Wednesday, December 12, 2007

On Christmas Lists

Every early December, my (divorced) parents email me. Often my mother's subject line is "Ho ho ho." They want me to send my Christmas list so they can get their shopping done early. I have such mixed feelings about sending them these emailed inventories of my Christmas desires. When I have been terribly specific and gone for the gusto in my list-making in previous years, I've gotten some fabulous presents. A $200 orange fur-trimmed coat, for example, that I never would have bought for myself, that I still wear most winter days three years later. I have to say, that was a great Christmas.

Yet, a feeling of selfishness, guilt and pressure permeates my Christmas list wish writing. The feeling that I have to get my list of desires done first, on the list of things to do, before I start the more angelic and true-spirit-of-Christmas-y task of finding the perfect present for each person on my list. It's hard to come up with the perfect list of appropriately priced things without sounding too terribly demanding. Increasingly, too, it feels absurd to be an adult writing a Santa list. But if I get it right, maybe it will be a great Christmas again, like 2005, the year of the orange coat!

This year my parents finally started to come to their senses and told their three now grown children they would be scaling back (in line with the apparent Zeitgeist of reduced Christmas spending) and buying us just a couple of lower-cost items each, or my father's idea, to skip the orgy of present-buying and instead go on a shopping trip with us a day or two after Christmas. So my list was supposed to match the reduced budget, but I realized, this is the only occasion all year long when I think long and hard about what I need and want, and I couldn't resist emailing an unabridged version to myself, which included higher-ticket items like "Ipod Sound Dock" and "digital camera."

So is this just me? Or do Christmas lists bring up a weird tangle of conflicting emotions for other people?

Do your parents ask you for a list of the things you want for Christmas? Do you write them one? Do they buy you things on it? How many presents? I'm especially curious about the adult Christmas-list-writers out there, and how this very American (?) phenomenon plays out in your life in December.


Linda said...

My parents are deceased, so making lists for them is no longer an issue. Similarly, though, I have trouble making lists for my husband and son. I would like to think they know me well enough to come up with the perfect gift -- one more perfect that I would ever think of myself. Now is that a romantic notion or what? And if no guidance is given and they get things I'm not all that wild about, I have to fight the impulse to think they don't *really* understand me.

The bigger issue is with those gifts I have to give to family members I don't see too often, with whom I have unresolved relationship issues. It is impossible to get an adequate gift because the gift has to make up for all you can't say or do, all they didn't say or do, and a host of tangled emotions swept under the rug.

Rock Girl said...

yeah half the things on my wish list don't make it through. like the new cell damnn it!!

charlotta-love said...

When I was younger, we were like Linda...we just hoped we got something we liked. Now we make lists and give them to each other. If it's something expensive like an iPod or TV, we join forces - the person only gets one gift but it's what they really wanted.

This year I have two lists:
- those I'm buying for
- things I found that I want while shopping for others. oh, but I can't afford this. But I really like/want it. But it's out of my budget. This will be for don't have to use the budget money. Splurge. With what money?!

(a glimpse into the voices in my head) :o)

Missy B said...

Right off the bat I hate making lists for my parents without them asking for one. It says, "get me this for Christmas" and reminds me of being a little kid. I feel that is presumptuous as an adult if it is not asked for in the first place. This is my own personal opinion -- my sister did exactly that this year, and although I didn't say anything, I wouldn't have done it myself.

My mom will casually ask what me or my husband are desiring (and likewise to his mom). But, no lists are made for my parents -- my sisters and I make lists for each other, that way we receive what we really want for Christmas :D

FaceFront said...

On Thanksgiving Day, my mother instructs me (age:30) and my brothers (35,33 and 28) to leave her our Christmas list. It is horribly awkward. I usually end up offering a list of 4-5 CD or DVD titles for her to pass along to my brothers and hint towards something that I would like, but would not buy for myself (the ipod I got last year was a fruit of this labor).
I agree, it seems like we should be drawing a line, cutting the cord! But, I have to say, my brothers still seem pretty into it. So I think the spiral of awkwardness will continue to grow into our 40's.

Rob said...

1. I love how your mother uses 'ho ho ho' in the subject line. I want my Mum to do that for me.

2. Loving the site - I was writing about list making when I came across it.
Inspired idea!

3. I do sometimes make a list for parents but am careful to always make those ideas really cheap - CDs or books. Present buying in our family is easy and relaxed as a result. Though when I was about 14 I probably wasn't so impressed with this policy...

4. Having said that, even with small gifts, I do share some of Linda's feelings and am secretly hurt when I get socks instead of a new Liverpool FC calendar.

Beth said...

My parents don't ask for lists (my sis and I are 37 and 32) not even for our children (all 7 and under). But my MIL - she asks for a list and you have to be careful how much you put on it and the cost of the items. She doesn't see the list as item #1 OR item #2 OR item #3 - she pretty much buys the whole list. said...

I don't want anything anymore for xmas. Or maybe now I'm just realizing that my parents don't have much cash and I'd rather just come home and hang out with them. But my mom still demands a list. So I tell the voice in my head that wants to yell out "money!" to shut up and say something like "candles." Christmas is awkward.

frog-o-phobic said...

My brother and I are both well into the self-sufficiency years, but my parents insist upon a list, the more specific the better. They like emailed lists with catalog links, model numbers, etc. Probably as a result of this, I never ask for lists and always try to surprise people.

UltraCrepidarian said...

My internal list is not censored by price. For example, I want a ten megapixel digital SLR with a wide-angle and a portraiture/zoom lens. So that's about $900 at least, in todays zorkmids.

The list I give other people is in the "typical gift price range", of $20-$50 canadian, with most people in my circle somewhere in the middle of that list. For my sweetie and for my kids, the spending budget is higher.

I don't like the idea, in some families, of a slavish "he spent $200 so I have to spend $200". Nor do I like it when you buy somebody a $100 gift and they get you something at the dollar store. It's not the economics, it's the feeling of personal insult. For example, if someone spent $50 on wool, and a hundred hours of their time on knitting me a sweater, and I gave them in return, a $200 gift card, or even worse, four crisp fifty dollar bills, they would be right to feel insulted.

I think this gives me a new list idea. You could try it out too. Here it is: Make a list of the implicit (usually unspoken) rules for gift-giving and gift-receiving for you personally, and your family.

I think I'll try to do that myself. I'll let you know what I come up with.


Michelle said...

I don't exchange gifts for me anymore. I now am in charge of list after list of gifts that my 5 children want. I am badgered by grandparents, aunts and uncles and even cousins. I have to shop the stores looking for enough gifts to give that fit a certain price ranges and send them off to everyone. I also spend a lot of time on Amazon searching not to mention that I have begun badgering my children for more ideas.

It is quite ridiculous and I sometimes wish people could just use their imagination and choose something they think the kids would like.

AmyK said...

I married into a Christmas List family and it makes me quite uncomfortable. Each year we are expected to send our list to my Mom-in-law; At Christmas everyone acts surprised when they open their gifts - bizarre. The best part is that she also sends us her list. Why don't we just simplify even further and just give each other cash (which is really what gift cards are)? And don't get me started on gift cards!

Code name: 1% said...

My mother begins demanding our annual lists in August or so. The key to a good list is to make it ridiculously long so that you forget what you even put on it and are still surprised. I'm 30 now and that gets harder every year - if I really want something, I can get it myself.

Anonymous said...

We are in the process of training both sides of our family OUT of giving gifts. The pressure to come up with something for everyone just makes for a stressful holiday. Christmas is not about red sweaters or ipods. It's much more intangible. We love to give random gifts throughout the year and simply refuse to participate in the "list" legacy.

magnolia_mer said...

I use the trusty old Amazon wish list and tell family members to have at it. I keep a nice mix of reasonably priced books and DVDs on there. I wish my husband would go there.

Val Cox said...

loved your post! My mom still asks for a list, every year. It's silly because she's nearly 70, I'm nearly 50. Where do I even start, I'm for want of nothing, really.

Stefani said...

I too "married" into a List family. They went strictly by the list - no imagination required. The matriarch continued with gifts but the adult siblings evolved into almost 100% gift cards. Useful, practical items - but seemed sort of silly to me.

My family might have asked for suggestions, but never a list. We like to think and plan and make gifts.

Finally 3 years ago (Katrina-induced) I got both sides to go with a donation made in the recipient's name. My family includes a small gift but my SO's family does not. (Kids - all young adults now are exempt.) The past 2 years I have tailored the donation to the recipient - an organization close their heart. This year I'm making one donation in everyone's name to, an organization I admire.

Now that we're 3 years into the donation thing, I can say this is the most relaxed Christmas I've ever had. I actually feel good about the holiday, something I'd lost over the years, I'm afraid.

The Red said...

My parents always email for the list... I used to never mind making my Santa list for them, until I realized that they forward it to my 4 grandparents, my uncle, my sister, and my brother and sister-in-law. Now the whole family knows that I'm a big greedy. Now instead of just telling Santa everything I want in hopes that I'll get some of it, I have to deliberately put a few high and more low priced things on there so everyone can pick something and subsequently tell everyone else what they got me so I don't get 2.
All I asked for this year is a pony.

Kem Moseley said...

My mother to this day ask for a list of the things that I desire most.This list is comprised of high ticket Items and a few long shots. That I myself would not purchase. However I put them down, knowing that they will leverage and eliminate the other items to a level of sensible, and therefore I can get the IPOD Upgrade and My version of a Parka that you yourself will be proud of.

A light tactic I used in the good old days, and since my taste has grown tremendously, I have to apply good thinking and wise shoice.

So the list should be a mix of everything that you want, from top to bottom, high ticket to loww ticket.

I Should Probably Be Sleeping said...

I'm currently nineteen and in my second year of college. Prior to last Christmas, I was queen of Christmas lists. I carefully went through every catalog (and later, when the Internet became a source for everything ever, website) and selected items that I loved.

Now, let me preface the rest of this unnecessarily long and jumbled comment by saying that I am a HUGE fan of holidays and the traditions that surround them. I still watch the Rankin/Bass adaptation of Rudolph every year when we decorate the tree and still cry every Christmas Eve when my entire family huddles around the TV, drinks hot cocoa, and watches It's a Wonderful Life.

Since I have been at college, I have realized just how much I truly cherish these traditions that I had for so long taken for granted. I am happy just to be around family instead of cooped up in a tiny box of a dorm room with people that I do not necessarily 'love.' I haven't really made a list, per se, but I have shopped with my mother and mentioned in passing things that I might be interested in getting. I haven't really been too specific because I love to be surprised and I love that my mother knows me well enough to surprise me with something I will love. As time has passed, the monetary value of things that I want for Christmas has passed.

I don't know if that longwinded statement answered your question at all!

Clutter Chonny said...

My emailed list to my parents this year consisted of a Vespa, Monkey and new fuzzy bathrobe. This ensures that the only thing even remotely feasible for them to get is moderately priced and very much appreciated. Everyone wins. Well...except for that homeless monkey:(

Anthony Marenna said...

Sasha, because Blogger doesn't have Trackback, I can't do this properly, but I just wanted to do you the courtesy of letting you know that I used an excerpt of this post in my blog. It is a feature about your site. If you want to check it out, Living On Anon is located at . Happy holidays!

Sasha said...

This is so fascinating. . . it's the conversation that I've been craving on Christmas lists for years. I love all the stories and points of view. I do feel like this year will be a lot less stressful with reduced expectations on gifts. I pointed my sister to the post, now I just have to show my parents. My sister wonders if our 20 year old brother is getting the short end of the stick (fewer presents) while we enjoyed them throughout our twenties and early thirties. Or maybe he'll actually benefit, and will grow up to be a little less greedy than us!

Sarah said...

I've been struggling with this, too! My MIL has sent several emails asking for lists. And my husband refuses to respond. ("We have everything we need/want," he says. "We don't need any more stuff.") At first, I was just going to talk to her about gift ideas at Thanksgiving. And then she didn't show up. How can I email a wish list to a woman I feel I hardly know and never see?

Anonymous said...

We don't celebrate Christmas around here, but it is still the season of gifts. My parents, a few weeks prior to the day, ask me what I would like to get. The thing does not usually involve a list of any sort but the one I try to make for myself in order to answer their question. For the last few years I have been highly unsuccessful at this. I have found myself answering: "there is nothing I want." Indeed, after careful consideration I arrive at the understanding that I have virtually everything I need and that I have lost my passion for trinckets, jewlery etc etc. Holiday blues perhaps? I cannot say. In the end, i just ask for books, because one cannot read or own enough.

Gypsy Jane said...

Giving a list to someone who asks what you want isn't greedy or selfish, it's very very helpful. Every year I beg and plead for wishlists. Some of my giftees keep lists on Amazon, others are more difficult. I don't have a lot of money and I really want to get people something they'll like. To me, the obvious thing to do is ask what they want. You're gonna get a gift, please help me get you something you like and not waste my money on something you'll be re-gifting and glad to get rid of. My honey is the absolute worst to get for - he never even knows what he wants and if he does, he goes and gets it. I cannot train him to hint properly.

Lindy said...

The older I get, the more uncomfortable I become with writing out Christmas list. It seems so materialistic. To me, Christmas is more about bringing joy to the people you love rather than buying them a fancy gift. Because of that belief, I've started making gifts for family members rather than buying them. Not knicknacky stuff, but things I really work hard on that I think they'll actually use. For example, this year I made a hickory cribbage board for my dad and rag quilt throws for the rest of my family members.

If I do shopping at all, it's either for my husband (we try to figure out things for each other that we would both enjoy having) or fun smaller things that I see which someone has mentioned really wanting/liking but weren't on their "gift lists". Some of the most fun gifts are the ones that come out of the blue but show that the person really considered what fits your personality.

As for gift cards...I've decided that I'm swearing off of them for Christmas. What's the point? A gift card doesn't say "I thought long and hard about something that would make you feel cared for." And if you have NO idea what the person would like, why are you getting them a gift?

Thanks for this post, it put into words the half-formed ideas surrounding gift giving that have been bothering me this season!

Like a lot of other people, the hardest people for me to shop for are the family members that I don't like or talk to. How am I suppose to know what they would really enjoy if I don't even talk to them? And why are we obligated to get gifts for these people just by virtue of them being from the same bloodline? One year I got some really lame card stationary with a big 'L' on the front from my aunt and uncle that I haven't seen in over 10 years...why bother?

A Beautiful Mind said...

Ah yes, I am 26, my husband is 27, our siblings are 19,20, and 26 and we are all still writing out Christmas lists for the parents. My husband and I type ours up in email and send it to each of the mothers so that we don't have to write it out multiple times or make up different lists for each of them because they can just email it back and forth checking off/erasing/crossing out what they have purchased.
I always have trouble with Christmas lists, birthday lists, and gift lists. I much prefer giving. I also find that I am fortunate enough not to want for much and have a personality/character that does not tend toward the materialistic so... My lists now tend toward the practical (socks, underwear, spices (I love to cook)) In the past i have also asked that donations be made to various charities instead, but everyone looks at me weird and refuses my requests. I am thinking next year I might ask for donations toward a volunteer tourism trip somewhere.
Part of me still thinks it IS kind of fun to write out the list though. It is not nearly as extravagant as when I was a child, but in someways it puts me into the spirit of the season and reawakens my child-like wonder.
Our siblings don't enjoy making the lists and are always dropping hits that we should start having babies so that the focus is off of the adult children and instead on the grand-babies. Despite their urging, this won't be happening for at least 2 years.

Anonymous said...

OMG, I have to show this to my wife. We have been married four years (we're both 32) and she hates my family's tradition of passing around lists. We've actually had two fights on it so far. I prefer lists because I enjoy shopping for my brother and my parents, esp. when I know I am getting something they want. If I went gungho to a store and tried to randomly buy things for my mom, I know I wouldn't succeed, and the same with my wife as she is very hard to shop for. Why should my parents guess and buy me clothes I won't wear? I'd rather provide a list and get CDs/DVDs/clothes that I *do* want. I also don't go crazy with items, my max $ is usually $100 for an item.

I stick to a budget for everyone except my wife, and my parents definitely get me more than what I spend on them, but they're just happy to spend the day together.

This was a great blog post, very timely and I'm glad I found it. I'm also happy to see that I am not alone, because my wife was emphatic in saying, "You are the only family that does this." Nope!

Grinchy said...

Fellow list makers, there is another type of xmas list: The annual list of gifts and cards given and received. Just this morning, I was reviewing the past 13 years worth of these, noting friends and family who have come and gone as well as the success of my ruthless campaign to put an end to xmas gift giving (and cards, esp those with not even a personal signature. I have stopped granting them a place on the list of record).

It takes nerves of steel to receive a gift from coworkers and the boss and reciprocate with only a thank you note.

This morning I was reminded that I have purchased one (1) gift so far this year and even for the Grinchy me, I'd better get out in the freezing rain and get on it. Two gifts to charity were made from comfort of computer, the preferred anti-gift, gift strategy.

To the direct question, my father noted he would be preparing meatballs and shrimp for xmas eve and asked about my list "for Santa." Coincidentially, meatballs and shrimp were the only two items on it! Ho, ho, ho!

Crev said...

@ Lindy: are gift cards really that thoughtless? I think it depends on the recipient. I personally loooove to shop, so I'm happiest if someone gives me a gift card. It's like two gifts in one: the actual dollar amount, and the shopping outing! (whee!) But I wouldn't get one for my bf, who hates to shop--then it really would be thoughtless.

That being said, I wish I could get my family to downscale Xmas a little--either in total money spent or by number of gifts! I keep trying, every year...but then my parents love the whole pile-o-presents thing, and isn't it kind of un-Christmasy to deny that to them?

Poor_Statue said...

My family does not do lists. We barely do gifts at all. I also keep an Amazon wishlist and would be quite thrilled if someone used it.

Last year I posted a Christmas wishlist on my blog and my sister ended up giving me almost everything on it for my birthday in March. This sister is pretty much the only person I exchange gifts with, and the one person I actually enjoy the exchange with.

fallen tree said...

my Mom's become more adamant about the whole list thing now that I'm an adult. ... perhaps in response to my reduced interest in the whole materialistic Christmas adventure. At 25, I don't really see the point of getting a whole pile of presents. Yes, it is fun to unwrap things, but I don't need all the stuff. And frankly, I still have a box of it on my bedroom floor right now.

While I respect the whole "get-something-for-each-other" thing we do at Christmas, I don't really like having to recognize how terribly selfish I am by writing up a list of wants. And my mom, thankfully, is recognizing that. She, in fact has tried to spearhead (for a few years now) a pull-a-name-out-of-the-hat kind of Christmas gift-giving adventure for our family instead of the blanket gifting that leaves us university students a little low on cashflow, unfortunately, my aunt will have nothing to do with this.

So, alas, we are stuck writing lists. I try to keep things small - books, cds, dvds - and only give the really big things (like nice sweaters, or indulgent bathrobes) in a list to my Mom, knowing she'll do with it as she wants, regardless.

SilverMoon Dragon said...

I am the last of 7 children, between us we have 15 children of our own. We used to keep a binder at my mother's house with a page for everyone's lists, which we were all expected to keep updated throughout the year to be used for xmas and birthdays.

Nowdays we all live a bit further from home, so I set us up a wiki at and had everybody get an account. Now everybody keeps their list updated online, and it also has handy things like favourite colours, clothing sizes, and favourite bands or hobbies. So even if we can't afford the list items (my optimistic 14yo niece has a laptop - can be secondhand! - on her list) we can guage enough about what that person likes to find something that suits.

We also only buy for the children at xmas, the grown ups buy one $100 present that is for one couple from the rest of the family. So everyone gets one nice big ticket item instead of 7 crummy pairs of socks.