Monthly Archives: October 2012

fun gift exchange themes


I have just posted an updated list of gift exchange themes here, based on this post and all your many wonderful comments and suggestions!

I have four brothers and one sister.  We are all married, and one of my brothers has a daughter who is also married.  With our mom and dad added in, that makes 16 adults for our yearly Christmas gift exchange.  For many years, when only some of us were married, we drew names and bought presents that way.  But that system ended up being rather impersonal: we would ask what the recipient would like, we would buy it, and then quietly exchange gifts when we arrived at Mom’s house on Christmas Day.  I, for one, wanted something more fun, if not more meaningful.  I missed the Christmases growing up where we carefully purchased little gifts for each other and watched everyone take turns opening their gifts on Christmas morning.  It was so much fun to see what EVERYONE got, not just our own stack of gifts.  I wanted our adult gift exchange to have the same sort of impact–something that would be more of an event, that would focus on spending time together and enjoying each of the selections.

We eventually decided on having an anonymous gift exchange.  We would each bring a gift based on a different theme each year and then play a game to determine who would win each gift.  We always state a budget up front (generally we keep it in the $25-$30 range for our family, but you could adapt it to your own comfort level), and have the rule that gifts can be brought as a couple or an individual.  You just take home the same number as you bring.  We have also tried to avoid gift cards in this exchange (unless we choose a gift card theme, which we haven’t yet).  The games we play have varied over the years.  Originally I created a board game that we refined for several years, but after a while we changed it up with other types of games (I’ll discuss the exchange game ideas in another post).

In this post I wanted to talk about some of the theme ideas that have worked well for us (as well as some that were a bit underwhelming).

By far, our most popular theme (everyone really enjoyed this) was “As Seen On TV.”  It was a theme that even my kids liked shopping for.  Two of my children were pre-readers that year, but as we would go to stores they helped me spot the iconic red label as we considered our many, many options.  In fact, I don’t know that anyone actually ordered off a television commercial since As Seen On TV products are widely available at so many stores and at every price point.  Some of my siblings found great deals and combined several lower cost items into one gift, and others featured just one thing.  One tip I can offer is to check online review sites (epinions, Amazon, etc.) to find out if the products really work as they say.  But then again, part of the fun of this theme is just to experiment with some of the wacky products that are offered these days.

My personal favorite theme was “Homemade.”  Some of my siblings, however, felt like it was too much work.  You would have to decide if this is a theme that would work for your group.  I was delighted with the variety of gift ideas that my family came up with.  I made a jean quilt similar to the one at left.  My husband made some of his custom Star Wars figure Christmas ornaments.  My sister created a sign featuring her artistic mosaic work.  And one of the most unexpected offerings was my sister-in-law’s homemade marinade (my brother threw in a few thick-cut steaks to go with it)!  I loved the personal touch that was inherent in this theme.  Yes, it was a bit more work, but I thought it was worth it!

Another theme we tried was “Food” (every gift had to have at least one thing that was real food–the rest could be related to food).  For example, you could have a selection of cheeses with a nice cheese slicer.  Or ingredients to make cookies along with cookie sheets.  I had high hopes for this category, but it turned out to be a bit of a dud for our family.  It was fine, but we didn’t exhibit some of the fun and creativity of some of our other themes.

My family, as a whole, is blessed with green thumbs, so we have had a couple of themes centered around “Yard and Garden.”  We always seem to appreciate new plants, pots, or garden tools.  One year our theme was “Big Box Store,” where our gifts could be anything that came from a Big Box Store like Home Depot, Lowes or Costco.  This theme didn’t mean we HAD to buy yard or garden related items, but we seemed to lean towards those kinds of presents anyway.

Recently we chose the theme of “Survivor,” which is essentially an Emergency Preparedness concept.  Lanterns, flashlights, batteries, first aid kits, food storage, or any other gift that could help us be more prepared in an emergency would be appropriate for this theme.  My family all lives in earthquake country, so we know how important it is to have supplies and kits in place for when the need arises.  Most of these items can also be used in more minor emergencies as well, so this is a very practical theme, and may not have the “fun” factor that some are looking for in gift giving.  My family likes practical.

One year, one of my brothers had completed a major house addition and had a lot of blank walls in his home to fill up, so he requested the theme “On The Wall.”  The gifts that year were anything you could hang on a wall (indoors or out): pictures, frames, clocks, decorative pieces, barometers, lights, shelves, vinyl decals, shadow boxes, plate racks, etc.).  I know you can also hang television sets on the wall these days, but that would be quite a bit out of our budget!

My family grew up playing lots of board games and putting together jigsaw puzzles, so it was a natural fit to have a “Games and Puzzles” theme.  Some of us went traditional with our choices, but a lot of us bought newer games to try.  This was a really fun category, which also led to even more enjoyment when we got together to try out some of the gifts.

I am super excited about our theme this year.  We decided to have a “Color” theme, but we couldn’t agree on one color among us, so we opted for a pattern: “Stripes.”  It doesn’t matter what the gift is this year as long as it features stripes, in any color combination.   I can’t wait to see what my family comes up with for this category.

There may have been another theme from past years that I have missed in this recounting, but those are all I can remember right now.  However, I do have a list of themes that we have discussed but haven’t used yet:

  • Something “refurbished or repurposed” (find or buy something old and fix it up in some way that makes it new or different).  This is a sort of semi-homemade category.  Related ideas would be to have a “Garage Sale,” “Freecycle” or “Craigslist” theme.
  • Something “nostalgic.”  This could be anything that reminds you of times past (your own childhood, or even before your own time).  It could be something vintage, or it could be something new that reminds you of something old.  However you want to interpret it.
  • Time related.”  There are tons of cool clocks, watches, barometers, etc. to choose from that would make a fun theme.  Who doesn’t need another clock?  Or perhaps you could come up with some other kind of gift to fit this theme–perhaps a time-travel novel?
  • How about a “Religious” theme?  If you are a church going family or group, like we are, then this might be a fun category.  You could find books, music, jewelry, art or even scriptures as gifts.  Additionally, there are many nativity themed Christmas items that could also be appropriate.
  • My book club does a book gift exchange every year.  We also like to choose themes, such as “a classic we haven’t read,” “a children’s book,” “one of our favorite books,” “something from the dollar table at the local used book store,” “something we would like to read,” etc.  These ideas could be adapted to your group if you have a lot of readers.
  • Have you noticed the extensive variety of boxed gifts the stores put out at Christmastime?  I have thought that could be a fun and easy exchange theme: choose a pre-made gift basket or gift box of any kind–nuts, popcorn, candy, mugs, scarves, chocolates, spices, ties, pajamas, candles, ribbons, frames, ornaments, scents, car related, and on and on.  You could make your own gift baskets as well.
  • One year I also had the idea to have a theme like “Long or Fat, or Hard to Wrap,” but my family shot me down on that one.  My idea was that you had to choose a gift that was big and awkard–the kind that is either too pointy or too bulky to wrap nicely or too large to fit in a standard sized gift bag.

I hope these ideas inspire you to start your own gift exchange tradition in your family, or to think of new and unusual themes to add a sense of fun to the activity, as well as make it more memorable.  Happy gifting!


a stack of books


I check out almost all of my reading books from the library, so I send in a lot of requests for holds (the library emails me when my books come in and I just go pick them up!).  Usually, I try to have three or four books show up at a time, but if I want to read something more current and in demand, I will sometimes have to be put on a waiting list, and that can add a sort of randomness to how many books are waiting for me.  At my most recent library trip, I collected a larger than usual stack of books to read, but I am so excited about all of them that I don’t mind looking at the large stack by my bed.  It provides so much anticipation.

I have now read three of the books from this stack, and am well into my fourth.  I read Adriana Trigiani’s “The Shoemaker’s Wife,” Elizabeth C. Bunce’s “A Curse as Dark as Gold,” Laurie Viera Rigler’s “Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict,” and am currently reading Sadie Jones’ “The Uninvited Guests.”

Trigiani’s latest novel is a sweeping epic of two families from northern Italy, and their life stories encompassing a childhood in an orphanage, emigration to America, working at the Metropolitan opera, and establishing a shoemaking career in a Minnesota mining town, among many other stories.  It is somewhat based on a family story and that is where the charm lies–in looking at the individual life and how the love of country, beauty and family sustains our characters through all their trials and challenges and gives meaning not only to their own lives, but lays the foundation for the lives that will follow.

Bunce’s fairy tale-like story “A Curse as Dark as Gold” is dark and spooky and perfect for Halloween time.  It is somewhat based on the “Rumpelstiltskin” story, and the darkness of that tale permeates every corner of this story of a miller’s family trying to succeed during the Industrial Revolution, despite an enduring curse and the death of their father.  If you want a ghost story for older children, this might fit the bill.

A friend gifted me a copy of Rigler’s “Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict,” which I read and enjoyed last month.  After realizing that it was a sequel, I decided to check out the first book, “Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict.”  I think this book, where a 21st century single girl wakes up in the body of a Regency-era girl (but retains her modern memories), is not nearly as successful as the second book, where the reverse happens: it tells the story of the Regency-era girl in the body of her 21st century counterpart.  I found the Austen girl in the modern world a more enjoyable concept, and the freshness reflected in the writing, the attitude and the ways things played out.  The modern girl gone back in time seemed a little more tired and not as strong, although it still had its enjoyable moments.

I’m anxious to finish the rest of my stack.  Watch for my reviews on