--but obviously via USPS. I don't remember any of the gifts that I received, unless that little bottle of "perfume" that was shaped like a lamp with a lampshade was one of those gifts. Nor do I remember ever shopping for a gift, so I guess it ended up being up to my mother's "responsibility". With seven children of her own, that meant another seven gifts to come up with and send out! Or perhaps by the time my youngest brothers were born we were no longer doing the gift exchange.

ULTIMATELY, if the gift doesn't come from one's heart, does it really count???

Merry Christmas All!

Class factotum said...

Hello everyone! And welcome to everyone from Privilege! I am so glad to have you here.

Gaylin, we are having steak. As far as presents, my brother and sister and I have been getting my mom big things, like a computer or a camera. We are now considering a queen-sized bed for the guest room because we are tired of the twin beds. Heating oil is a great idea. I used to pay my grandmothers' phone bills and beauty salon charges.

Jen, I suppose if I see something he might like, I would get it. But I did the math on getting gifts for all the grands, nieces, and nephews. With nine of them, that starts to add up.

Katja, I would be so happy not to talk politics with SH! But he insists! PS I checked out your blog. Very thought provoking - thanks for helping me think more inclusively.

Sabine, I hadn't even thought of that - that the person had focused just on presents and not on, "One more person to love you." You are absolutely right. My husband's parents are always very quick to clarify that he has two half brothers. To me, a brother is a brother and why would you make that distinction? It's just more people in your family to love.

Anon, if there is a maternal breakdown, it's not very fun! SH and I deliberately keep things low key, mostly because we are too lazy to do the whole hoopla. As I mentioned, it's steak for us today. That, and a movie. We are happy.

Kimberlee, the precedent is important. Good point.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Marilyn Leslie said...

I used to buy books for all nieces and nephews on my husbands side on the family until by mutual agreement we stopped exchanging gifts for the kids. I already had this agreement with my sisters regarding their children. My brother married late and when his daughters were born all rules went out the window. I buy them Christmas dresses every year and books for Christmas. I double check with them every year to see if they still want me to buy the dresses.