Most Memorable Family Gift Exchange

This is the story of how two home bloggers have created the most memorable family gift exchange. They share a new alternative of family holiday gifting. They have chosen gifting activities and the resulting memories over traditional gifts in our families.

Gifting an experience

I’m Wendy, of If you’re new here, Welcome! If you’re a regular, thanks so much for being back with me today. I am excited to have a special blogging buddy, Diane of South House Designs co-authoring this post,
A little background:
We live over 1600 miles apart. My husband David and I have 4 grown children and 4 darling granddaughters all under the age of six.

Diane and  Doug, have three four grown children (our daughter recently married, so we have a new son, Jon). No grands . . . . yet.
Although our nuclear families are very different and we live half a country apart, independently, we both came to the same conclusion for Christmas gifts. We prefer gifting experiences and the resulting memories.

What are Gifting Experiences?

In its simplest form, we are gifting time, activity, adventures that make memories together rather than a traditional gift of a tangible object.
The keyword here is TOGETHER!
This isn’t sending a pair of tickets to a Cubs fan. This is taking them to a Cubs game and cheering together.
We both arrived at the same basic concept, but we execute it differently.
So we thought you might like to hear from both of us. If you are inspired, feel free to take the concept and modify it to fit your family. And as always, we are here for questions and sharing.

Let’s Dig Deeper:

Q: What does your new gift exchange look like?

DIANE: 2021 was our fourth year of Gifting Experiences. Each person comes up with an idea for an activity to do as a family. They are responsible for planning, executing, and paying for that activity.

Our children are literally spread across the country (DC, Dallas, and LA with us in Kansas City). Pre-pandemic we managed to all be together about four times a year, but Christmas is the big one! It’s typically five days of togetherness.

Once we determine when the last plane arrives and the first one leaves, we break out a Google calendar and it’s a free-for-all blocking off the time for your activity. It takes some give and take as some activities can only happen on a specific day and time, others can be just about anytime.

Three adult siblings on the ice learning to curl
Family of six adults gathered around the curling stone

The activities are surprises! But the organizer lets everyone know if they need certain clothing or accessories. Such as “dress in layers with rubber soled shoes” when I arranged for us all to have a curling lesson at the ice rink. They all needed “dressier clothes” when Doug took us to the symphony.

WENDY: This is a different ball game for us since this is not yet reciprocal. My husband David and I do all the planning.  We sit down and create the 12 themes for the months of the year that we feel the granddaughters would enjoy. We always like to include a few ideas where the children can learn, or give back to others.

The three oldest grands live locally. This enables us to enjoy our experiences spread throughout the year.

I then shop for small items that relate to each theme.

The activities are all a surprise and the children have no idea until they open their tree of boxes on Christmas morning.

Q: Why Did You Stop Exchanging Traditional Gifts?

Parents with four adult children posing together at the Symphony Christmas concert

DIANE: A number of reasons! Starting with not everyone enjoys shopping!!!

Plus, at least four of the six of us have to fly. That greatly impacts the gifts we can give and receive. And don’t get me started on returns and exchanges.

As the kids grew into adults, their lists grew shorter and specific. The gifting felt more of an obligation than a true joy. So the gifting was beginning to become a stress point.

Plus, since we celebrate the holidays over 4 – 6 days together, as Mom, it always seemed to fall on my shoulders to plan activities to keep everyone engaged and entertained, beyond lounging and playing games together (which we certainly love to also do).

I wanted to spread that responsibility to all. Honestly, this relieved a huge stress point for me.

If everyone planned an activity to gift to the whole family, think of the amazing memories we would have. All of our fingerprints would be on the Holiday season.

WENDY: It seemed like our grandchildren had so many toys, and in a short time, they would tire of them, or the toys would fall apart.

We wanted to create memories and experiences for our grandchildren to enjoy with us.

Creating an experience with the kids gives them memories that they will never tire of and last for a lifetime.

Giving a variety of experiences was also an opportunity to teach our grandchildren about the joy of giving. In some of the experiences, we would create something together to give to a neighbor or friend. Then, I would take the girls to present the gifts to the neighbors.

Q: What is the source of this idea — how did you come to this?

WENDY: To be honest, my daughter complained about the number of toys that the girls had. Today’s toys are not like they used to be, and so many small pieces were misplaced.

Don’t get me wrong, all kids need toys, but there is a limit, and I could feel my daughter’s frustration.

So I looked at this opportunity to think outside of the box. I love a creative challenge and had so much fun with the concept of giving them experiences with Iya and Poppi. I also saw this as an opportunity to spend more time with our grandchildren, so it was a win, win.

Q: How did you present this idea to the rest of the family?

DIANE: After the gifts and Christmas dinner in 2016, the discussion fell to returns and exchanges that needed to be made. That was the perfect opening and really I just started supposing out load.

What if we tried something different next year for our gifts?

We talked about it a bit and in my head, I thought we had agreed to this plan. Nothing more was said until we got closer to the holidays. One of the kids had actually planned ahead and already had all the gifts he was giving. OOPS! So we waited a year and took this plan for its maiden voyage in 2018.

Lesson: be specific and all agree well ahead of the holiday season.

WENDY: Since My daughter was the only one with children when we started this, it was effortless as she and I had agreed that this would be the best idea for the girls.

However, the adults loved this idea too, so we have started to gift the adult kids with experiences.

Q: What have been some of the most memorable events?

WENDY: I tried to create a variety of events with the girls. One of my favorites was a Sea-over with Iya and Poppi with the Little Mermaid theme. I bought red wigs, Little Mermaid pajamas for the girls, and all three of us dressed up as Ariel. We made Ariel dolls, painted our faces, and watched the Little Mermaid.

Another favorite was cutting fresh flowers and making May Day baskets to take to the neighbors. And my husband loved taking all of us to a hotel sleepover and a tractor ride at a pumpkin patch.

DIANE: Ugh! It’s so hard to choose!

Dark bar with a pianist and a trumpet player and a drummer performing jazz

One of my favorite evenings was in 2019. The youngest treated us all to an early evening of our favorite jazz musician at a great jazz club and then we walked a few blocks where our oldest son had tickets to a Harry Potter night at a board game bar — extremely nerdy and extremely fun.

Family of six full of shenanigans at a game bar

Q: What is the most important benefit?

DIANE: Making memories while sharing fun activities and new experiences.

Lifelong memories beat out shopping malls for sure! Every one of us looks forward to this time together anticipating all the adventures.

Family of six grown siblings and parents dressed in Star Wars attire

BONUS Benefits include:

  • Each can tailor their event to match their budget.
  • The expense of entertaining and eating out is now spread across the family, not just Mom & Dad
  • Often times the activity one plans and pays for costs less than all the gifts they would have purchased
  • And the memories we are making are absolutely priceless!

Q: Are there any downsides that you’ve encountered?

WENDY:  There are so many benefits to giving an experience and the fact that we get to enjoy the gift as much as the children do is a bonus.

  • The gift of time with loved ones.
  • This is a gift that is not replaceable.
  • We are all given memories that will last a lifetime.
  • Q: Are there any downsides that you’ve encountered?

WENDY: We loved every minute of this experience, and there are so many ways you can present it. We did once a month for 12 months, which is a lot, so I may pare that down to 6 months as we have more grandchildren now.

This concept takes time and a lot of thought. I happen to love this part, so I found this to be a lot of fun. You can easily tailor this to what works for you.

DIANE: No downsides, but more challenges. 2020 was a challenging year for everyone. But we enjoy this new way of gifting, so there wasn’t even any discussion about going back to traditional presents. We just all had to get clever. to make our remote experiences the best!

Our Dallas son was working from home and very isolated, so he drove to KC. Our LA based son was still living with us while performing in KC to save enough money to head to LA. So we had two base camps, four of us in. KC and Katie & Jon in DC.

Four adults in matching pajamas

Doug ordered matching pajamas for all of us and had a huge tub of popcorn delivered to each base and we had a movie night streaming the same movie simultaneously.

I prepared two boxes of supplies, shipping one to DC and we set up a zoom session with everyone around two different tables, positioned as best we could to appear as one and a made ridiculous graham cracker city, complete with highway bridge turned park (aka Klyde Warren Park in Dallas), a public art sculpture and even a football stadium.

The debris of making a graham cracker village is scattered on a table with a large TV monitor in the background with graham cracker houses displayed on it

Katie sent us each a copy of the “Puffs” screen play (our actor son was Cedric Diggery in a children’s revision of “Puffs” when their run was cut short due to Covid). We had the funnest table read on zoom. switching characters and voices on the fly.

Then 2021, we all went to LA for the first time and ran into really bad weather that caused us to have to move things around and even completely replace one event that required clear weather. But we all pivoted as one and had a blast.

Q: Are you tempted to go back to traditional presents?

WENDY: I will admit, I am a shopper, so there will always be something for the kids to open. However, it is usually minor and related to the experience. For instance, if we are baking, I may give the girls an apron with a wooden spoon. So, I feel like the gifts are meaningful and valuable and not a bunch of useless stuff.

DIANE: NEVER!!! If I even whispered such a thought, there would be mutiny in the family.

Q: The highlights of presents include the anticipation, opening, and surprise. Have you compensated for that somehow?

DIANE: We try to keep our activities a secret, sometimes even until we arrive at the location.

And to appease the traditionalist (and shopper) in me, I do still do Christmas stockings with sweets and little trinkets.

WENDY: No, not at all. My concept was 12 months with Iya and Poppi. I chose a theme for the 12 months of the year, and then I purchased small items to go with each theme. This way, the children still had presents to open.

As the children get older, the way I present the gifts may change to be age-appropriate. But for now, there is nothing like the face of a young child when they open a gift box.

reminder to Pin It Now
Pin tower showing a column of wrapped Christmas gifts next to a column of polaroid pictures of different family activities that had been gifted over the years

As you can probably tell, we are both thrilled with our new method of gift exchanging during the holidays!!! Our only question is why did we wait so long?
We hope we have inspired you. If the gifts are one of the stress points for your holidays, talk honestly with your family and see if you can structure something similar for your next holiday.
Leave us a message if you have already done this. How does yours work?
And please, share with your friends.
It was such a treat to have Diane with me on this post. Please give her blog a visit, She is very creative, and shares lots of fun DIY projects. In addition, Diane has her own home decor and accessories business.

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  1. Such great ideas that are so meaningful. Thank you so much for sharing! And, you make the cutest Ariel EVER!

    1. Thank you Missy, my apologies for eplying so late, its been quite a few weeks around here.

  2. Ladies such fabulous ideas and I’m definitely implementing them next year 🙌🙌

    1. Thank you, Anita. I appreciate you taking the time to read the post. It is an enjoyable way to give a gift.

    1. Thank you Kristy! it really does make life much easier.I believe I am going to adopt Diane’s idea and do it for everyone this year.

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