“My Sister’s Family Doesn’t Give Us Enough Gifts”

For several years we have gathered at my sister’s house on the other side of the state to celebrate Christmas for a few days. We always let her know a month prior to the event whether or not we can attend. Generally, everyone is in good humor and gets along well.

The highlight of the weekend consists of opening gifts, each taking turns, oldest to youngest, one by one. With my sister’s four children and spouses, twelve grandchildren, and various in-laws, this takes several hours. My husband and I earn our livings from making and selling handcrafted wood items and we often make what we consider nice gifts for everyone involved.

The thing is, we only get one or two token gifts (a Christmas ornament or scented soap) and are left to watch others open their gifts for the rest of the afternoon – which leaves us sad and wondering: Do they not like us? Are they secretly upset at receiving “handmade” gifts? Are they inviting us out of obligation? We have not complained, but honestly, at the risk of sounding greedy, the giving of gifts is a measure of what others think about you, and I find sitting through everyone’s thoughtful gifts for everyone EXCEPT us disheartening.

One year we gently encouraged them to open gifts without us (yes, including the ones we brought) as we were tired from our long drive and would join them for dinner, only to find them eagerly waiting for us so we could watch them open gifts. Last year we had the excuse of not attending due to having a sick dog, who has since died.

It is also an expensive trip for us.

Should we make another excuse this year? Should I risk becoming the estranged sister by mentioning my feelings?
— The Redheaded Step-Child (not really but I feel like one).

Absolutely do not mention your feelings of not liking the gifts you receive from your sister’s family. It would be tacky. And that’s your grievance, right? That by asking you to sit and watch the whole family open gifts, of which you feel you do not get enough thoughtful ones, your family is being tacky and inconsideration. It sounds like you find gifts, above all else, to be a measure of what people think of you — not that you are included in the holiday festivities or hosted (and, I’m assuming, fed, maybe housed, entertained) for several days, but the gifts. And, obviously, if you are thinking about this already, in middle of September, when you aren’t expected to give an answer about your plans for more than two months, this is clearly something weighing on your mind. That you count your sick dog as an “excuse” for skipping the trip last year and you are fretting about the expense of the trip this year suggests that you’d be happier not going. You don’t have to go!

The thing is, it’s quite possible that you HAVE been invited out of a sense of obligation. Or maybe your sister’s kids and grandkids and various in-laws don’t really know you well enough to select thoughtful non-token like gifts for you. Maybe with twelve children in the family, not to mention the, what, 10+ additional adults at the event, people are tapped out on shopping and gift-giving and it’s all they can do to purchase some nice soap for the aunt who lives on the other side of the state whom they don’t see a whole lot and for whom they just don’t know what else might fit a like or need.

Honestly, I think you’re taking this whole gift thing way too seriously. You’re not going to get better/more thoughtful gifts than you have been getting, period. It’s not a reflection on whether people like you so much as it is a reflection maybe on your extended family not knowing your tastes well enough to know what you’d like or need or people prioritizing gifts for the twelve kids or their own siblings and parents. You can’t bring up your hurt feelings about your token gifts without sounding like a tactless ingrate.

If it’s so boring sitting through hours and hours of opening gifts — and that does sound pretty boring, arrive the day after Christmas. Tell your sister that you love seeing her and her family but have decided to enjoy a quiet Christmas Day at home and ask if it would be ok to join later in the weekend for a day or two. If you’d prefer just skipping the whole shebang — especially since you call the boring, hours-long gift exchange “the highlight” of the weekend, that’s ok, too. I really don’t think you need an excuse — a simple “We decided to have a quiet holiday at home this year” will suffice.

If your sister presses, you can say you want to avoid holiday traffic and travel expenses going into the new year but look forward to meeting up with her at another time. Regardless, in lieu of making everyone individual wood crafts, a kind gesture might be sending a food item for everyone to enjoy on Christmas Day, like one of those tins of gourmet popcorn to snack on during the gift exchange, so they know you were thinking of them – while you enjoy anything other than watching twelve kids, four sets of parents, a set of grandparents, and various in-laws open gifts for hours on end.

Related: “My In-Laws are Crashing Our Christmas” and “Do We Have to Keep Giving Gifts To My In-Laws?”


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If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy​(AT)​dearwendy.com.


  1. Bittergaymark says:

    Honestly? For me to truly assess this — I would have to see the gifts you and your husband make….

    1. Avatar photo Dear Wendy says:

      My thoughts on handcrafted gifts are that one is probably enough. Unless the recipients make a point of telling you how much they love said gifts and use them and look forward to receiving the same type of gift each year, they probably don’t want more than one of whatever it is you make, no matter how skilled you are or beautiful the item. I’d feel overwhelmed if I had a family member or friend who made a particular kind of thing and then I got that thing every year. One only needs so many wood items or embroideries or hand-knitted scarves, you know?

      Now, if it’s like homemade baileys or fruit-infused vodka or something, I’m happy to take more. But an actual product that won’t be consumed and I have to find a place for it? Nah, I’m good with just one.

      1. ele4phant says:

        I would assume they are in fact pretty nice, because the LW says they are how they earn their living.

        But yeah, even still, you probably only want one or two high quality wooden handcrafted items. Getting them year after year might be a bit much.

      2. Was it this site that a woman posted about gifting her art (paintings or photographs) at EVERY function that called for a gift then getting upset that people weren’t fawning over them anymore or displaying them?
        It would have been YEARS ago but as a photographer that letter always stuck with me and helped me curb expectations.

    2. The Wise Wife says:

      I cannot imagine getting one each year is a treat!

  2. There was a letter some time ago from a lady who her or her husband made paintings for everyone for birthdays and Christmas, so everyone had lots of paintings. Your craft can be wonderful but people usually only need 1. Go because you want to be around your family, any gift is a perk not a necessity. Your gift has nothing to do with their love for you. We only get gifts for children adults are on their own (except parents and grandparents).

      1. Just FYI, this person turned out to be a troll. They posted again with the same credentials but a completely different scenario (I can’t remember what it was, but no way both could be true). So, sadly, it was fake, but still entertaining.

      2. Avatar photo Dear Wendy says:

        Oh, that’s right!

    1. Sarah, I LOVE that you mentioned it. I did in the post above also! Memorable letter.

  3. Bittergaymark says:

    Exactly… it’s like I enjoy painting. I think I am “okay” at it. (Think 1960’s) modern abstracts. But I wouldn’t dream of handing out my masterpieces come Christmas.
    That said — Yeah… exactly how many fabulous handcrafted wooden gifts does anyone need to receive year after year?

    1. ele4phant says:

      I mean, if making and selling these things is how they are earning their living, I would hope they are nice enough products, given that strangers will buy them in enough quantity that they can live off the profits.

      That said, even if the quality is lovely, you don’t want the same thing, year after year. There’s only so many handcrafted high quality wooden bowls one needs.

      1. Unless your husband put yours in the dishwasher and warped it!

      2. ele4phant says:

        Okay, so maybe you need two. If your husband doesn’t learn his lesson after the first time, that’s a separate issue…

  4. If they make bowls I will take one. I have a bowl obsession. Otherwise, agree, they probably don’t want more.

    I have felt this way before at xmas. I sat there for hours with my two gift cards while everyone opened great gifts. It sucked, but then as I got older and actually had more interests they were aware of and could buy for I did actually receive nice gifts. If no one knows you well enough to shop well then you will get token gifts.

  5. ele4phant says:

    Is this about getting stuff?

    Or is it about feeling like second class citizens in your family? And/or feeling like you are putting in more love and effort than you are getting back?

    If it’s the former, you need to get over it. Christmas is about kids anyways. There are ten kids in this family – its nice they remember the adults at all.

    If its the latter, well, I do understand how that can feel emotionally wrenching to feel like you are the less-thans in your family, but you definitely don’t want to address that by focusing on the gift aspect of how that is expressed. Basically WWS.

  6. I honestly think the letter writer needs to talk to a professional about why she equates gifts to love. I have a friend who almost never gifts me at the same ‘level’ as I do (that feels gross to say) but her gifts are well thought out and meaningful. Her heart is always in them and that means more then any object.
    If LW absolutely cannot get over this might I suggest ending gift giving and ask for donations to your favorite charity instead. You’re adults, you probably don’t NEED anything, it’s all just stuff.

  7. Avatar photo Skyblossom says:

    From what you say I’m assuming that all of the other adults are receiving nice gifts. I think what you are saying is that everyone else is a member of your sister’s immediate family. They are her kids, kids spouses and her grandchildren. They have probably always given gifts within their family but don’t consider it necessary to extend that to your branch of the family. I’m thinking that they don’t consider you a member of their immediate family. You are the aunt and uncle who get invited because you have no other family.

    I’d personally dread watching them spending hours opening gifts. I would be bored. If you find it boring then skip the gift giving. Say that you have decided to have a quiet Christmas at home and that you don’t want to worry about the weather or the roads (if you live in a wintry area.) You hope to see them at a different time of the year. Then stay home and have your own Christmas where you don’t give a huge number of gifts while receiving not much of anything.

  8. Stillrunning says:

    Now I want popcorn.

    Skip the marathon gift giving session and come later.

  9. LW, I personally would ask my sister what’s up. But we talk about everything together. I would say, hey, sis, I am wondering about something. Every year at xmas we give out 20 gifts…one to each and every family member. And every year my husband and I get two gifts. What is going on? It’s not that I care about the gifts themselves. It’s that we feel excluded…like we are being treated differently than everyone else. Do you know why? Did we do something to offend someone? PS — I would not give handmade gifts every single year. Some years get everyone a candle. Or a book. Or fuzzy sock. Or whatever…but don’t always give something you made because it might not be to everyone’s taste. PPS – It might be much more fun to go visit your sister after or before the big group.

    1. I wouldn’t do this LW. It’s very tacky. It seems to me that they are all getting more gifts, because they are all immediate family and it’s their Christmas celebration. You don’t buy your aunt/ sister and uncle/brother in law the same amount of gifts you buy your kids and grand kids, and that’s a lot of gifts with 8 kids and 12 grand kids. I’m sure you have a separate celebration with just your husband where you give more and better gifts to each other than you do to this family.

      The same thing happens for my wife’s family, she has one aunt who is single and gets one gift from each of her neices and nephews and one from each her brother and sister, and then sits by and looks on as they all open their entire Christmas worth of gifts.

  10. LW, if this is more about feeling like you put a lot of thought and effort into multiple gifts and in return you receive a couple generic gifts then my suggestion is to STOP putting in so much effort and bringing so many gifts!

    Instead bring a game, something that can be given to your sister but meant for the group as a whole. It will also be something you can play together at some point during your trip and whenever they play it later in the year they’ll think of you.

    If this is more that you feel excluded (i don’t blame you) tell your sister that you realize they have such a large family but don’t want to sit through all the gift giving (or something nice and non confrontational) and ask if you can arrive later that day or even the next day, or leave the day prior, etc. You can also come up and celebrate Christmas with her the weekend before Christmas or the weekend after, etc. If being there the morning of with her large extended family watching the children open gifts is so boring and awful that it ruins your whole trip then change it up.

  11. dinoceros says:

    It sounds like you use gifts to determine how much people love you, which I think is unfair. and, to be honest, a little childish. I think most adults have gotten to a point where they either don’t put much stock in gift-giving (they can buy themselves stuff they want) or they accept that some people are not good gift givers. It’s hard to tell what your exact concern is — that you get too few gifts, that they are not “nice” enough, or they don’t seem to be meaningful. The idea that you could have all of those things come true seems very, very unlikely.

    I think you also need to consider who’s at this event. If there’s lots of kids, then they are probably going to prioritized over the adults. If there’s a lot of people that your sister has to buy for (like HAS to, as in kids, grandkids, whatever), then they aren’t going to have as much to go around. And considering a lot of the guests sound like they are spouses of your nieces/nephews and your nieces’/nephews’ in-laws, it sounds like these aren’t really the kind of people who are going to give you super nice gifts. I mean, my dad gets his nephews’ wives super generic gifts because he sees them like 3 times a year.

    Anyway, I think that you need to care less about gifts. When I go to my stepmom’s family’s, I usually have 1 gift to open (because I am not always able to go) while each other member has like 3 or 4. I’ve never felt sad for myself or mad at them for that. I just sit there and enjoy their company.

  12. You are legally entitled to bill them for the difference in gift value. Only when you have collected what is owed to you will you feel better.

  13. Turtles Game says:

    I imagined them gifting handcrafted wooden crosses. Which some people would love, but most people (even if they love them) would only want one from you.

    But yeah, just ask. Sometimes when you ask you will hear exactly what didn’t want to hear and what is your worst fear. But alteast you will know for sure and can address it!

  14. I can sort of see where the gift attitude might come from if the whole family sits around and oohs and aahs at gifts being opened, LW wouldn’t be immune to that sort of familial conditioning. Either gifts are important or they aren’t, the family really shouldn’t be treating it as such a huge occasion then ignoring a section of the same family.

    That said I would personally just opt out of what sounds like the most boring Christmas ritual on the planet and go when you’re less guaranteed to get your feelings hurt.

  15. LW, you can very well say to your sister that from now on, you will opt out of the gift exchanges. You will simply offer her something as your sister and host (a different kind of gift), and for the kids a little enveloppe with some money. Nothing else. Many adults do that, they put an end to the gift frenzy and it is fine. Gifts should be on an equal level and if it hurts your feelings, you ought to stop it. But please, as Wendy said, don’t speak of your resent. You are in an overinterpretation of a social ritual and you will be even more hurt if you start a family drama.
    Consequently, you will come only for the evening (skip the gift afternoon, which sounds so slow and materialistic, I can’t even imagine it).

  16. Wendy I think you were a little harsh with the titling of this letter. I think LW has legit concerns, and she wasn’t complaining about the gifts her family gets – simply asking for advice on how to turn down a situation that has become emotionally difficult for her/her family. You made her seem really rude and self centered, when, I bet most people in her shoes would express the same feelings. Harsh, dude!

    1. Avatar photo Dear Wendy says:

      Hmmmm: “The thing is, we only get one or two token gifts (a Christmas ornament or scented soap) and are left to watch others open their gifts for the rest of the afternoon – which leaves us sad and wondering: Do they not like us? Are they secretly upset at receiving “handmade” gifts? Are they inviting us out of obligation? We have not complained, but honestly, at the risk of sounding greedy, the giving of gifts is a measure of what others think about you, and I find sitting through everyone’s thoughtful gifts for everyone EXCEPT us disheartening.”

      I disagree with you. It does sound to me like some complaining about the kind of gifts she gets. You say she’s asking for advice on how to “turn down a situation that has become emotionally difficult for her/her family,” but the reason it has become emotionally difficult is because she doesn’t like the gifts she getting, especially in the context of so many other gifts being exchanged by other family members. The only issue she mentions having – besides the expense of the trip – is within the context of gifts. She doesn’t say anything about anyone being cruel to her, acting like they don’t want her there, or in any other way feeling unwanted or uncomfortable. The situation is “emotionally difficult” because she doesn’t think the gifts she receives reflects enough thought and care from her family members. If anyone is being harsh here, it’s probably the person who is willing to risk being estranged from her sister over some token gifts at Christmastime…

    2. ele4phant says:

      Gift giving is one of those 5 or 6 “Love languages” or whatever that pop relationship advice book came up with.

      And I do think there is something legitimate to take a look at how you are being treated to relative others (whether that be on how many gifts you get, or how often you get phone calls, or how often you get physical gestures like hugs), and notice a disparity and feel crappy because of that. I think those feelings are legitimate. I do.

      That said, I think you can feel what you feel, but you can also look rationally at the situation and think “This is a big family, I am not the center of it, and at the end of the day stuff isn’t important.”

      I actually wouldn’t discourage the LW from talking with her sister about feeling left out. But she should focus on that – and not make it about the gift part. Because I *do* think its about feeling like she is being treated differently and feeling some distance, not about the fact they are getting less great stuff.

      But it’s going to be hard to get that to come through. So focus on talking about how you feel like you are less close, why is that, what could we do to be closer, as sisters, as family.

      1. dinoceros says:

        But I think for them to compare their gifts to others’ gifts is apples and oranges. She’s going to her sister’s holiday gathering, where her sister’s kids, her sister’s grandkids, her sister’s kids spouses and their families are. I think it’s unreasonable to expect that you’re going to get as many as as good gifts as the majority of the folks there.

      2. ele4phant says:

        Definitely. Totally agree.

        But, I can understand, how emotionally, they might feel like they are being treated differently than other family, and the gifts thing is the easiest thing to point to.

        Its perhaps of a symptom of a greater cause. And I *don’t* think they should address the gifts with anyone, but if they are causing her to be me reflective of her relationship with her family, that’s not bad. And maybe she should have a conversation with her family about the distance in their relationship.

      3. @dinocers, agreed they should not expect too many gifts. But then they need not give gifts to everyone either. Giving 2 token gifts for hosts should be enough.

      4. dinoceros says:

        @saneica, Definitely. I imagine the folks getting gifts and not reciprocating are hoping they’ll stop soon, so it’ll be less awkward.

  17. TheRascal says:

    I like my family’s philosophy around the holidays. We all live in different locations –one on the west coast, one in the south, parents in the midwest, and two on the east coast. My siblings and I are all married, so there are spouses,too. Four kids amongst the siblings. Every other year, we get together. Only the kids get gifts. None of the adults. A.) Traveling is expensive B.)To us, seeing one another and hanging out is more important because we are so far away otherwise and C.) Does anyone really want to lug all those presents on an airplane (or in the trunk of a car), anyway?

    1. I have been trying since my nephews were born 3 years ago to get my husband’s family to go over to this way. But his mother is a total gifts person and loves to give and receive a ton of gifts. The Christmas before my husband and I got married his family went to a secret Santa type thing where everyone was assigned a name to get a gift for (but it didn’t have to be secret) and everyone rotated. Only then his mom got mad because he didn’t get her a gift even though she wasn’t his assigned gift-ee. Apparently that was supposed to be your “big” gift but there were still supposed to be smaller gifts. Idk, I guess my point is that there’s a lot of competing desires and expectations surrounding gifts and it tends to leave gift-y people disappointed and non-gift-y people stressed out.

      1. TheRascal says:

        I’m such a non-gift person that I can’t understand the mentality that gifts-mean-love.

        I think the reason the kids-only rule works for my family is that we all have that same mentality. And coupled with forking out hundreds — maybe even a thousand — dollars on travel, gifts for the adults doesn’t make sense, especially because the purpose of the visit is to spend time together.

        My husband’s side of the family is different, though. They are gift-givers though no one, to my knowledge, complains about the caliber of gift. His side also gives small presents, nothing fancy. Like, I received caramel sauce as one of my Christmas present from my MIL that she had picked up on a trip. It was delicious!

  18. Or, LW, you can come for the dinner only with handmade Xmas cookies for each family. No more gift: problem solved. Everybody likes such little homemade pastries. The fact is: probably nobody expects you to offer gifts anyway.

  19. LW, you know what kind of gifts to expect now so if you are going to go to this, you need to adjust your giving and expectations rather than try to adjust theirs.
    It seems reasonable to me that your sister’s extended family (like her in-laws, etc) wouldn’t want to buy gifts for you when they have a huge family of their own. So if they don’t gift you or only give you token gifts, then its time to reciprocate in kind. Same with your sister– if she gives you $10 worth of soap, don’t bring her a $80 handmade wood bowl or whatever. And with others, in many families there’s the tradition that gifts flow down i.e. the older generation gifts the younger generations a lot more than they receive in return. Even with the grown kids in my family, my parents/grandparents/aunts etc tend to give us more gifts than we give up. They’re older and richer and we are younger and have more expenses (like young children, plus this BS economy and housing market) so there is never the expectation that if my mom spends $200 on my birthday that I have to go spend $200 on hers. More like she spends $200 on me and I spend like $50 on her.
    Also, you seem totally baffled as to whether they actually like the gifts you give them but I mean… don’t you know? If you give them art they never display or items they never use or clothes they never wear then I think you’ve got your answer and maybe don’t want to accept that they don’t like your handmade stuff.
    Finally, you need to understand that not everyone views gifts the same as you do. I had a similar revelation when a friend came to visit and didn’t make any plans but then invited me last minute to dinner. I told my husband I was mad because “if she really wanted to see me, she would have planned in advance.” But not everyone thinks that way. You can choose to believe your sister doesn’t care about you because she doesn’t buy you the right type/amount of gifts, or you can choose to believe that she does care about you because she invites you to Christmas. And she can choose to believe that you don’t care about her because you gift her the same handmade mud sculptures every year, or that you DO care about her because you come to her Christmas day party.

  20. anonymousse says:

    I wouldn’t want to sit through literal hours of gift opening, either. That sounds pretty boring.

    Adjust your expectations and go with good spirits, or just simply book a weekend away. It doesn’t sound like you enjoy it, you go out of obligation. So just don’t go.

  21. Beth Hannah says:

    How much time do you spend with your sister and family outside of Christmas? Maybe people just don’t know you. And then are put off when you appear bored at the Christmas exchange.

    And some people are just odd and don’t put thought into gifts. My dad’s family is really odd about gifts and definitely makes it a competition.

    I really agree with Wendy. If you don’t want to be there, don’t go. Send some snacks for them to enjoy and do your own thing.

  22. “With my sister’s four children and spouses, twelve grandchildren, and various in-laws, this takes several hours.”

    This is a minimum of twenty people. That really is an extraordinary effort for everyone, involved. It is lovely you are willing to create such lovely gifts for all people involved. Of course the trip must be expensive for you.

    In my extended family, we all have our own friends, teachers, and kids whom we buy gifts for. I can’t imagine how costly it would become to also include uncles and aunts in addition to each sibling, parent, niece and nephew, and I’m sure your sister is probably overwhelmed with just getting things for her immediate kids.

    I suggest you embrace the “token gift” mentality and don’t spend so much time and money on people who do not wish to reciprocate the level the level of attention and effort you put into your gifts.

    Travel to see your family, only if you would enjoy it, and try not to personalize what you see as a lack of regard. It is worth remembering everyone only has so many spoons to spend, including you! Spend your time and effort in a way which doesn’t cause you to resent anybody else for their perceived lack of regard. Good luck.

  23. Anonymous says:

    I like the idea of bringing food… or anything other than wood, actually. Letter-writer should consider whether her handmade wooden objects are actually wanted, or whether they come across as a token gift — a more expensive, higher-effort version of soap. When you always get wood from the wood people, you start to wonder if they’re actually thinking about you and what you most enjoy/want in your life.

  24. Jackie Morgan says:

    I think Christmas gift-giving in general should go the way of the dodo bird, especially for adults. Or stick to gg among immediate family (ie don’t bypass your parents perhaps).
    It’s way too expensive, most adults have everything they need or want, and contributes to excessive consumerism (how many gifts are returned, regifted or just plain donated because adults have way too much crap)? I like the idea of arriving the day after or sending a lovely edible tray etc.
    And since when are gifts the meaning of Christmas? Maybe stay home and rewatcg the old How the Grinch Stole Christmas

  25. CanadaGoose says:

    Why not just opt out of the gift exchange and enjoy the rest? You can just give your sister a heads up to put the word out not to buy you guys anything because you find the gift exchange for so many people overwhelming or something. Let them know you can’t wait to see everyone and take part in the rest of the holiday (offer bringing food etc) but that during the gift exchange the two of you are going on a walk, or to volunteer at a soup kitchen (only if you do that) or what-have-you. Frankly, people might be relieved not to have to feign excitement at yet another wooden doohickey, as nice as it might be. We have a big family and stopped adult gifting once there were a bunch of kids and then we stopped giving kids gifts too. We all just had too much stuff, can buy what we need, it’s too much work shopping for so many people, and that isn’t what Christmas should be about (for us). It made Christmas so much better.

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