While I'm away, readers give the advice.
On people who seem to shut down around holidays:
Many people suffer from holiday depression. My husband had early memories of his parents screaming at each other. Until we talked this out, he had difficulty celebrating.
— Been There
One December when I was in high school, our house burned down, my mother was already hospitalized, my father worked in a different city, and my grandmother, who was burned in the fire, died a few days later.
As an adult I would become very depressed around Thanksgiving and not know why until I talked it over with some friends. I realized I'd internalized all that pain and my body/mind recalled it like clockwork every year. Now I write myself a note in my new annual datebook to make preparations, as I know it's coming, and I no longer endure the gray holidays like I used to.
In the house I grew up in, holidays meant parents who would overindulge in alcohol and get very nasty in front of five children. Thanksgiving was hardest for me as a young adult because those memories didn't involve trees, music or gifts — just drunk parents going at it.
My first joyful Thanksgiving was at age 27 when I was stationed in Europe with the Air Force and spent the holiday skiing in Switzerland. I learned holidays can be fun without turkey and stuffing (or drunk parents).
On taking the gaaaahhhh out of gift-giving:
It's a GIFT. If you give someone something and expect something in return, then it isn't gifting — it's a swap or trade. People give gifts because they want to make the other person happy. Expecting reciprocity is petty and dilutes the generosity of the giver.
In addition, the recipient is within their rights to do (practically) anything with gifts they receive. If I gave someone an expensive, hand-carved teak diorama and they said, "Thanks, this will make great kindling for my next weenie roast!" I now know that: (1) They like hot dogs; (2) They have a barbecue or firepit; and (3) A good future gift might be some wax-dipped pinecones or a bundle of fatwood with a nice bow.
If people want to make a business transaction out of this, they should give gifts and consider the smile on the recipient's face to be payment in full.
On loved ones who deluge your kids with stuff on holidays, whether you want them to or not:
I would discuss with the kids the idea of moving the immediate family's gift-giving to a time you all choose together. They might like having a different day with presents and it would be a way to step away [from the excess]. June 25 could work. In fact, a general discussion with kids about the problem and ways to deal with it could help.
Ask for the gift of memories for your children. Have the relative pay for tickets for the whole family to do wonderful things like "The Nutcracker" at Christmas or a day at the zoo in the summer. A movie on a rainy Saturday or a visit to the Arboretum on a pretty day. These are all pricey, which helps the givers' need to prove their love by spending, and the parents should have a lot fewer things to donate.
A lot of you suggested going the experience-gift route. Some other useful examples: lessons (swimming, tennis, music, etc., all typically expensive); memberships to museums; bookstore gift cards; family trips. And, charity: "Suggest [they] use the money to help an animal shelter or homeless shelter, with the kids accompanying to 'jointly' make the donations."
Maybe the materially minded could deposit the money in college savings accounts? It would be a way for relatives to channel their love and financial means into the future. I'm 25, using money my grandmother set aside for me at childhood holidays to pay for graduate school now; meanwhile, sadly, I've forgotten a lot of the toys & gifts she gave to me years ago.
In my experience, shoppers gonna shop, but if your letter converts even one stuff-buyer into a 529-stuffer, you're my hero. Maybe this is the trick:
My husband and I discussed the issue with my generously over-giving parents, and we came up with a wonderful solution. My parents would give the kids a small toy along with a check toward future education. As the kids got older the toy changed into a book or another age-appropriate item. The kids never missed the hordes of presents, and were most grateful when those college years began.