Making Christmas Merry | On giving meaningful gifts

One sad effect of our give-gifts-to-everyone culture is that we often end up mindlessly buying a gift just to check it off of our list.

Because when you have a bazillion gifts to buy, you can’t possibly pour a lot of thought into each one.

When your gift-giving list is too long, odds are good that there are people on your list that you don’t know that well. And that makes it tough to give a meaningful gift even if you do have time to think about it (often extended family gifts fall under this heading, unfortunately.)

The results of this whole thing are pretty ridiculous…we stress ourselves out buying gifts for people we don’t really know, and then the person we don’t really know often ends up with a gift they don’t really want.

There’s not a lot of joy on either end of that exchange, and that makes me sad. Christmas gifts shouldn’t be like that!

Anyway, this is part of the reason I advocate paring down your gift list. Instead of buying presents just to buy presents, you’ll be able to put real thought into gifts you give.

And giving thoughtful gifts to people you know and love will bring a lot of joy to you Christmas celebration.

I think there’s one main key to giving a meaningful gift, and it’s this:

Study the gift recipient.

Hopefully the people on your gift list are people you regularly see or at least talk to, and hopefully you know them fairly well, so this shouldn’t be crazy hard. If you pay attention, you can probably figure out what would bless them.

Think about what each person enjoys.

Do they have a hobby?

Do they enjoy pampering sorts of gifts? or do they really love practical gifts?

(Don’t give a practical gift to someone who might be offended by that!)

Do they enjoy experiences more than things?

(If so, event tickets or restaurant gift certificates are great ideas.)

Pay attention when you talk to them. Have they mentioned something in conversation that you could buy for them?

Or have you noticed that they’re missing an item that would make their lives more enjoyable?

I also try to think about whether the recipient might be short on time or money, and then choose an appropriate gift.

For instance, I’ve sometimes given scrapbooks to family members who I know would enjoy owning one but who don’t have the time to make one for themselves. If your gift recipient is short on time and enjoys being served (Some people don’t. They’d rather do it themselves.), you could give the promise of a service, like help with a project or chore.

If someone is struggling financially and likes practical presents, think of a need you could help meet. Or if they don’t like practical gifts, think of a luxury they can’t usually afford.  For example, a dinner gift certificate with the promise of childcare is great for parents of young children!

And when I’m faced with buying a gift for someone who’s more well-off financially than I am, I try to think of a gift that they couldn’t buy, because people with enough money can usually buy what they really want. For example, a photo-related gift (like the photo calendars I sometimes make) is something you couldn’t just go out and buy.

Handmade gifts are often appropriate in situations like these as well. For instance, one year I gave my parents the gift of 12 months of homemade bread. Each month, I delivered a fresh loaf of different variety of bread. It wasn’t an expensive gift, but it was something that they couldn’t buy for themselves.


Do you have any tips on putting thought into the gifts you give?


Joshua’s 365 post: Written in the leaves


  1. says

    I agree! I hate it when I end up buying something for someone just because I feel like I have to and I have no idea if they’ll even use what I got them.

    Sometimes it might be worth it actually asking them what they want. I know it might take away the surprise, but for some people (like myself) they’d rather get something they really want even if it means knowing what it is before hand.

  2. says

    Ah! This post is so pertinent! Thank you for sharing! I was just talking with my husband the other day about how I really want to make Christmas gifts to our families meaningful this year. We often get caught up in spending the same amount on each person, but that makes it so much about the money that I don’t even enjoy shopping. This year I’ve started brainstorming early to come up with gifts that everyone will truly enjoy receiving! Wish me luck!

    Also, I hope your family is doing well in Sandy and that your home doesn’t have any damage.

  3. says

    Today feels so Christmassy! I’ve just finished baking gingerbread house biscuits (and photographing them – fortunately I have a pine tree in my garden and the light is great today in the UK) and the house smells yummy. Then this post pinged through! Deck the halls tra la la la la… anyhow…sorry!
    Each of my Christmas boxes is collated with the recipient in mind. That’s the point. It’s a collection of things they will like, *Ahem* I’m hoping the hand knitted scarves go down okay this year – I have purchased yarn in each persons favourite assortment of colours. Number 1 almost completed.
    Off to start the Halloween biscuits now – an egg has arrived via a friend – note to self – check fridge before starting recipes!
    Hope you Guys are all good despite Sandy?

    • Kristen says

      Yes, amazingly enough, we are! Our power never went completely out, and we didn’t have any major tree damage here either-just branches and such. And none fell on important things like our vehicles.

      • says

        Pleased to hear that! As a post was up I guessed you had power. How ironic that today my friend (who brought the egg round) had a power cut and came armed with a hairdryer to dry her girls’ hair! and there’s no ‘Force Majeure’ here! Glad all well!

      • Rebecca P says

        Glad to hear that!! I was afraid you had scheduled this post ahead of time and might be without power or have damage. I’ve been praying for you guys.

  4. cathy says

    I know that you homeschool but what are your thoughts on gifts to teachers and other services like your hair dresser garbage man. Etc?

    • Kris says

      Cathy, on some of Kristen’s previous Christmas blogs, teachers have commented on what works and doesn’t work for them–I think the general concensus has been to avoid “world’s best teacher” mugs and lean more toward gift cards. Our elementary school requests we don’t purchase a gift for the teachers but to instead purchase a toy for “Toys For Tots” which is a (statewide?) campaign to give toys to kids who otherwise wouldn’t have anything to open for Christmas. I think this is a brilliant solution! I try to write a nice card to the teachers to let them know they are appreciated.

      Since I feel like I have a relationship w/my hair dresser, I tip her extra, but I couldn’t pick out our garbage man or mailman if my life depended on it so they aren’t on my gift list.

      My mother has given gift subscriptions of magazines to my children for several years now. It doesn’t have the “wow” factor of opening a gift (she usually has them open something small, as well) but they love getting fun mail throughout the year. Just another option for a thoughtful gift for children. :)

      • BJ says

        As a first grade teacher, I would love a hand-written, home-made card from a student. Last year, I kept mine on display in my room until May–so cute. I keep those forever–and they don’t cost a thing!

    • Rebecca P says

      Cathy – My husband is a teacher, and his favorite gift is a gift card (usually in the $5-10 range), baked goods, and thoughtful notes from his students. He would never expect families to spend much. I agree that the “teacher stuff” doesn’t make for a very good gift. It all starts to sort of pile up after a while. A handwritten note or drawing in a frame, especially one telling the teacher a specific way he or she has made a difference, is probably the best gift you could ever give any teacher. I know things like that mean the world to my husband.

  5. Therese Z says

    This probably sounds too simple, but my friends and family who receive my home-canned gifts each year know that I am having a terrific time making the stuff, and I think that helps them enjoy the gift more. They know that in June or August I am already planning and cooking whatever secret thing I am making, they remind me of it, in fact, wink wink nudge nudge. Even though it’s as simple as a jar of cherry preserves or dilly beans, they know I enjoyed it and they enjoy my enjoyment. It’s not a shopping CHORE, it’s a thing I love to do.

  6. says

    I’m surprised this wasn’t mentioned, but charity gifts! For our grandparents, we like to donate to charities surrounding their communities or something that interests them. For example, my nana was a long time supporter of her local opera, so we tend to donate there or to a girl’s ranch she also used to donate to. I think for those well off, making a donation in their name to a cause they care about is supremely meaningful.

    • Valarie S. says

      We now exchange charity gifts with my parents. We started a couple of years ago when we all realized that there is literally nothing that we NEED to have, but each have charities we really, really love. It takes the emphasis off gift opening, places it more on the joy of spending the day together.

  7. Erin says

    Though the price could be a factor, culinary gifts are consumables and enjoyable. A nice olive oil, rare sea salt or specialty product. You could even repurpose jars and buy from bulk bins or in bulk. Just a thought ;)

  8. robbiekay says

    My #1 tip is to keep a running list throughout the year (seems like you made reference to this in a previous post) for people that you regularly buy for as they give indications in conversation of things that they would like (or, as you’re doing laundry and notice that they’re underthings are getting a little worn ;) ). I like to keep mine in my planner for quick access. That means you’re prepared not only for the winter holidays, but also for birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day. For example, my husband was thrilled when I got him a derby cover embossed with a flame design for his motorcycle one anniversary–“I wanted this one! How did you know?” I don’t even know what a derby cover is for, but I made note when he was commenting at the Harley shop that he wanted one! :D

    • robbiekay says

      Oh. I do know the difference between “they’re” and “their”, but you’d never know it from my comment.

  9. Brandon says

    Kinda related. Most of my extended family loves to read. One year, I did’t have much money. My solution that year was to make bookmarks for every family member. I think it was a huge success. Another year, like you mentioned, I copied some photographs from our childhood, made a collage of the pictures, put it in frames and that was the gift. It was well received by my brother and sister………….just got to put the thinking cap on and make the holidays what you want.
    Loving this series of posts ……………………..

  10. BJ says

    I have a little story: a few Christmases ago, my mom gave me a Weight Watchers cookbook. She gave it to me Xmas eve, right in front of everyone. I am quite overweight. She told me at the time that she’d run out that day to buy it. She’d spent weeks buying stuff for everyone else in the family, she said, and had just forgotten. I am sure she did not mean anything by it, but, every Xmas, I’m tempted to wrap that thing back up and give it back to her! That would be naughty, though.

    The attitude and circumstances of the giving can be even more important than the thing being given! Home-made gifts are wonderful; I keep them forever.

    • Rebecca P says

      BJ – That’s awful! You should write her an honest letter, letting her know how it made you feel. Then dump that dumb cookbook off at the closest Goodwill!!

  11. custombetty57 says

    Last Christmas my best friend gave me a really nice wooden Christmas ornament. It had my name and a picture of a reindeer engraved on it. It was super cool.

  12. Cyndie says

    I hate the obligatory gifts…I never knew they existed until one year, while visiting a family member. She was griping that so and so gave her some “Less than appreciated” gift, and now she HAD to give her something..I asked, why not just say thank you…?? You can’t do that!!..When someone buys you something you have to buy them something….I must have missed that in the rule book…Plenty of times, a coworker has presented me with a little calendar or notepad..and I’ve said..Thanks, so much…I really appreciate it…No one has cut the tires on my car yet…so it must be OK…??

  13. Cyndie says

    Last year I decided to try to provide some local services for my friends. I got several gift cards for manicures ($15)..I buy one every payday until I had the 4 I needed…so it wasn’t a big chunk at one time…they loved them!! It wasn’t so expensive that I felt the crunch…but it was a nice pampering for a friend..while keeping it local…I may do that again.

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