I Was the Grinch: Making Simple Holidays Work for Your Family

How the Grinch Stole Christmas“But we agreed not to exchange presents this year.”

It happened to me: I was the family Grinch who didn’t want to exchange presents. I was home from college for the holidays and had convinced my parents to skip the gifts. The extended family was on board – or so I thought – until we arrived at my grandparents’ house a few hours before dinner to spend time with the family.

They’d changed their minds about the presents.

And hadn’t told us.

So the whole family sat down to open presents. There were gifts for everybody, from everybody – except us. And I don’t need to tell you that accepting gifts without having anything to offer in return can feel pretty awkward.

When you hear about simplifying the holidays, this is probably the scene you’re envisioning, and why you think it’ll never work for your family. But it’s now been a few years, and my family has created a more relaxing holiday season. Learn from my mistake so you can have simpler holidays without feeling like the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

Don’t Go Cold Turkey


My sister and I comparing stocking sizes to see whose had more goodies.

Ease into simpler holidays. Try starting with just your nuclear family, or just one side of the extended family. Or try out one of the gifting styles below, taking a step back from Maximum Presents. Let the process of making new holiday traditions be organic – it might take a few holiday seasons to work out all the kinks, but it will be worth it in the end.

Before you cut the cord on presents and parties, talk it through with your family so they understand why you want to simplify. “Simplifying the holidays” might sound threatening when you first broach the subject because everyone has something about the holidays they love best. Figure out what aspects of the holidays are really special to you and your family.

My family’s now settled on one big present per person and Christmas morning stockings filled with snacks and treats from all over the world (we each pick out a bunch of goodies at World Market). We skipped the tree one year, but my mom missed the Christmas smell, so now she makes a beautiful garland in the living room. My extended family opts in for presents, so they open gifts before we arrive.

Find the Style that Fits Each Family

Each family group – your extended family, your partner’s extended family, your I-think-we-shared-an-aunt-100-years-ago extended family, your adopted ‘family’ of friends – will feel comfortable with a different style of holiday gift-giving. Some might not be OK with changing the holidays at all, some might be open to a compromise, and some might be thrilled that finally someone else was brave enough to bring it up.

Here are some different styles of gifting that might work for your family:

  • Agree to consumable presents for adults, like homemade treats and wine.
  • Set a spending cap on presents.
  • Drop the surprise – ask people exactly what they want so you can be sure you only get them something they’ll really like.
  • Arrange a Secret Santa or Yankee Swap gift exchange, so everyone only needs to bring one present. Or if your family is more casual, make it a White Elephant gift exchange instead so you don’t need to buy anything.
  • Give experiences instead of stuff. Or try blended presents of a small material gift to accompany a larger gift of an experience – say, a stuffed animal along with the promise of a trip to the zoo.
  • Ask for only homemade or second-hand gifts.
  • Exchange donations to charitable groups.
  • Opt in for presents – the family members who really love giving and receiving gifts can do an exchange.
  • Give presents to kids only, and skip the gift exchange with adults.

If your family has difficulty adjusting, take a deep breath and remind yourself that they just want to show you that they love you. You can find a compromise that will make your family happy and let you simplify the holidays so you are happy too.