I Have a Huge Family—Here’s How We Do Holiday Presents Without Going Broke

published Nov 27, 2020
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There’s a lot to love about having a big family, from the number of jokes you share with your cousins to the endless amount of useful advice you can learn from your aunts and uncles. But securing gifts for everyone each holiday season can quickly be a strain on time, money, resources, or all three—even if you opt to create DIY holiday gifts.

To solve this problem, my family has long played a game of Secret Santa, which we have since begun calling Family Santa to make the tradition feel more intimate. The benefits are endless: Not only do we usually get a chance to put thought into a gift for someone different from the year before, but we definitely save money in the long run. (A combined 24 people participate in my family’s swap—just imagine what the gifting dilemma would look like if we didn’t!)

Here are the ground rules to make the practice work for your family this year—and maybe even help you start a new tradition in the process:

Who participates in Family Santa?

Because this tradition is specific to my mom and her two sisters, that means anyone directly related to them is roped in. (In my family, that means their parents, their spouses, and their children—i.e., me, my siblings, and my cousins.) Younger cousins and small children, like my cousin’s daughter, are exempt. The general rule is, you join the tradition once you turn 18, or if you have an after-school job—whichever comes first.

What is the price limit?

Normally, my family sets the limit at $50, though you and your loved ones can certainly decide that you’d rather spend $20 or $30 max if you’d like. The point is to make sure the gift-giving tradition is affordable for everyone— and our unspoken rule is to not get mad if someone spends under the maximum limit. As the saying goes, it’s the thought that counts!

How do you keep track of who buys each person’s present?

In past years, my family would draw names at our Thanksgiving dinner with the promise that the next time we’d all be together was during Christmas. (Smaller children would be tasked with drawing names for people who weren’t in attendance, and letting them know who they were responsible for via text.) This year, however, we’re using Elfster, which generates Secret Santa assignments and helps organizes recipients’ wish lists for easy referral. You can also use a spreadsheet to randomize names in a list, and pair people off that way.

Can you still buy presents for people who aren’t your assigned family member?

Yep! The point is to take the pressure off of buying presents for everyone if you don’t have the means to, but most people buy presents for their immediate family members in addition to their assigned person—and almost everyone buys toys or other gifts for the very small children, if we can. (Plus, if you see a gift that you simply know is perfect for a certain member of your family outside of those groups, you’re welcome to buy it if you’d like.)

When do you exchange presents?

Historically, my family would gather around the tree and wait until midnight on Christmas to dive into our shared gifts. We’d also open all the Secret Santa gifts then, and try to guess who the giver is—it would always create a huge laugh, no matter how accurate or off-base we were.

This year, we’re mailing presents through the mail to adhere to social distancing guideline, even if we live with the person whose name we drew. Doing so keeps a bit of suspense to the process because the recipient can’t immediately rule out everyone they don’t live—and who doesn’t like to receive mail?