My Dad Cancelled Christmas: Do We Fake It for Our Kids?


I don't mind, but he might

by Liz Moorhead, Editor, Ask APW

woman holding holiday plants

Q:My father is unemployed/early-retired, and has been since before last holiday season. We pretty much skipped gift giving last year, because we’re all adults here, and it’s the family-time that matters (like 98 percent, at least). My wife and I also happened to have brought two tiny babies into our family late last year, and taking gift giving off the list didn’t take a lot of convincing.

This year, our babies are older, we are less overwhelmed, and we are looking forward to exchanging gifts with family, now that we have a few months of solid sleep under our belts. So, my father (my sons’ grandfather) is still unemployed, and said “no Christmas this year.” I’ve since convinced him to come to our house, and agreed to skip gifts in favor of family time (e.g. “what matters,” see above).

BUT (I know, I’m exposing myself as a materialistic and consumerist sheep, but bear with me), I’m going to miss the gift exchange. I’m also worried about future holidays, and I want my sons to feel like ALL their grandparents love them and send gifts for birthdays and Christmas. I’m an only child, and my mom died many years ago, so I also have Tiny Family Syndrome, which means I’m probably foisting huge expectations on my dad. Do you have any advice for how to reduce my desire for a family gift exchange? Or, should I help my dad buy gifts for my sons?

—Sheepish Daughter Who Wants to Help

A: Dear SDWWH,

Be serious: Who doesn’t love gifts? Nothing wrong with that.

If gifts are a big part of your holiday celebration and you want your dad involved, sure, take him out shopping. Tell him you’re excited for the kids to open something he’s picked out for them and that you’ll happily foot the bill. Kids have a reputation for being demanding little snots, but the small ones really aren’t that picky when it comes to toys. So if budget is a factor, you can get some great stuff at a consignment shop or thrift store, and they won’t even know the difference. This way your kids get gifts, your dad doesn’t get left out, you get some bonus quality time with him, and there’s no weird money pressure. Gifts aren’t about the money, anyway.

And while I’m being preachy: gifts also aren’t about love. Oooof. I get what you were trying to say there, and it’s the holidays, I feel you. But you know what I’m going to say: gifts aren’t a measure of affection at all—the two aren’t synonyms. Some folks show their love with gifts, others don’t. Which is a great message to start to show your kids, especially this time of year. This is one of those life lessons that, I mean, you could just outright tell your kids. Sure. But how much better is it for them to also learn by experience? That pull to equate love with stuff you buy is REAL, and it can have shitty consequences (overspending to make yourself or someone else feel loved? We’ve all done it, I’m sure.) So here’s the perfect chance to start teaching them something different.

So, you could take dad out shopping, fill in the gaps for him, love on him while helping him love on your kids. Or, if he wouldn’t be keen on that (I get it; it sucks to be the broke guy), you can refocus your perspective on other ways love is expressed. So he can’t bring over a pile of toys, but maybe he can come over and bake cookies, help them make greeting cards, drive around with you guys to see the holiday lights. And instead of making a grand gift exchange the central part of your Christmas morning, maybe you can build it around making a meal together, playing games as a family, or watching some cheesy traditional movie.

Your dad’s instinct to cancel the holiday shows that maybe he’s feeling like he’s got nothing to offer if he can’t buy a gift. Don’t get sucked into that thinking. Your dad can still be a part of some meaningful holiday traditions, and your kids will be better off for it.

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Liz Moorhead

Liz is an illustrator and writer who paints custom stationery and types up impassioned opinions about weddings, etiquette, feminism and motherhood (usually while shaking a fist and mumbling expletives around mouthfuls of cheese fries). Her spare time is spent sipping bourbon with her husband and playing Don’t Throw That in the Toilet with her sons.

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  • Amy March

    These are still babies? Save tomorrow’s worries for tomorrow. The children will not know or care that Granddad didn’t get them a gift this year, and you know he is already feeling bad and self conscious about this. You are having a Christmas with a) your spouse, b) two wonderful children, c) gifts you choose to buy, and d) your father.

    The fact that he cannot afford to buy gifts for the babies is not a problem that needs to be solved, and your feelings about it, while understandable, are something you need to deal with by talking it through with your spouse and having an extra glass of eggnog, not an awkward convo with your Dad in which you imply he is failing at grand parenthood.

    • Ashley Meredith

      I wondered if “babies” was sort of a catch-all term for “young children.” Kind of like how my family nickname is still a derivation of “baby” and I call my 11-year-old dog “puppy.” But I agree, if they’re still very small, and especially if they are <2, not having gifts is not a problem this year! They won't even know it's a thing!

      • rg223

        The LW did say “tiny babies” were brought into the family last year, so I think we can assume these kids are now one. I have a one year old, so I understand the impulse to “do Christmas” in a certain way because they now understand things better and can have fun with it… but they definitely aren’t going to remember this particular Christmas, so I’m agreed with Amy that this issue is better left alone.

        • Inmara

          I have a slightly older child (just under 18 months) and seriously, he has no idea what Christmas and gifts are and definitely is would not miss anything if we skipped gifts or some Christmas activities completely.

    • Liz

      Yikes! I think it’s a bit extreme to imply this convo would be about “failing at grandparenthood.”

      • Amy March

        I don’t think that was your suggestion or would be her intent at all, but I do think there’s a pretty solid chance that’s what someone who already tried to just skip Christmas because he feels bad about this would hear.

    • sofar

      I completely agree with this. Maybe this Granddad is the granddad they bake cookies with/play a game with/watch Rudolf with/listen to old records with as a Christmas tradition.

      I know my dad would be humiliated if I offered to “take him to the store and pick out a gift I paid for.”

      I get LW feels some sort of way about gifts, but there may not be that many Christmases left with Grandpa so let him celebrate with the kids in a way that’s meaningful to him.

      I honestly cannot remember a SINGLE Xmas gift from any of my grandparents. I remember coloring with them, cooking with them, watching movies, walking through the snow, and heck, washing dishes with them. Those are my warmest Xmas memories of my grandparents who are now gone.

      • Vanessa

        And I would trade all of the stuff I got from my grandparents’ house when they died for one more time making Christmas cookies with my grandma, or one more time looking at lights with my gramps.

        • sofar

          TOTALLY. :*(

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        • LadyMe

          I inherited my grandmother’s cookie cutter collection when she passed away. (I have the same mixing bowl and measuring cups too.) Makes holiday cookie baking very bittersweet between warm nostalgia feelings and missing her.

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        • planthead

          YES. And I so wish my mom were still here to create some memories, but that is a whole other topic for a different post.

      • Danielle

        COLORING WITH MY GRANDPA. One of my best childhood memories ever <3

    • Mary Jo TC

      I was about to reply the same thing. The OP shouldn’t stress out about this until the kids are at least 4 and able to remember things and notice differences between family members’ gifts. Maybe by then the grandpa will have a new job. Suggestions to do activities or play games or watch movies or start some other new tradition instead of gift-giving are great.

    • planthead

      “save tomorrow’s worries for tomorrow”. Such sage advice, especially if you knew me! I will have an extra holiday beverage and mull this over (oh, mulled wine!).

      • Emily Thomason

        As her spouse, I can verify that saving tomorrow’s worries for tomorrow is in fact excellent advice (and something I’d like to encourage).

    • I can’t

      It was OK to forgo gifts when the OP was short on cash with new babies, but now that they are caught up, it’s a problem with grandfather is short on cash?

      This. is. selfish.

  • H

    I’m a little confused by this – does grandpa not want anyone to exchange any gifts on Christmas, including from you to your sons? Or does he just not want to give or receive any gifts personally? If it’s the former, I definitely think that’s something you should go ahead and address since gift giving on Christmas is important to you, and you want to give your sons gifts without your dad glaring at you from the corner!

    • Annie

      Yes, I agree that some clarity on what “no Christmas” or “canceling Christmas” looks like. On the one hand, I can see how it would be compassionate to minimize any extravagant gift-giving so that LW’s dad can feel comfortable. We would do that for one of our beloved parents, especially with a one-year-old who’s as happy with an empty Kleenex box and shiny lights as any specific toy. But on the other, there’s also nothing wrong with wanting to give your children gifts.

      Maybe they could do Christmas Eve gifts? Or early Christmas morning, before father arrives? And also make it clear that as the kids get older, there just can’t be any “canceling” Christmas and they need to work something else out (…but not the same day! Like, bring that up in March or June or some other less vulnerable time)

      • Annie

        RTA: I don’t meant that in the future the grandfather HAS to buy the kids presents; I just mean that if by “canceling Christmas” he was trying to say that no one gets presents, period, then that’s what needs to be compassionately, but firmly addressed when appropriate (I agree with commenters above that this year is probably jumping the gun a bit since the kids are so young)

      • CMT

        I have the same question. Because my first thought was why in the world does Granddad get carte blanche to *cancel Christmas*? To me, that would mean no celebrating or acknowledging the holiday of any kind. But maybe it just means the gift giving part? And if it is just referring to gifts, does he mean he doesn’t want LW to give gifts to her children, too?

  • Abby

    “And instead of making a grand gift exchange the central part of your Christmas morning, maybe you can build it around making a meal together, playing games as a family, or watching some cheesy traditional movie.”

    I LOVE this idea Liz. Although my family is similarly mostly adults, we struggle because we are so used to exchanging gifts that even though we are’n’t really into it anymore we don’t know what else to do. I’m going to suggest that we limit time to unwrap gifts this year and spend more time making the monkey bread we love on christmas morning.

    • gonzalesbeach

      Jig-saw puzzles! We usually end up spending hours on it! Also last year in Secret Santa gift exchange, I gave my recipient the Game of Things party game, and then we played a couple rounds and that was great fun.

    • Greta

      For a long time, every Christmas my mom bought the family either a board game or a jigsaw puzzle, and then we would spend the day playing it! So fun!

      • Lisa

        Slightly related, but my family is big on movies so each year Santa brings us one in our stockings, and we spend most of the day hanging out and watching the previous year’s blockbusters together. It’s a lot of fun!

      • planthead

        Love it! This is what we used to do in mom’s family, it would be great to bring it back.

      • JLily

        This is what we do! Sometimes there is a buy-in and the winner gets a little bit of cash, and sometimes a few of us pitch in for a couple “prizes” for the winners. So it’s all about hanging out together but there are still some presents being opened. I’m not sure how it would work with more kids around, but since it’s all adults right now it makes it fun.

    • Liz

      My family plays charades! (which has made for some hilarious memories)

    • Amy March

      We read books by the fire (the only time of the year we have a fire in the fireplace).

      • Lisa

        I long for a real fire! I think the last year we had a fire at my parents’ was also the last year we had a real tree–it was the same year my little sister and a neighbor boy knocked the Christmas tree over right into the mantle. (Thankfully no fire was going at the time!)

      • Abby

        LOL we watch a lot of yule log. Yours sounds better.

    • Morgan D

      Night before, it’s pajamas, cooking, and watching a movie or reading books together.

      Day of, we play an absurd amount of board and card games (and the youngest in the family always wins).

      To indulge in gifts without it becoming a burden, we also do a variation on Secret Santa. Everyone draws a name around Thanksgiving, and then we email out our wishlists in a big thread, listing specific items or even links to items we’d like ($30 or less total). Everyone gets something they truly wanted, knows they’re giving something that’s truly wanted, and the total price per person stays low.

  • Sara

    My grandma on my dad’s side wasn’t the most warm person. She was fantastic, but not a gift giver at all. My parents would give us a gift ‘from’ her. They still forced us to write a thank you note that they never sent. They gave it up after one of us called and thanked her, and she was super confused, but since my mom’s family was super generous they didn’t want that side to be lacking.

    Of course, she lived in a different state, so it was easier to pull that con off.

    • planthead

      Yeah, this doesn’t sound like a path we should take, although as a parent I can see the thought behind it.

  • rg223

    To kind of combine a couple of Liz’s ideas, you could also get some kind of craft for your dad to make WITH the kids, for all of them to have as a keepsake. That would serve a dual purpose of having a physical object to remember the holiday with (important for the Gifts love language) while saving your dad some dignity, if he doesn’t want you to buy his gifts for him.

    • rg223

      I feel silly replying to myself, but here it goes: Gifts are basically my second love language (physical touch and quality time are tied). I wish “Gifts” weren’t the title for that specific love language, and instead call it something like “Mementos” or “Love Tokens” – just something that signifies that it’s not just arbitrary gift-giving because it’s a holiday, but that there’s like, thought and care that goes into the object, and also that the object is a holder of memories and good feelings for the receiver.

      • “I Don’t Knowww, Margo!”

        I love everything about this, and also, we are LL twins. Gifts that come from quality time are so lovely!

        • rg223

          It did not occur to me that my gifts and quality time LLs were overlapping here, but you are so right!

      • Laura C

        Except there are people for whom gifts is really the right word…

        • rg223

          Can you elaborate on that? I’m curious about other gift-people’s feelings (if you are one or know one).

          • Jess

            I know one (my mother)! For her, the gift receiving is not solely about the object holding a memory or a meaning. It is about having enough things to open, that were worth enough $, and were appropriate to her life/desires. It’s about people thinking of her, going out of their way to find something she would like, and (honestly) being willing to spend a fair bit of money on her.

            Now, she can be awful about this, even when we’re all trying, and that’s on her. But we also know that this is what makes her feel loved, and she does reciprocate by giving a lot of gifts.

          • Kaitlyn

            My mom is like Jess’ mom except in the reverse and that’s how she gives. Our Christmas’ are GIGANTIC. I think it stems from growing up with not enough, and not ever wanting her kids to want for anything. Luckily, she doesn’t expect a high value of gifts, but that it was thoughtful and picked out especially for her (which I agree with, I’d rather get no gift than get a generic gift you could buy anyone aka the Christmas candle haha)

          • Jess

            Oh, don’t get me wrong, she totally gives that way too! She’s SUPER into giving gifts, to the point where it’s almost embarrassing.

            It definitely stems from her family never quite having enough and wanting to make sure we always had everything.

          • Laura C

            My grandmother one time called and berated my uncle for not having given her enough for Christmas. He was astonished and asked if she hadn’t liked the 200-year-old Persian bracelet. Turned out, she’d missed it somehow and had thrown it out with the packing materials.

          • Jess

            Ha! So very much a thing that would happen.

          • MrsRalphWaldo

            Oh wow. 200 year old bracelet in the trash??

          • Laura C

            My grandmother and my MIL were/are both extreme gifts people, to the point where my grandmother would wrap up anything and give it as a gift. When my father was a teenager and his driver’s license arrived a few weeks before Christmas, she took it out of the mail and wrapped it up as a gift (not much of a gift for a teen to have to wait extra weeks to be able to drive). She’d wrap up the free pen she got at the bank and give it to you. In other words, a premium on having something to give, not careful choices. When I was little, since she sent both Christmas and Hanukkah presents and my birthday is right after Christmas, my parents ended up having to hide things she sent so that I wouldn’t start to think I was going to get gifts every day until the end of time.

            My MIL is a little more complicated. Maybe 1 in 10 gifts is carefully chosen and super thoughtful (and also often expensive) — for instance, she has a ring I love that has cultural significance for her, and she’s having a copy made for me. And if she just gave the 1 in 10 gifts that was like that, it would be amazing! But, like my grandmother, she often goes past what’s welcome and what she can really put thought and care into. For instance, her last visit: she’d sent a picture of a wall hanging for the baby and I’d said yes (making the rookie error of not asking how big it was), she’d asked about bringing him some clothes and I’d said yes, and we’d asked her to bring some food that’s not available outside the Boston area. I try to say yes as much as possible because I know how meaningful giving is to her, and I felt like that was pretty good for a non-holiday visit and that she could feel good about what she was giving. Yeah. She brought the baby four more toys, a bracelet for me, a cushion cover (we don’t really have decorative cushions and have not used the four previous cushion covers she’s brought us), and two things to go on our walls in our small apartment that we’re living in for a year and haven’t even had the energy to put up the art we brought with us. It was A Little Much. Like she starts with what she can be thoughtful about and then it’s just not enough for her and she starts throwing extra stuff in that blunts the overall effect.

          • rg223

            Yeah, wrapping a pen from the bank is a little much, haha (though I do sort of think it was cute she wrapped up the driver’s license! Must be my gift-giving side).

            Hmm, your MIL sounds very much like my MIL too. I think I remember your husband being Indian or Asian? (sorry if I’m misremembrering!) I ask because my in laws are Asian, and since gift-giving is a huge part of their culture, I feel like that gets mixed in with the concept of love languages in an interesting way (like, gift-giving is both a social obligation and and a show of love, so like your MIL, sometimes the gifts are spot-on and show deep thought, and other times it’s more perfunctory).

            Of course, gift culture doesn’t explain your grandmother wrapping up pens – so I agree, sometimes it is just about having something to give. My grandmother was big on saving and re-gifting, and everyone thought it was because she lived through the Depression. Anyway, thanks for sharing your experiences with me!

          • Laura C

            You remember correctly, and that’s a really good point. In fact, now that you say it, I’m realizing that many of the best gifts she’s given have actually been in the more traditional mode (a sari and earrings before our wedding, the ring I mentioned). And those aren’t pro forma — she really put work into finding a sari that was exactly the right color, and discussed the earrings with me to be sure they were something I’d wear. When she doesn’t have tradition as a guide beyond “gifts are important,” she doesn’t do as well.

            I think my grandmother was less about the Depression (though she definitely lived through that) and more that she…liked an occasion. The kind of person who dyed everything green at St. Patrick’s Day and came back from every trip with pictures of herself with strangers she had befriended and of herself in extremely cultural appropriating local garb. And having lots of things to open helps create the sense of occasion. Even if it relied on people showing fake excitement over the pen from the bank. (The pen is not an invented example, btw. It’s one of the things we found, still wrapped because my parents had not wanted to give me as many presents as she sent, years later when we were cleaning out the attic.)

          • Yeah, my stepdad is into giving gifts, but for him it’s about (a) getting bargains and (b) getting lots of them. I’ve had to make peace with getting rid of it sometimes, because actually I don’t need super cheap make up that makes me itch, or mockbuster DVDs from the pound shop, but I appreciate that it was meaningful to him to give them to me.

          • MrsRalphWaldo

            I like the gift not only for the memory associated with it, but also because it lets me know that my husband thinks about me when we’re not together, which makes me feel so cherished.

            ETA: I also LOVE getting gifts for people and witnessing how much joy I was able to bring to them. I am known as being the good gift giver in my family and I take pride in that.

          • rg223

            Yes, I loooooove giving gifts even more than receiving! I am notorious in my family for wanting to get to the gift-opening so that other people can open my gifts!

      • S

        I’m definitely a fellow gift person and for me it’s really tied in with thought or understanding or being thought of or understood, and almost nothing to do with – “stuff”. BECAUSE gifts are one of my main love languages I actually can’t stand getting things for the sake of it or thoughtless gifts – it actually really, really upsets me. I mean, I’m an adult now and I try not to let on, but if I got something fancy and expensive that I didn’t want and that I felt didn’t reflect me as a person, and I got it from someone close to me, it would be really secretly upsetting and I’d much prefer homemade cookies or a scarf they’d knitted just for me. Maybe there are gift people whose love language is about feeling and showing love through material things because of the money (i.e, ‘I love you this amount’) but that is definitely not my experience being someone with a gift love language.

        • NolaJael

          Yes. Yet another reason I think obligatory exchanges suck. They aren’t fun for gift people OR non gift people.

          • MTM

            THIS.

          • S

            Yes! As a gift person buying things for family members for the sake of it each year when I have no idea what to get them is actually just really awful and upsetting, because spending for the sake of spending is actually completely antithetical to gifts as a love language. It removes the special-ness.

        • “I Don’t Knowww, Margo!”

          Yes! I felt like the world’s biggest heel when my now-MIL gave me a Coach-print bag for Christmas once. It was such a nice thought, and her other DIL loved hers, but it was just not my style, and something I would never, ever use. She was so nice about me returning it, but I still feel bad.

        • rg223

          Yes! This is definitely part of it for me too!

        • Jess

          This is the worst part about being a terrible gift giver with gift-loving people. I simultaneously feel very guilty because I’m going to make people feel unloved and feel unloved because I tried really really hard and was rejected.

          On behalf of bad gift givers everywhere, I’m sorry.

      • Staria

        I love this! Yes! ‘Love tokens’ or ‘Mementos’! Memories are held strongly in tangible objects for me, so yeah, I can’t ever get rid of the the two little stuffed animals my partner bought me in our first year together. Thoughtless gifts upset me too – I try to think of it as ‘the thought that counts’ but it is really easy to make me happy by thinking about it a bit!

  • Roselyne

    Yes yes yes to the ‘do things together’ suggestion – my daughter is a bit older than the OPs kids (2.5 now – based on the timeline in the letter, I’m assuming the kids involved are 1-1.5ish) but baking cookies, putting up lights, and going on walks to see sparkly Christmas lights have been a HUGE success for her.

    For your dad specifically, OP, it’s easy to feel like your worth is in your $ and your job, and long-term unemployement (especially near retirement age) can SUCK in terms of feelings of self-worth and feeling like you have nothing to offer. Does your dad have a specific skill that you could delicately ask him to use to help MAKE things?

    Like, we’re on an uber-tight budget this year (I’m pregnant and due soon, husband is getting laid off in mid-January, so… yeah), and a lot of presents are handmade. For our daughter, we’re making a dollhouse (actually pretty easy, surprisingly). My husband has super-basic woodworking skills, but Ana White’s website has really great plans for super-basic almost-no-skills-needed stuff (for example, there’s a stacked wooden sandwich thing that can be made with scraps of wood and some paint and basic tools – my kid would’ve LOVED that a year ago). Sewing skills lead to all sorts of things. Or, say, something along the lines of ‘hey dad, we wanna put in a sandbox/play structure/whatever but need help with labour – could doing that with us be your Christmas gift?’ Basically, something he can contribute, non-financially.

    • AP

      I <3 Ana White! Love all these suggestions!

    • Roselyne

      Oh, other practical and super-easy (assuming access to VERY basic woodworking tools) – when my daughter was 1, my FIL made her a set of wood blocks. Like, literally, a 2×2 (so 1.75×1.75 in actual measurements), cut into squares and rectangular shapes, with the edges lightly sanded. MAYBE 5$ for the wood (cheap pine) and access to any kind of saw is really all that’s needed… but man have those blocks gotten playtime.

      If you’re feeling fancy, you can paint them like houses or geometric shapes (like, white-on-pine triangles, very hipster 30$-for-a-set-in-stores kind of feel) or make triangles or spheres or whatever – hardware store is your friend here – but open-ended imaginative play with very little cash input upfront.

      What I’m saying is: especially at this age, there are a LOT of things that are easier to make, assuming the most basic of skills and tool access. Encouraging Dad to see what he can offer (both as presence and as presents) might make for an easier Christmas than ‘I can’t afford things, so I’m not participating’. Emotionally… that’s just really tough.

  • clarkesara

    I was confused reading this question, because to me, Christmas doesn’t necessarily equal gifts. Obviously presents are fun, and American pop culture is full of references to gifts under the tree, Christmas shopping, wrapping presents, etc. But presents also aren’t the whole point, and not exchanging gifts isn’t “canceling Christmas”. Nor is choosing to celebrate the holiday with your children via giving them gifts, even if Grandpa can’t afford to, “faking it”. There’s a weird false equivalency between Christmas and “this particular person buys gifts for my children.”

    I’m also wondering if the solution here is to look at your family Christmas celebration as you, your partner, and your children, rather than being handed down on high from the family patriarch or whatever. Your dad is just one individual in your family. Obviously you should accept him where he is at, and be fine with no gifts or gifts or whichever kinds of gifts. Because Christmas isn’t just presents. But, also, if you see gifts as being a vital aspect of the holiday, then exchange gifts among yourselves. That’s not “faking it”, it’s celebrating Christmas in the way that works for *your* family.

    • Amy March

      I think the “faking it” part may have been about giving him money so he can buy gifts or buying gifts and pretending they are from him, but I agree it was confusing.

    • MrsRalphWaldo

      I was kind of wondering that too. We have multiple celebrations that all mean different things to different pieces of our families. We have a cutesie gift exchange and nog with friends, fancy dinner with small gifts with my family, Christmas lunch while watching the kiddos in the extended family open gifts, etc. Why not have a celebration with your dad that he’s comfortable with (holiday movies, baking cookies, etc.) and then do any gifts that you want with your partner and children separately?

      There aren’t many times when this is true, but I think you really can have the best of both worlds here.

  • Morgan D

    Liz did a beautiful job addressing the LW’s concerns re: the kids, gifts, and proposing a truly awesome list of alternatives/activities.

    I resonated in particular with the attentiveness to taking advantage of this opportunity for teaching the kids 1) that gifts aren’t the *only* measure of affection and 2) about the importance of focusing on all the *other* ways love is expressed.

    I’m biased, though, since partner and I don’t really speak “gifts” as a love language (or, at least, do so only rarely). While this is something that feels intuitive for us, I understand that isn’t necessarily true for others and I wonder/worry:

    LW seems super self-aware that she also has concerns (beyond the kids and presents issue) about managing her own expectations and “Tiny Family Syndrome.” I wonder what ideas the community here has on that end? Are there ways LW herself can consciously use Liz’s ideas to make big memories, spend big time and bask in big love with her small family? Is this something LW might need the broader support of a therapist on (not as a matter of urgency/crisis, but as something to shine a little extra love and light on over the years)? Are there other ways that LW can intentionaly expand her sense of family–perhaps to include friends or others in the community–both around the holidays in general?

    The holidays are so often a pain point in our lives, and I sometimes wish they wouldn’t happen, or at least that our tone/dialogue around them would change (hence, why I’m spending time here on APW!). That said, it’s been really important for me to find peace and active pleasure in the holidays: mostly by doubling down on the love that is there, wherever and with whomever it can be found. While that’s often just in our tiny home of two or–rather than with immediate family–in the broader context of friends, neighbors, community service, etc., I’ve learned that love–even love around the holidays–can be warm and sparkly in all shapes, sizes, and forms of expression.

    • planthead

      This is so thoughtful and well-composed, thank you. The holidays are wrought with a lot of emotion, both positive and negative. My dad’s initial response to me asking ‘what’s the plan’ really took me aback, but I’m glad we’ll all be together. I’m also super lucky that my wife has a big family, and I get the chance to bask in that glow, too.

    • that’s a good point about “Tiny Family Syndrome.” i’m an only child while my partner’s family is huge and overwhelming, so maybe LW is concerned about her partner’s family overshadowing hers (with gifts, etc.) in her kids’ lives. i have a tiny baby this year and i haven’t had this concern yet, but that’s because we live a lot closer to my parents, and my kid, who is their first grandchild, is already very close to them, presents or no presents.

  • Her Lindsayship

    This post just totally awakened my dormant/buried-under-stress holiday cheer. I enjoy giving gifts but it’s definitely not my primary love language, so sometimes the frenzy to check off the gift list overwhelms the sentiment behind it.

    • Morgan D

      Yes! To indulge in gifts without it becoming a burden, we do a variation on Secret Santa. Everyone draws a name around Thanksgiving, and then we email out our wishlists in a big thread, listing specific items or even links to items we’d like ($30 or less total). Everyone gets something they truly wanted, knows they’re giving something that’s wanted, and the total price per person stays low.

      That said, my favorite Christmas ever involved zero gift-giving! We hid away with friends, cooking and drinking wine in PJs all day! …Well, almost all day. There was also a Sparkle Party (in which we dressed up in sparkly things and danced, because why not) and a trip to see “Homo for the Holidays” (which everyone in Seattle should see! It’s a super queer/sex positive, rights-aware performance, guaranteed for both laughs and compassion-building :) ).

  • Vanessa

    This is just such an excellent response.

  • Nora Turner

    Cancel Christmas vs. no gifts is completely different. I don’t expect gifts from my grandparents and enjoy getting them some small things. They enjoy watching us open gifts and spend time with each other. My father and grandfather would never let me buy gifts on their behalf and I wouldn’t make them. My dad doesn’t like to receive gifts at all but he enjoys (sometimes) being there for the holidays.

  • lamarsh

    A few years ago, my grandma literally emptied the contents of a junk drawer into a box, wrapped it up, and gave it to me for Christmas. This was not even the weirdest gift someone in my immediate family has received over the years (I’m looking at you sweater that smelled like moth balls). But I never once thought she didn’t love me, I just understood that she hates throwing things away and definitely does not express her love through gifts. I completely agree with Liz that this is such an important lesson to learn!

    And, for what it’s worth, my love language is gifts and I am pretty materialistic myself, so learning to laugh all this off did not come naturally to me.

    • RisaPlata

      I feel like you could write a book about this story (or maybe an article for APW/The Compact?) and I would want to read it. Because as someone who has been disappointed by Christmas before… you win. And I want to know about your journey to learning to laugh it off.

      • lamarsh

        Well, twenty plus years of setting low expectations certainly did not hurt. The best was when she called and asked if I liked it. I was like, I am fine to be your pass-through to the garbage because you can’t throw things away, but please don’t ask me to pretend this was a good gift.

        • Jessica

          Wow.

    • Jessica

      We did a gift-game thing one year, and my grandma got one of those pan inserts so when you make brownies all of the pieces have crispy edges. My cousin really wanted it, but grandma won it and that was that.

      Until the next April when we went to a fundraiser grandma helped organize, and we saw the pan insert in the silent auction. We weren’t sure at first if it was donated by her, but then she came over and said “Do you recognize this??” And we all felt like crap because grandma sold the present one of her grandchildren had gotten her.

      My mom had A Conversation with her about it.

      • lamarsh

        Ah, love that she deliberately drew attention to it. That is a move both my grandmas would be proud of.

        • Jessica

          Do you grandmas also give excellent back handed compliments? Like:
          “I think these cupcakes are so good, I bet [aunt] made them!”
          “Grandma, I made those.”
          “You did??? But they’re so good, I didn’t think you could ever make something so good!”

          Or telling my cousin that she was surprised at how well her house was decorated.

          Or congratulating someone on their new job, then saying she just needs a man in her life and she’ll be complete.

          • NolaJael

            My grandmother once very casually said, “NoalJael’s the smart one and [my cousin] is the nice one.” Never had two people been simultaneously more insulted by a supposed compliment.

          • sofar

            I miss my grandma terribly, but I’ll never forget the time I walked downstairs, all ready for homecoming, and she said, “Well … is THAT how they’re wearing their hair these days?”

            Thanks, grandma.

          • Annie

            There’s a family theory that the Arrested Development show runner must have met my grandmother at some point and developed the character “Lucille” shortly thereafter.

            Grandmas can be brutal. :p

          • lamarsh

            My grandma isn’t a fan of backhanded so much as brutally honest. When she found out we were planning to have our wedding a year and a half after getting engaged, instead of the summer immediately following our winter engagement, she wrote me an email to say, “I’ve heard this is your plan. Please reconsider. Grandpa and I are in good health now, but you never know what can happen and we might not make it till 2017.”

            Good times.

      • laddibugg

        Those pans are awesome!
        I make brownies AND mac and cheese in them (I like the edges on most foods lol)

        • Meg

          whoa I prefer fudgy brownies so never saw the appeal but for mac and cheese? that’s a whole other story.

          • laddibugg

            I do it for the edges, but it’s great because everyone can get their own portions without cutting. My mother has used the pan to make meatloaf!

    • planthead

      This all sounds familiar. What I didn’t mention in the original post was that I usually hate the gifts my dad gives me! But gifts must be up there on my ‘love languages’, because somehow I still value the experience.

    • My step dad is very into giving gifts as a love language, but is very much about quantity over quality. He’s much prouder of giving me a random collection of DVDs he got at the pound shop than he would be over a single carefully considered movie. I’ve struggled with how to accept it, because I definitely have gifts as a sort of mid level love language but there’s nuance within that. Interestingly, my main love language is acts of service, which is entirely due to my stepdad because he was always telling us growing up that the best way to express our love for mum was to empty the dishwasher or hoover the living room.

      • Yes, I’ve had to learn to adapt how I buy gifts for a family member because I’ve realized she seems to much prefer opening multiple small gifts to one nicer gift. (And she gives gifts in the same style.)

  • NolaJael

    Many families open some or all presents on Christmas Eve or early Christmas morning before friends and family arrives. I think this would be a fine solution that still allows the immediate family to sit in a circle opening presents but doesn’t subject the grandfather to an awkward one-sided exchange.

  • NolaJael

    I wish LW had explained more about her partner’s family’s situation. That would seem to be an obvious direction to look if she’s seeking that big family feeling. Expecting her own father to make or break her Christmas gift giving traditions is a lot of pressure on both of them.

  • Kyla

    My extended family always did a white elephant exchange (and actually brought junk from around the house!) it was super fun and didn’t cost much of anything. This year we are doing it “white elephant” exchange with everyone’s favorite treat and the recipe to go with it! I highly recommend doing it because it’s a fun game, everyone can joke around and “fight over” stupid stuff and there is zero stress!

    • “I Don’t Knowww, Margo!”

      We do one with items from the dollar store- it costs everyone a buck, and provides a good hour of hilarity!

    • Danielle

      I honestly love this kind of white elephant exchange; it’s the funniest thing ever!

      Amy Sedaris has a funny part in her hospitality book “I Like You” in which she shares her unique party custom: putting used shampoo, household cleaners, etc in a box, and making guests take one before they leave and paying her a quarter. We did this at one party awhile ago and it’s just so silly :)

      NB: I am not a Gifts person (for my love languages).

  • Gaby

    Does anyone have a link to a love language quiz they liked? The ones I’ve looked at basically seem like they just directly ask you which of the five is your favorite. -__- That’s what I’m trying to figure out!

    • Call Me Penny

      We did the original one, it should be one of the first results if you google ‘5 love languages quiz’ I think.

  • a few

    So, devil’s advocate here… let’s assume these kids are 1-1.5 years old (added twin baby boys to the family late last year). How much does a 1 year old really care about gifts? Not much! They would rather spend time with their grandfather and play some ‘games’ (i.e. build towers and knock them down, play with trucks, etc.) They are not going to care about a white elephant exchange, or gifts that came from a thrift store vs. a toy store. So, this is more of a parents and family dynamics issue then ‘about the kids’ (unless they adopted 5 & 6 year old kids. In which case, they probably will just be happy with any small gifts and spending time with their ‘new’ family.) It is also about the parents not wanting to have no gifts from grandpa for the forseable future!

  • S

    Definitely need more clarity here regarding whether Grandpa will be at the LWs house over the entire Christmas period, effectively negating any chance to just do the whole Christmas presents thing when he’s not around/before he arrives, and also exactly what he means by ‘cancelling Christmas.’ The idea of one grandparent just not wanting to give or receive gifts doesn’t seem in and of itself big deal – unless he lives with you or will be there being weird or negative about your family gift exchange or making his non-participation very Known, or unless this whole cancelling Christmas thing goes way further than presents. If his idea of cancelling the holiday means pretending it doesn’t exist (which sounds like it might be the case, as a coping mechanism around feeling wounded pride about not being able to contribute financially) then this is a whole different kettle of fish because baking cookies and looking at lights is off the table until you address with your Dad. Personally, if someone was completely anti-everything Christmas and wanted you to follow suit, then I’d just un-invite them for that year, lovingly and with an explanation. “I love you and want you here but the holidays are important to us as a family, even if they’re not important to you – if you’re going to be negative and whiney just because we put on Home Alone, this isn’t going to work for us OR you.”(I mean, maybe phrased a bit more sensitively.) But maybe it’s just about the presents? Again, need more clarity.

  • planthead

    Hi all – I’m fessing up to being the OP. I really love the perspective from all of you – in honest truth, this is what I was hoping for when I submitted my question (thank you Liz & APW for thinking it might resonate with others). I thought I might offer a few clarifying points to address some questions.
    – My family typically celebrates Christmas on Christmas Eve (since I was young). My wife’s family celebrates mostly on Christmas day, and so we go to her parents house. Both families are local, and we are very fortunate in that respect. Wife’s family is large, and I get a lot of Big Family Christmas there. <3
    – The twins are 16 months.
    – I love the puzzle idea: this is a big one in my late-mom's family, and could be nice to bring back that tradition.
    – I admit to taking on responsibility for my dad's emotional welfare after my mom died. The holidays expose raw and rough emotional leftovers from my mom's death. No doubt.

    Kidding and sarcasm aside, I truly believe that time spent with family is what makes the holidays special, and I am lucky to have a loving and supportive family.

    • planthead

      Also, I love the discussion about love languages. Mine apparently is quality time, so go figure.

    • MC

      Just want to say I really sympathize with this – I totally took on responsibility for my dad’s emotional welfare when my parents divorced 15 years ago. It was only in the last few years, after beginning to navigate holidays with my partner & his family, that I realized it and started to set healthier expectations for my relationship with my dad. It is HARD.

    • Eenie

      To give you perspective, I never spent Christmas with my living grandmother but she always sent $50 for my mom to buy a gift for us. I would have rather had her there.

  • Staria

    I have to disagree with ‘gifts aren’t about love’. All I think when I read these kind of questions and answers is, Ah yes – gifts ARE about love for some of us. If you aren’t a gifts-as-love-language person, just imagine how you’d feel if your loved one said Hey, this Christmas – I’m really tired, I’m not going to do any chores. Or I’m feeling over hugs so I’m not going to hug you. Or, Christmas isn’t really about spending time together, it’s about relaxing and doing what you want. Or how about, You don’t need me to tell you I love you, do you? Punch to the gut, right? It’s not about the actual gift. It’s about the fact that someone took the time to think of something you would like and get it. It doesn’t have to be bought. It can be flowers picked from the garden, it could be jam you made. Anyone on a very low budget can find some way to show ‘I thought of you’. I really like the idea of shopping with Granddad or doing a little craft session together. Gifts matter to some people and when I hear that sad ‘I shouldn’t care about this, right?’, I hear a person who wants to feel thought of and considered.

    • Booknerd

      Totally agree!! Giving and getting gifts is a very important way of how my family of origin expressed love, so if that were to stop it would feel very cold. Whereas we aren’t big on words, so for me to not say “Hey mom and dad, love you lots” wouldn’t even register to them

      • Staria

        Yep – it’s as much about the giving as well, I love picking things out for people. We aren’t a verbally expressive family. My dad can’t say he loves me – he just can’t. He gives me vegetables from his garden instead – that’s how you know Italian Dad loves you!!!

    • MrsRalphWaldo

      THIS! Gifts are my love language, but not my husbands which can get a little dicey. He shows his love through physical touch and affection, while I surprise him with small, thoughtful gifts. Both of us have had to work on setting expectations and communicating what we need to feel loved and fulfilled. I think the examples you give here help to give a lot of perspective!

  • Lmba

    My experience is that kids don’t really have a strong sense of who gave what gift (and that this has some deeper meaning) until at least age three, more likely four. This is especially true if you don’t explicitly emphasize any specific ‘rules’ of how Christmas works. I think LW can breathe easy with 16-month-olds, and shelve this issue until at least next year.

    Also, Grandpa gets to decide whether he gives gifts and, to a lesser degree, whether he receives them. It’s not possible to ensure that kids feel equally loved from all relatives. As LW is concerned about this, I think the suggestion to find another way of facilitating grandpa/babies bonding is sensible and will achieve the desired goal.

    Side note: as a parent, there are so many times that I have had to say, “please no more gifts.” The piles of toys become a burden rather easily; your dad’s stance may be something you are totally on board with down the road. :)

  • AJ

    I don’t know how weird your family is, but my BFF and I started a tradition when we were broke college students of competing to see who could get each other the weirdest gift for the least amount of money. It’s a tradition we’ve continued even though we’re now grownups with real jobs that pay money, and it’s one of my favorite things about the holiday. This year I got her earrings with Kevin Spacey’s face on them, and a complete set of “women throwing shade at men in historical art” dishes, grand total: $23.

    I wonder if this time of transitions (new babies and semi-retirement) might be a good time for starting a new tradition with your dad where the focus is creativity and thoughtfulness, not the number or quality of the gifts.

    • JC

      I was really hoping to start this tradition with my boyfriend’s brother. The first Christmas gift he bought me was a kid’s craft kit to make my own yarn puppies. The next year, I bought him molds to fry eggs in the shape of a duck. I think we’re moving toward more conventional gifts now, but it is so fun to shop for cheap but weird things.

      • AJ

        Haha, those are awesome gifts! I think you should double down and go even weirder this year. Rage against the dying of the light!

  • NotMotherTheresa

    Seriously, these are babies/toddlers here. Nevermind the whole equating gifts with love issue, they are not going to care what Grandpa did or didn’t get them for another couple of years!
    Honestly, I know it sucks. My parents never have recovered from the ’08 recession. This means that for almost 8 years now, the once massive piles of Ralph Lauren and Patagonia that we used to find under the tree have been replaced by a couple of thrift store finds per person. And yeah, obviously a part of me misses us being that fabulously consumeristic upper middle class family that always had the coolest stuff and the most extravagant Christmases, because getting cool stuff really is fun! But on the whole? It’s not that big of a deal at all. In fact, we’ve found ways to make fun new traditions out of it that are actually more fun than our old traditions were! Our family-wide shopping spree at The Goodwill the day before Thanksgiving is actually WAY more fun than the old tradition of fighting traffic to drive two hours to The Fancy Mall, and then proceeding to argue over whether $200 is a reasonable price for a jacket.
    Thrift store shopping sprees may not be for you, but find something that is. Consider this an opportunity to work on building new traditions that are more focused on time together, and less focused on money. You still have your other family celebrations that can be as gift focused as you want, so its’ not like the kids are going to lose out on the joy of Cool Things. However, work on making Christmas with this grandparent focused on something else.

    • Danielle

      We get my niece/nephew clothes at the used clothing store for holidays and their birthdays, because there are some really great secondhand stores around here! And that part of the family is pretty low-income and lives in a very small town without access to many stores. We’re happy to provide them with things they need but that their parents can’t easily get them :)

  • ElisabethJoanne

    Stories that may be relevant: Christmas gift-giving in my mother’s family is a big display. Not of wealth/material generosity. They just really like a huge physical pile of presents under the tree. The year my sister was almost 2, our aunt was telling our grandma (her mother) what she got our mother, father and me for Christmas. Grandma asked, “And what about the baby?” Our aunt replied, “She gets the bow.” My family thought that was great.

    The year my other sister was 3 1/2, our grandparents drove down, putting all the presents in a refrigerator box. They brought the whole box into the living room, then put the presents under the tree, so the box was empty. Christmas morning, we put the used wrapping paper into the box. My sister’s biggest smiles that Christmas were from jumping into the box with its big pile of wrapping paper. (We’re from California, so we don’t really have stories of jumping into leaves/snow.)

    So there’s some true stories about toddlers really not caring about presents.

    • laddibugg

      We have an 8 month old who has no idea what Xmas is..so I’m getting him stuff he needs. He LOVES paper, so I am wrapping stuff up just so he can go to town tearing it off.

  • Katrin

    I would like to add that unlike you, your kids don’t yet have expectations of how things are supposed to be. So grandpa just shows up for Christmas with no gifts? If that’s just how it is, it will likely be fine with them. Love is not solely expressed through gift-giving.
    Also, most kids just care about getting gifts. Who they’re given by – not so much.
    And lastly, I think it doesn’t hurt kids to be faced with these realities of life: some people don’t have money to buy gifts. Some people might not come to a celebration at all for one reason or another. That’s just life, and even if you’re a little kid, it’s important to learn that it’s not about you at all times.

  • GotMarried!

    A bit off from LW’s situation, but in our family my grandmother dementia developed to a point where she would just forget holidays/birthday/gifts. NBD for myself and my mom as we are grown adults and understand, but when the events came, my grandma would remember and then feel bad for not having remembered in the first place. So, we go through the charade of first taking her shopping, (now we do it for her completely as health has continued to decline) choose a gift and card for her to sign and give to the recipient. From here, for birthday’s etc recipient is told, there’s a gift for you hidden at grandmas place in such-and-such location so we can remind her to give it to us. For Christmas the gifts from grandma are mixed in with other family gifts.

    Long story short – sometimes, keeping up the charade is important not for the gift recipients, but for the gift “giver”.

  • Catarina

    Just chiming in to say I have a grandmother who never gave me, my brother and any of my cousins gifts because she never had much money and there are many of us. She’s the grandmother I’m closest to and it never bothered me, and doesn’t seem to have bothered my brother or my cousins either. I think most of the time kids understand these things, specially if they spend time with their grandparents doing fun stuff (my grandmother used to bake with/for us).

  • La’Marisa-Andrea

    I’m late. I think the way you manage your expectations as a grown person when your dad doesn’t have money to buy gifts is you suck it up and deal. I say this as someone who loves Christmas, who loves gifts and expects a gift to open on Christmas morning and who would be extremely upset if that didn’t happen. Husband and I had a huge fight about it one year. That being said, we’ve had years when there was zero money for gifts. Some years growing up we didn’t have gifts. One Christmas I spent in a homeless shelter. I’ve learned that Christmas is what you make it and gifts won’t make or break it no matter how important gifts are to you. This is an opportunity for you to learn that because you yourself may find yourself in a situation one day where gifts in your tiny family aren’t an option.

    Enjoy the day with your dad. Teach your kids that sometimes not getting a gift is ok. You can set the tone here with them and they don’t have to see gifts as the only measure of love if that isn’t what you teach them. And Merry Christmas!

  • Tree

    What about giving free gifts, like coupons for services for each other or free experiences to have together throughout the year? There’s often free nights at museums and art galleries, or free access days at leisure centres, etc. – your city may even have an official “free fun” type guide! Also skating, mugs of hot chocolate, sledding – all make amazing memories. Giving jars with baking ingredients or mulling spice can be a really cheap thing too, for the adults among you. Merry Christmas, may it be full of family and joy!

  • CoCo Anti-Conformity Young

    You can give a small child an avocado and they wouldn’t know the difference. They’d still be overjoyed.
    (there’s an actual video of a baby loving the heck out of his avocado gift, so I’m not just being hyperbolic lol)