Carolyn Hax: Consider reasons for brother's holiday choice before judging

December 8, 2013 

Carolyn: I'm pretty annoyed and appalled at my brother, "Ted," and his wife, "Lisa," regarding Christmas and I'm wondering how to approach them.

On our side of the family there are four siblings (including Ted) and five nieces and nephews. Three years ago, we decided that the Christmas gift exchange had gotten to be too much so we agreed that gifts among the siblings and grandparents would only be given to the children. It worked beautifully and everyone had a blast (we thought) watching the kids with their toys.

Last week, Ted informed me that he and Lisa are bowing out of the afternoon gift exchange and will only show for dinner in the evening because, as the only childless couple, they're "not really a part of it." Meaning, because they don't get any presents they're not going to give any!

I was shocked at such stinginess considering that, even though none of us is hurting for money, they're by far the wealthiest.

It hurts even more considering the fact that they provide a veritable waterfall of presents for Lisa's goddaughter and every year they buy a ton of toys for the "giving tree" at their church!

My sister and I don't know how to explain to our kids that their uncle and aunt don't think enough of them to buy them a little Christmas present. As oldest, I've been elected to talk to Ted about this and I'm looking for help in presenting to Ted how bad this makes him look to the rest of the family and how to get him to reconsider.

SCROOGE'S SIBLING

Yikes. You might be a lovely person and protective parent, but I struggle to think of a worse message, or worse spokesperson to deliver it.

You want to "get him" to reconsider? How is it possibly your place to tell your brother how he should spend his money and to whom he should give his gifts? And it's inconceivable to me that you'd hit upon "their uncle and aunt don't think enough of" the kids, and then quit your search on the spot for any other possible explanation.

I get that it looks bad for Ted and Lisa to opt out of gifts for kids, and create the appearance of stomping off because there's nothing in this for them. Maybe yours is the accurate read.

But it's neither the only possibility nor a persuasive one to me. If Ted and Lisa have long been the nonparents at child-centric family events, then their choice might be a coping mechanism for them, not a slap to your kids - especially if they want to be parents but keep hitting obstacles.

Maybe, too, they never enjoyed the kid frenzy and prefer seeing their nieces and nephews one family at a time.

Consider this one also: With four siblings and grandparents, plural, among the adults, all affluent, and with only five kids receiving gifts, and with a family precedent of gift-giving run amok, it's not hard for me to whomp up a mental image of Christmas day excess.

You did cut back, yes, but not for the kids - and please know this is from a parent who loves her children fiercely and gets vicarious joy from watching them open a wanted gift: Watching kids rip through a pile of material things can tip from joyful to repulsive quickly, when lovingly chosen gems get devalued by sheer excess.

Whether your pared-down Christmas is still "too much," and whether Ted and Lisa are put off by that, and whether they opted out for that reason, I obviously can't say. Again, it's just one possibility. But their focus on charity hints at it, right? And could it be that Lisa's goddaughter doesn't have six-plus financially comfortable gift-oriented adults in her corner, allowing Ted and Lisa to feel they're filling a need versus feeding a beast?

I suggest other motivations to get you thinking, but they're academic. If I were Ted, I'd be "pretty annoyed and appalled" if an elected family representative presumed to tell me how to spend my money, and showed such righteous disrespect for my choices. Even if he's being cheap and childish in opting out, your trespassing in his business is worse.

Most of all, I'd wonder why you approached me solely to extract gifts, and not to understand my reasoning and find another way to include me. So I'll ask you: Why? Don't say boo to Ted until you fill in that blank.

And for the love of molded plastic, say nothing to your kids except this, and only if they ask: "Uncle Ted is focusing on the needy — good for him. Why don't we shop for the 'giving tree' too?"

Email tellme@washpost.com. Chat online at 10 a.m. Fridays at www.washingtonpost.com.

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