I hate gift cards, and other holiday complaints

On the subject of gift giving, I’ve been as ornery as the Abominable Snowman this month. As you may have guessed from my last three posts—holiday gift guides for men, women, and kids—I love shopping for presents. I like thinking about the person’s passions and choosing a gift that not only says, “I appreciate you,” but also “ I get you.”

It’s not always easy to do, especially when you have a lot of people on your list. But when I think of holidays, I remember– from toddler to teen years– my parents making the holidays chock full of special surprises. As I wrote last year, I celebrated both Christmas and Hannukah growing up.

Our tradition—which started when we were young and believed in Santa—was to wake up Christmas morning with most of our gifts displayed, unwrapped around that delicious-smelling, glittering Spruce tree.

Christmas 1977 on carpoolcandy.com

That year I got a Shaun Cassidy album and poster, a dollhouse, and a Snoopy bank.

We’d squeal in delight as we rushed from one gift to another as our exhausted parents (up all night putting together toys and drinking eggnog) smiled with satisfaction.

I’ll never forget the dollhouse my parents decorated and rehabbed (as if it was for sale)– with individually glued parquet floors, accessories (including lamps with shades made of toothpaste covers,) and electricity.

Christmas 1977 on carpoolcandy.com

Christmas 1977


As we got older, the wonder didn’t stop. One year, after begging for my own phone line for months, my parents told me unequivocally no…and then wrapped up a box filled with business cards that read “Brooke E. Schon/Kid” with a phone number. When I dialed the number, I heard a phone ringing behind the couch and ran to it like it was a long-lost lover.

That was the gift precedent sent in my house: imaginative, personal, and full of surprise.

Modern holidays for my kids are a far cry from those days of yore. We’re raising our kids Jewish so we celebrate Hannukah, which creates pressure to spread the wonder out over eight nights.

Ninety percent of the items on my kids’ wish lists were gift cards—for Nike.com, local restaurants, and sports stores—which are about as thrilling as reindeer poop.

I usually ignore most of the lists and try to come up with things I think they’ll like. I keep notes in my phone every time they say they want something during the year, and I dig around on the internet for original ideas that will appeal.

But the lists are the word of God, as far as the grandparents are concerned.

They are all lovely, caring, generous people, don’t get me wrong. But when it comes to buying gifts, they seem singularly obsessed with getting the kids EXACTLY what they want.

I’m not sure what the fear is here. Are they worried what will happen if the kids are disappointed? Perhaps it’s fear they’ll be dropped from the boys’ texting favorites list or shut out completely?!

As a result, they email and call me mercilessly until they nail down a gift they KNOW the kids will like. When I offer off-list suggestions, (or write a gift guide for kids!) they can’t quite commit.

This year, after I didn’t answer my mother’s inquiries quickly enough, she starting texting Jacob directly about what size NFL jersey she should get for each boy. He actually asked his brothers for details and sizes, so he blew the surprise for them too.

When I called her on it, she felt badly but I’m not positive she won’t do it again!

“Remember the time I got them that air hockey table you suggested that was stuck in the basement corner and they only played with it a few times?” she asked accusingly. (a. not true, they played with it plenty b. where else would it go but a corner in the basement?! c. at least it was a fun idea they were not expecting!)

Where’s the whimsy? Where’s the mystery and joy of the holiday?

Hannukah present on carpoolcandy.com

Our front hall bench houses all the presents during Hannukah week. The boys shake the boxes and manhandle the gift bags, wondering aloud if this is the video game Uncle Jon said he was getting, or the jersey Nan promised to buy. It’s not whether they’ll get these things, but which box they are in.


Many of the relatives settled on gift cards. Gift cards are not fun to wrap or open, and most get spent and forgotten instantly. They turn the delight of giving into a business transaction.

I refuse to grant Jacob the gift cards on his list at the bagel and Chinese places in town. Two Taylor ham and egg sandwiches and sesame chicken just don’t scream stocking stuffer to me.

I know it’s difficult to come up with fresh ideas as the kids get older but there are other options. What about experiences? Time in the batting cages, tickets to a basketball game, or go-cart racing? Google “gifts for kids who like animals,” and get a bunch of options.

It’s a risk to guess at what the kids might like, I get that. But when the risk pays off, it’s sweet.


eli pillow

I found a plush battery-powered pillow for Eli on Amazon that lights up and changes colors. It was random and inexpensive, but soft and fun in the dark when he has trouble falling asleep. He loved it.

I’ll get down from my soap box now, and hope I don’t sound ungrateful for relatives who want to spend money to make my kids happy at this time of year.

I’d just love my kids to look back on their childhood holidays with nostalgia– as I do–  and look forward to every year, knowing it will be filled with unexpected bounty.

Are your holidays full of surprises? Tell me in the comments!









5 responses to “I hate gift cards, and other holiday complaints

  1. What really bothers me about holiday gift giving between adults is that it has turned into buying friends and family things that they would buy themselves–not what might surprise and delight them in the spirit of the season. It is like you’ve become someone’s personal shopper for the season. When I decline to tell someone what I want, instead preferring they get me what they think I’d like, it is as if I’m being difficult–somehow making more work for them!

  2. Online shopping is the way to go Thea! Thanks for reading. Merry Christmas! xo

  3. the grandparents in my family drive me nuts with gift suggestion inquiries too. It drives me nuts. I can barely think of good gift ideas for ME to give to my kids…..how I am supposed to come up with suggestions for them too?????!!!!! Bah humbug.

  4. yes, you are so right, but I am getting to old to fight the crowds. It is a nightmare to go shopping! Thea