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how we do christmas gifts in our family

    Last year we tried something different with our gift-giving.

    Usually, we call Christmas an excuse to buy our kids a whole load of things they want and things we want them to have. We don’t go completely overboard, but with four kids and a handful of gifts each, our tree is usually overflowing with festively-wrapped presents. Christmas morning is a whirl of torn paper and squeals of delight and new clothes tossed to the side – because, who am I kidding – no six year old boy cares about a new tshirt.

    We have really great kids who are {mostly} kind and thoughtful.

    But they are not always grateful.

    I don’t blame them; it’s hard to be grateful when you have no idea what it means to do without.

    Jami wrote about it so beautifully and convicting-ly a few years ago after Christmas. I remember laying in bed reading her post and just crying because even though she was writing about her family, she was writing about mine, too.

    We are spoiled beyond measure and yet we still want more.

    So, last year, we gave something new a try with the hope that by reducing the number of presents, we would be more grateful for ones we received.

    Here’s what we did: each of the kids woke on Christmas morning to four gifts under the tree.

    We prepped the kids ahead of time, created wish lists and they seemed surprisingly excited about the idea.

    The most difficult part, I will readily admit, was the restraint it took me in my gift-purchasing. I love buying things for my kids. There are a million fun gifts they would be happy to open but this system forced us to be intentional – only buying four things for each child.

    Last Christmas morning was the best we’ve ever had. Without fail, every single present was opened with wide smiles and excited oohs and ahhs. Each of the kids received four gifts that were thought-out and purposeful and they were grateful.

    We’re doing the four gifts again this year. No modifications. The kids just wrote out their wish lists with multiple items for each category. Ryan and I will choose from the list or come up with a special gift on our own. We don’t really pay close attention to spending equally on each child, but we do try to give items that will make them equally excited.

    To be fair, I must admit that our kids receive more than four gifts for christmas. Between grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts & uncles and cousins, they open plenty of gifts. I’m sure you could ask your family members to refrain from gift-giving to keep the gifts at four total, but some people {like my mom} find such joy in giving gifts that we didn’t want to take that away.

    If you’re wanting to try something new, simplify and be intentional about your gift-giving this year, this system might be great for you.

     To get you started, print out this fun printable for your little ones to jot down their wish lists.


    And then if you want to label your gifts, feel free to use these tags.


    To download the files, I invite you to join our library of freebies, templates and digital files.archive-free-access

    It’s our best way to organize all of the favorite downloads and make it easier for you to find and access them. Simply click on the image above to join.


    Any other questions about how we do gifts? Let’s chat …

    47 thoughts on “how we do christmas gifts in our family”

    1. This idea is so inspiring for me. Thank you for sharing your heart so authentically with the rest of us. It’s quite brave of you! Following your lead, Im planning to implement this with my kids this year (ages are just three and one). I can be so minimalist that this will actually be an increase of gifts for my kids, but the intentionality is perfect and beautiful. I knew the increase in gifts would happen at some point so this system gives me good parameters with wonderful intention. For me, the structure is good. I’m looking forward to a simple, meaningful Christmas.

    2. We have 6 children, and we started doing 3 gifts each about 3 years ago when we were re-thinking the whole Christmas materialism, where-is-Jesus-in-all-of-this, thing. The wise men brought Jesus 3 gifts at his birth, so we settled on 3 gifts. With 6 children, this is still a lot of gifts! But being intentional has been great. But what has been even more awesome is that my kids give gifts to each other — they are responsible for purchasing or making them on their own, with their own resources and money. It is this that has made the biggest difference in the gift-giving in our home and causes the greatest excitement and thankfulness.

    3. I remember you all doing this last year but don’t remember hearing about how it turned out so I’m excited to learn that it was such a success. I don’t have children of my own (yet, anyway, but fingers crossed for the future) but I love this idea.

      We do a secret Santa style gift exchange with my extended family (siblings, siblings-in-law, parents, etc.) where each person gives and receives one larger gift (or a collection of smaller gifts) rather than getting something small for every person. Like you said, it’s really helped us be intentional about gift giving and is fun to go around in a circle on Christmas Eve and each take a turn opening our things and oohing and ahhing over others’.

    4. Hi Emily.

      Wanted to take the time to drop you a note about how much positivity you bring into our lives through your blog. I have really enjoyed your posts about gift giving, gratitude and simplifying. Your children are very blessed to have you as their mother. Thank you for continuing to share your view with us!

    5. I love this! I was raised with a similar Christmas event. Sometimes we would only get one gift but I never expected more and had wonderful Christmas memories. I came from a big family and we all just shared our gifts! Birthdays were a bigger gift giving place, Christmas was about family and Jesus. We also always got something for each person in the family – it was usually a craft we made but it made giving more exciting than receiving!

      I love the four gifts you outlined and I would LOVE to do that with my family when I have littles. Right now my husband and I just get one gift for each other and focus more on giving gifts and serving in our community.

    6. I really do love this idea! We’ve spent the last several Christmas’ buying very few items for each other. Since my daughter is 2 she doesn’t have any expectations. Her birthday is in November so she already gets a lot of gifts this time of the year.

      I will say it is hard to tame other family members. My mom is great and only buys a few well thought gifts. My mother-in-law loves to shop and buys so much for all the kids. It’s fun but a little crazy!!!!


    7. This is such a great idea! We also have several sets of grandparents, aunts, and uncles that go crazy with the Christmas presents. This will be a great way to give our two kiddos some meaningful gifts and hopefully, teach them gratitude as well.

    8. Quick question – how do you handle the siblings giving gifts to each other? My husband and I limit what we give the kids to something they want and something to wear + santa brings 1 special toy because the rest of the family goes overboard (only grandchildren); but I really want my kids (5, 3 and one on the way) to thoughtfully give to each other. Right now I help them with one small project and select an ornament for their sibling represnting a milestone in the past year, but am curious how others have evolved this as their children get older and families grow.

    9. Thank you for this post. We’ve been doing something similar for the last few years except that we usually do three gifts from mom and dad (a special book, a fun toy and clothes or shoes) and then a Santa gift. When stockings, grandparents and aunts and uncles are factored in, it still feels like a lot, but it’s still toned down from a few years ago. It also forces me to be more thoughtful and purposeful with my gifts for them.

    10. Thank you for the “wish list” printable! I LOVE this idea and fully intend to implement it with my children – we’ve already been keeping Christmas lower-key and mine are only 6 & 4 so the “wish list” idea has kinda been over their head… but I saw my 6 year old paying close attention to her 16 year old cousins growing wish list as she poured over the black Friday papers on Thanksgiving evening… so I think that’s about to change! I think we’ll implement this idea for birthdays too!

      Also – I don’t comment often, but I read your posts each day in my email and I’m thankful for your voice in the blogosphere – you bring a great perspective to my day – sometimes making me laugh, often making me think and inspiring me in some way. So thank you.

    11. We have done this for several years and it is my kids’ favorite part of our Christmas celebration. We have been in a place lately where we need to really scale back our holiday and this was the part that all three of them, HANDS DOWN, wanted to keep! Love it!

    12. We do this too! I love it! It actually gives me a great framework to shop by. Sadly, I can’t always think of things my kids “need”. They aren’t really spoiled (we have 9 kids – kinda hard to be spoiled) but we live in a culture of plenty…all the time! In the “something to wear” category I put together a sweet outfit and a cute accessory for the girls and similar idea for the boys so they’re not just opening a shirt, etc. (not that anything is wrong with “just” a shirt – i didn’t mean that) :/ It’s really fun picking out the books too that fit each child’s personality. We try to get special books and not books that they get throughout the year. My children pick names and buy eachother gifts also as well as plenty from grandparents and cousins so the 4 gift thing from mom and dad is perfect for us!

      1. To you and anyone else with kids ages 6 and over (we have 4 – 2 girls 14 and soon to be 12 and 2 boys 9.5 and 6.5 yrs old) We too want to scale back and get rid of the clutter etc, non-sense more or less. As far as we know all 4 of them STILL believe, so how do you scale back “Santa”? I am thinking the older girls will find out this year via friends or the bus ride to school that “he” isn’t real, if so hoping they take us aside and ask us and not do it in front of the boys. I really like the 4 gifts idea but again how do you explain it to the kids? I was thinking of sending the wish lists to them via the mail and a letter from “Santa” explaining the new concept to them? Any ideas anyone?

    13. We started the four gifts tradition last year and love it too! It’s helps us be more intentional with gift giving but still keeps things special for our kids. We also love working with the kids on something to give to others. This year we helped them put together Operation Christmas Child shoe boxes and loved it.

    14. Thank you so much for the printables. We too have started this, minus the something to wear which seems to get spread to other categories. We do it with the intent that the kids will actually be able to name what they received the day after Christmas because they. The added benefit for me has been the reduction in the amount of stress Christmas causes. The kids love it and so do I. Emily, I would love to hear how you would handle this situation. My sister always insists that we put a limit on how much we spend on each other, but I truly don’t care about the monetary value of the gift. It is so much fun to get her something she wants and needs regardless of the price. Is there a way to handle this, or do I need to simply respect her wishes?

      1. Hello! I love the idea of minimal gifts. Maybe your sister wants limits on prices because she doesn’t want to spend too much? Maybe it is her way of removing the pressure? I have a similar problem. I’d love it if our family just did a name-drawn gift exchange because it makes the gift more precious and because my family really struggles financially. They actually don’t like the idea because it doesn’t seem like one gift is enough and they want to buy something for everyone, not just one person. I hold no hard feelings at all. But I wish we could downsize.

    15. Emily, I woke up thinking about this today! We started this with our kids last year, inspired by your and Jami’s posts from last year. It worked out great…the kids were happy with their gifts, and my husband and I felt less pressure to buy them everything they wanted (and not go overboard with buying them everything we wanted to get them!) This reinforces what we hope to instill in our kids…to be grateful for all we have…there are so many people in this world who have so little. And most importantly, to focus on what Christmas is really about — celebrating Jesus, family, friends and giving of ourselves to others. I hope you and your family have a wonderful Christmas! Oh, and thank you for the great printable tags and wish lists! :)

    16. We’ve done this for several years now- I was so relieved to take the financial pressure away and this is perfect. I absolutely love it! The only difference is that usually our kids have a complete “winter wardrobe” by Christmas, so we’ve swapped that to “Something to do” rather than “wear”. We’ve always chosen gifts that encourage their creativity or DO something- legos, blocks, eraser making kit, jewelry kits, paint-your-own, things like that. So there’s a thought… :)

    17. Emily, our family has been doing this since our children were in elementary school (they are in their 20’s now). It sort of evolved one year after seeing family members and friends go hog wild buying everything in sight for their children and then seeing my own children toss aside the toys after a few weeks. We also made them go through their toys and give one to charity for every new toy that they received from either us or grandparents. My husband and I, even though we can afford to buy them almost anything, set a monetary limit as well. It is not easy to look at a teenager who knows you can afford to buy anything they want, asking why their friends (whose parents really couldn’t afford it) were getting PlayStations, iPods, Uggs, etc. and it was a struggle to explain it to them. But they get it now! They understand the season is not all about them and even though we still give them gifts, we don’t go crazy and instead the four of us spend our time/money on Toys for Tots, sponsoring a Christmas for a family in need, donating to the local food shelf, helping low income Senior Citizens and working at a homeless shelter.

    18. I wanted to implement this last year after reading about it on your blog, but it was so late in the month and gifts were already purchased. I’m looking VERY forward to it this year, we did add in a gift from Santa so they will receive 5 gifts and their stocking — but it’s such a nice feeling to not have to stress, but it is hard to resist the buying temptation!!!

    19. We started this last year as well after I read your post about it. I loved it! Made shopping easier and the kids really enjoyed the gifts they received. My kids still get one gift from Santa as well as the 4 from us. This year we did one gift from Santa that will be for all three boys. We spend less and we’re more thoughtful in the gifts we give. We also like to focus on Christ and remind the boys each day that we need to be giving gifts to Jesus this season by doing service for others. I love how this has helped simplify our Christmas and has made the more important things center.

    20. We started doing this last year, and it’s been wonderful! We always had an especially difficult time because my little guy’s birthday is January 4th so I had trouble spreading presents out and making sure he didn’t get TOO much stuff at once … now with another one due two days after Christmas I know this gift giving philosophy will help us out a ton with budgeting!

      As far as the Santa thing goes (I saw several others were asking about it) – we have Santa fill the stockings. Last year my little guy’s “want” was a new bike … that was from Santa as well.

    21. Love this idea. I was thinking of implementing this or three gifts in honor of the three gifts from the three wise men. The one that is stumping me is something you need…what are some examples of what you’ve given in this category? Thanks!

        1. Perfect – this is helpful. That’s where I was struggling…they don’t necessarily need anything and typically we’ve bought things they need out of necessity as the snow starts flying. I like the umbrella idea. Thanks again!

          1. Our need gifts are thing like art supplies, a blank journal and this year a bike. My 8 year old how out grown his old one and it was not on his want list so we are using that as his need gift

    22. Yes, I was wondering the same thing as Sarah… My 4 and 7 year olds still whole-heartedly believe in Santa. Did you have to do any explaining when you made this switch last year?

      1. Santa is part of our christmas, but for some reason the kids don’t notice or care that the gifts are not from him. We leave cookies & milk out for santa, and maybe say that he fills the stockings, but it is just sort of a non-issue. You could do one santa gift if that worked better for your family. We don’t put the gifts out until the kids are in bed on christmas eve, so the excitement of a happy tree with happy gifts distracts them, I guess.

    23. That sounds like such a cool idea emily! And a great way to keep Christmas from getting way out of hand with 4 kiddos. I just have a question…. how do you do Santa with just 4 gifts? Are all 4 gifts from “Santa” or are 3 of them from Santa and 1 special one from you? Or maybe yall don’t do Santa at all… Just wondering. I dont have kids of my own yet, but I’d like to keep this idea in mind for when I do and just start them on it :)

    24. Ever since I first heard about this idea…I think it might have been from you…I’ve kept it in mind. We also have a lot of family who buy our kids way too much. I honestly felt sick after we came home and brought in all of the presents last year. It just felt wrong.

      This year I’m only buying my kids a few things (being 1 and 4, they don’t have any expectations) and I’ve tried to politely tell family not to go crazy – although my mom is impossible to tame. :)

      I kind of talked about my philosophy for quality over quantity too, here.

    25. We tried this last year and loved it! I hadn’t ever thought about I, but we perpetuate their ungrateful mess with the sheer volume of stuff we buy them. This is a great system that we will continue. This year, I’m adding one category: something to give. Each child will receive a specified amount of money to spend on someone in need. We’ll help them research the possibilities (buying a gift or two for a child who doesn’t have much, buying food and delivering it to a homeless shelter, shopping in the Compassion catalog where they could help needy people in another country like contributing to a water well that would provide clean drinking water, buying a goat or a chicken that would help supply food for a family, or buying a bicycle that would provide transportation for a family so they can get to work.) I think this will be really meaningful and will open their eyes to how most of the world lives, and by extension, how rich a life they live.
      Thanks for the great idea and for the printables, Emily!

    26. We are starting this tradition this year, though it has been tough. Not for my kids they are only 4, 2 and 1, but for me; because *I* truly enjoy giving. Not just buying a gift and giving, but taking the time to look and think and find something I know will bring a smile to their faces. So I am trying to start the five gift plan (we add one more in there from Santa), but I already feel my self wanting to get them more….hopefully I can re-evaluate and pick the most special things and return a few others. Wish me luck!

    27. We do this too, but I have to admit struggling with guilt. Our family isn’t like yours in that we don’t have gifting from anyone else, except my elderly in-laws, who give the kids each a gift card. So it feels a bit bare under the tree sometimes. However, you are right, about the gratitude. I definitely see a difference in the attitudes. This year, I messed with my kids. They don’t even know if they are getting anything…haha. That way when they get their four very intentional gifts, they will be so excited.

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