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Family Gift Giving Traditions Are Sometimes Better Than the Gifts

  • The Sullivan Family

    Photo courtesy of Erin Sullivan

    Erin Sullivan's Family

    Making Gift Cards Memorable

    Almost the entire Sullivan family lives in or around Franklinville, N.J., so big family gatherings are a signature of every holiday. When Erin Sullivan joined the family, it was expanding exponentially, with weddings and babies galore. By 2015, it just seemed a hassle to find gifts for every person that wouldn’t be either wasteful or too expensive. But the Sullivans didn’t want to default to exchanging gift cards. So, Erin’s aunt came up with a plan.

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    “Everyone over 16, probably 20 people, had to get a gift card and find a way to display it,” Erin said. “Some would put it into picture frames and make it sentimental, or put it under a Christmas tree made from Keurig K-cups.” In a large, competitive family, the game quickly became a contest to craft the most creative display. When Christmastime came around, it became a different kind of contest entirely.

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    “The first year we drew numbers to see who could pick gifts first, but that wasn’t enough,” Erin said. “So after that, we added rules to make it harder. We had a game, with alphabet pasta, where you had to make as many words as possible with the noodles in a set amount of time, and whoever made the first words got to pick their gift card first.” Erin said that the first card displays to go are usually the ones paired with wine or beauty products. And the least appealing? “Our nephew put his gift card in chocolate frosting, so it looked like the poop emoji,” she said. “No one wanted to try and get that one out.”

  • The Mandel Family in 1979

    Photo courtesy of Steve Mandel

    Lisa Mandel's Family

    A Twist on White Elephant

    Growing up in Sherman Oaks, California, Lisa’s family put a literal spin on White Elephant gifting. “We’re Jewish, so we’d use the dreidel to determine who got what,” Lisa said. “If it landed on a certain letter, you would either pick a new gift or steal from someone.”

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    Even though gifts were exchanged, Lisa’s family didn’t focus on what they were giving and receiving. In fact, no one knew what they were getting until the game was over—no one unwrapped their gifts until everyone had a present. “You could only imagine what was inside the box, so sometimes it was something cool, or you’d unwrap an extravagant box and inside would be a pencil from my uncle’s medical practice,” Lisa explained. “Often something would show up year after year, because we’d recycle whatever didn’t get used or re-gifted the year before.” During the game, kids and adults alike would tease one another about what gifts they’d picked, or how they’d wrapped presents. “It involved every generation of our family,” said Lisa. And don’t worry—after the game, the kids would get some real presents, too.

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  • Grandma Hattie Yakubek in her wedding photos

    Grandma Hattie/Photo courtesy of Aleshia Fessel

    Aleshia Fessel's Family

    Helping Those in Need

    In Aleshia Fessel’s family, every holiday season is different. Sometimes, it’s a traditional Christmas; other years, it’s all goofy prank gifts. And one year, when it seemed everyone was having a particularly hard time finding thoughtful presents, Aleshia’s Ohio-based family agreed to give to charity instead.

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    “Each person would take the money they’d usually spend on a gift, and instead give to a charity they knew would be meaningful to that person,” Aleshia said. A cousin who is an animal trainer, for example, received a letter from the animal shelter in her hometown declaring a donation on her behalf.

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    The most meaningful exchange of this nature happened five years ago, shortly after the death of Aleshia’s grandmother, Hattie. “It hit my mom really hard,” Aleshia explained, “and I decided to donate to the hospice where my grandmother had died. A few of us went in on it together, and when my mom saw the letter, saying ‘Donation on behalf of Hattie,’ she got really emotional.” Aleshia knows there will come a time when her family gives to charity in lieu of gifts again. In fact, her friends are jumping on the bandwagon, too. “My friend and I both love cats, so instead of gifts, we give to cat charities,” she said. “And it doesn’t have to be limited to Christmas.”

  • Photo courtesy of Troy Farah

    Heather Farah's Family

    The Ultimate Family Gag Gift

    Heather Farah and her husband, Paul, were at a yard sale shortly before their foster daughter’s third birthday, when Paul picked up the ugliest plush tiger either of them had ever seen.

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    “He said, ‘How about this?’ and I said ‘That’s so ugly it would scare her!’” Heather laughed. “So he bought it for me instead.” Paul surprised Heather with the ugly tiger on their anniversary in 2002, and in the years since, it’s been gifted on birthdays, graduations and wedding days to the Farahs and their eight children. The tiger grows even more ridiculous with every occasion: when one of the children gave Paul the tiger for Father’s Day, he added a mustache; when Paul and Heather’s son got married on Leap Day 2016, they gave the tiger a veil, and presented it to their new daughter-in-law. “You know you’re going to get it, but you always kind of forget,” Heather said.

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    Heather chalks up her children’s success to “having weird parents.” With three biological and five foster kids, the Phoenix, Arizona-based Farahs tried to be creative every single holiday. Along with exchanging the tiger on special occasions, at Christmastime they’d also hold a musical chair-style gift exchange. Heather would wrap books, boxes of cereal or Christmas ornaments, and her children would swap the wrapped presents to the tune of Christmas carols. Then, after unwrapping each gift, they would determine who it was really meant for, with some guidance from Paul and Heather.

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