How do you say “let’s not exchange this year?”

A little while ago, Lynn & I discussed not exchanging gifts for Christmas amongst the adults.  She and I are capable of buying anything we need and want, and we just can’t swallow buying gifts for a compulsive hoarder anymore.  There are budgets to consider, and we thought this might be best for everyone.  But then Mom learned of this, and thus began the guilt.

The Gifts

I know I’ve written a lot about gifts on already, but this is an ongoing issue in my family.  Mom firmly believes that Christmas and other family traditions are deeply routed in gift giving and receiving.  I would rather our traditions be experiential, and memory-forming.  For instance, I love that we sit as a family and decorate gingerbread men and houses on Boxing Day.  We chat, we share, we praise each others creativity despite clumsy icing bags, and it’s good fun for the kids.  I remember that more than what I unwrapped, or even what I gave to others.  I don’t want to see the art of gift giving turn into obligation.  I don’t want to see anyone feel left out around the tree on Christmas morning, either, while the kids tear into their brightly wrapped boxes.

The truth is that if Mom wasn’t a compulsive hoarder, I would want to guy her gifts.  I like to put thought into presents and she has so many interests, I usually had a good time looking for something to suit her.  But she is a hoarder, and has so much stuff that anything I give gets lost in the mountain.  Like a large canvas family portrait I gave her a few years ago…did that actually make it up on the wall?  Don’t think so.  How about the new computer desk chair she asked for and Lynn gave her?  It’s still at Lynn’s, in the box, 3 years later.  And that Kobo we bought her for Mother’s Day 2 years ago?  She tells us she’s still working her way through the books we loaded on it for her, and sometimes she still just loves a paperback.  But she’d admitted to another friend that she lost it, and now I know my own Mother lies to me.

The Guilt

After Lynn told her what she and I had decided about exchanging, Mom called ME to vent.  She’s unhappy we want to just give up that tradition, and she’s mad she wasn’t included in the decision making.  She wasn’t included mainly because when we DO try to discuss it with her, she shuts down and gets defensive…like she is now.  I’m a peace maker, and always end up trying to please everyone.  I empathize with both Lynn and Mom, but I’m the one who tries the hardest to compromise.  I hate seeing Mom upset, even when I can logically tell this is a guilt trip.  I try suggesting we draw names so we’re just buying for one adult and still respecting budgets, etc.  She didn’t like that idea either.  Essentially, she claimed:

“You and Lynn have already decided on this, so fine, have it your way.  But just know that it won’t feel like Christmas to me.”

Well, that’s great, Mom.  Thanks for announcing so far in advance that you plan on being a lead balloon during our family togetherness time.  You stomp your foot and cross your arms with a pout, and the rest of us will decorate gingerbread men.

Is there a solution?

If there is a way to better deal with gifts and guilt with hoarders, I’d love to hear it.  I’m at my wits end.  I want to be glad I have my loved ones around me, and we’re all healthy and happy.  That’s what I really want for Christmas.  Forget the stuff.  Forget the wrapping, ribbons, and bows.  Forget the generic greeting cards, and the over-packaged plastic toys, batteries not included.  I’m asking Santa for family unity.


  1. AnotherDaughter
    Posted November 23, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    I understand the difficulty, hurt and frequent futility around gifts for the hoarder. Completely. But I am not sure this is the right approach. I don’t blame your mom for being disappointed given that you’ve unilaterally stricken an important Christmas tradition for her and taken away whatever joy she gets from thoughtfully choosing gifts for you and your sister. It’s incredibly challenging to buy gifts for hoarders. Usually the possibilities are greatly narrowed by their dysfunctional homes and lives to begin with and then there is the possibility, perhaps even likelihood, that items and gift cards etc will be lost or forever unused. I bought my mom an ipad or Christmas a couple of years ago and she was thrilled. It had 3G capabilities and I paid for the first three months of the data plan. We were able to foster a connection with each other that we hadn’t had in years. We had fun emailing, could locate each other for fun, exchanged recipes on an app we both had and generally shared this new commonality. When the 3 months elapsed she didn’t renew the plan and used it from there on in as a wireless device only when she is near a wireless connection at coffee shops or whatever. I was crushed and full of hurt and rage. For me it was one more symbol of her dysfunction. The pathological procrastination and frozen inertia around the simplest decisions and tasks that have plagued her for decades. She’s had no heat in her Northern Ontario home for almost 15 years because she delayed paying a simple hydro bill and the pipes burst. She’s had no drivers license for more than ten years because she let a routine expiration date pass. And then let pass all the other deadlines that followed over the years to the point hat she now has to start from scratch as a brand new driver taking a road test etc. I don’t know that she’ll ever do it, and she loved driving and travelling. A bit of a digression, but my point was that I do understand the disconnection, hurt and anger surrounding gift giving but am not sure that Christmas is the time to express it, particularly in such an indirect and potentially confusing and hurtful way. Our mothers’ sicknesses punish them enough without working out our pain and frustration in ways like this, however deserved.

    • Rae
      Posted December 17, 2012 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

      That was really thoughtful, AnotherDaughter. Thanks for your perspective. I guess I just reach moments of sheer frustration where my tolerance reaches a breaking point, and in this case, the treasured family holiday is affected. As even keeled as I try to be, I sometimes falter.

      I ended up feeling too guilty to go with no gifts, so I offered a compromise that we all just give one gift each among the adults. Mom accepted that grudgingly. And then I wasn’t even able to follow through. So far, I’ve wrapped 6 gifts for Mom. *sigh* So much for sticking to my guns.

      The thing is, if she wasn’t a hoarder, I’d happily get her all sorts of gifts. But she IS a hoarder, and she DOES have this twisted sense of reality, and it makes everything so tricky to balance.

      I’m glad you shared your thoughts here. It’s given me a lot to consider.

  2. Posted October 24, 2013 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    Hi Rae… I know this post is old, but I just googled “What to give a hoarder for christmas and birthdays,” and was excited that it led me to this blog. While it’s always sad for me to get another reminder of how common this mental illness is, it is really nice to find another person who understands how stressful it can be navigating life with hoarder relatives, especially during the times of the year that should be the most joyful.

    I appreciated AnotherDaughter’s insight up above, but I’m not sure I completely agree. I’m sure it’s different for different people, but I don’t necessarily see not exchanging gifts as a way of punishing the hoarder(s) in your life. In my husband’s family, not only are his parents hoarders, but his older sister is also showing signs of becoming a hoarder (husband apparently got the resilient genes). This means that our six year old nephew is currently stuck in a similar situation to that my husband grew up in. The whole idea of gift-giving is a real ethical dilemma for us, because every time we give this little boy a physical gift we feel like we’re contributing to the growing chaos that he’s being forced to live in (don’t even get me started on the dilemma of if/when to call child services, another common topic of debate between us).

    Then there’s the dilemma of how to teach our own children to properly value possessions for what they are and nothing more when hoarder-relatives get control of Family Time and turn it into Stuff Time. I personally feel like setting boundaries for Christmas and birthdays (limiting gifts or giving experiences, rather than things) is less about taking out our (quite real) anger and frustration and more about protecting our kids while still allowing their grandparents and aunt in their lives, and also giving our nephew normalcy in one of the few ways we can. I don’t think it has to be a passive aggressive gesture if you very clearly explain to your relatives WHY you are doing it, even if they think you’re completely insane (one of the ironies of being part of family where everyone hoards — YOU become the crazy one).

    But it’s so so so hard to know what the best/right thing is to do, especially if you’re the kind of person (like me) who is always questioning your own motivations. And I know it’s way easier for me to come up with boundaries than it is for my husband, since at the end of the day it’s HIS family. We’re still working through all this stuff after six years of being together, and it’s not getting any easier, meh. Anyway, as the holiday season draws near again, hang in there!

    • Rae
      Posted November 20, 2013 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      I’m glad you shared this. It really does help to know I’m not the only one dealing with this complex issue!

      Family Time vs Stuff Time. Oh boy. I hear you. To me, it’s a simple idea that getting to spend time creating memories with a loved one is a better deal than getting an object that gets outgrown or eventually discarded. But my Mom doesn’t agree…or at least, her perception is different. She says she loves to see the look on someone’s face as they open a gift from her. I’m not sure what face she’s looking at, but I see more twinkle in my daughters eyes when Mom is teacher her to knit.

      I’ve been dealing with the gift guilt for years. I try to not let it bother me, but it always does. I think, for your nephew, if you can be an example of what life is like when NOT centred around stuff, at least he’ll get to see an alternative. Visit him often, and perhaps, make sure he gets to visit at your home so he can get used to the idea of “open space.”

  3. Paul
    Posted December 23, 2014 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    My father is a hoarder. Its a real strain. This year I bought an e-card that donated 50 Gideon bibles in his name. Email is sent to him and I printed it off to wrap on Christmas day. Nothing to loose and he gets a gift that is priceless.

    • Rae
      Posted March 6, 2015 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

      I think that’s a really interesting gift idea. Tell me, what did your Dad think of this gift? I know my Mother would find that kind of gift impersonal, and even though it has wonderful intent behind it, would ultimately be disappointed. I’m curious to know how other hoarders might respond to this!

  4. sarah
    Posted January 25, 2016 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    Hello. It is such a relief to hear people going through similar situations. Although I’ve known for years that my Mum doesn’t like throwing stuff away, it’s a different thing to admit she is a hoarder – and to become aware of all the other issues eg the guilt, the procrastination, the lack of care about certain possessions (and the high levels of care given to items like old margarine tubs that might ‘come in useful’). Now, what to get Mum for her birthday next week…..

    • Rae
      Posted February 9, 2016 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

      Ahhh, gift giving. That’s such a complicated issue! I feel the best approach, whenever possible, is to give an “event”. Take your Mom out for lunch, to the movies, or something that lives in the moment. You both get a shared memory, without giving one more thing to add to the pile.

      And truly, you’re not alone!

One Trackback

  1. […] Historically, Christmas in my family means a MOUNTAIN of gifts. Not just one or two per person, but several gifts for everyone.  Full stockings, too.  The stuff of dreams for a kid, but as a child of a hoarder whom also happens to be a parent, I see things differently now.  It’s a lot of Christmas clutter.  Don’t get me wrong.  It was still a decent sized pile under the tree before my Mom and Sister added their contributions, and then there’s Santa, of course.  The sheer volume wasn’t all because of my compulsive shopping and hoarding mother.  I can’t blame it all on her, but her influence from my childhood certainly played a role.  I just can’t seem to break the cycle, even though I’ve tried. […]

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