Dear Mrs. Riches:
In my extended family (largely adults), it's become customary for people to exchange wish lists. The wish lists have evolved over the years to a degree of specificity (and expense) that makes me uncomfortable. I mean, when you are specifying a make and model, it seems like some of the "magic" of Christmas is a bit tarnished. Wouldn't you agree? Plus, it is a bit presumptuous to assume that every person in the family is financially able to accommodate the wish list.

Yes, you could argue that we're trying to ensure that people get what they want and they don't end up regifting. But if that is the only purpose of the gift, why don't we save each other the trouble, go out, get ourselves what we want, and call it a day?

I am tempted to opt out of this "transaction" altogether, but before I make the break, I want to see what you have to say. Please advise.

-- Getting Grinchy

Dear Getting Grinchy:
Oh, dear. Wish lists, when taken in this context, sound an awful lot like a case of the adult "gimmes." Contracting the gimmes in childhood is bad enough, but in adults, the outlook is decidedly more grim, since it can lead to loss of enjoyment in everyday things, high credit card balances, and general unpleasantness.

The gimmes also tend to make everyone forget the nature of a gift -- that it is a choice the giver makes to honor the recipient. Notice the word "choice," as in the power to exercise an option. Whether that honor is big or small, coveted or not, is nearly beside the point.

So yes, wish lists are tricky ground and call for their own page (or two) in the annals of etiquette. Ideally, the wish list should be something the giver solicits, e.g., "Would you let me know what the children would like for Christmas?" so as not to seem greedy, controlling, or thoughtless.

Here are some other guidelines for wish lists. Wish lists should:

  • Include items that range from inexpensive on up.
  • Be considered guidelines and, as such, offer the giver ideas, not mandates.
  • Offer general areas of interest (for example, "golf" or "The Simpsons"), not just specific items (complete with a SKU and a link to the ordering information).

But what do you do now when the listing of wishes has already run amok? You can:

  • Suggest the drawing of names to at least cut down on the number of gifts you have to buy.
  • Establish a per-gift cap to minimize the pressure.
  • Buck family tradition and give something thoughtful but not necessarily costly, in the hope that folks will learn from your example. Better yet, donate to a charity in their name.

Perhaps you can try some of these less-extreme measures before you abandon Christmas altogether. Such rifts can take on a life of their own in a large family and create ill will or estrangements that long outlast the original issue. Every family is imperfect, but at least they're imperfectly yours, wish lists and all.

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Fool contributor Elizabeth Brokamp is a licensed professional counselor (a.k.a. "Mrs. Riches"). Her better half is The Motley Fool's own Robert Brokamp, editor of the Rule Your Retirement newsletter. She wishes you and yours a very happy holiday.