Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for us in many articles over the years. This week, she counsels a woman whose sister’s obsession with “family tradition” at Christmastime has provoked a pitched battle between them.


5714589306_53ecf988eb_zCan siblings gracefully stop exchanging presents? Image from Flickr via

Dear Dr. Ford:

I come from a family of six, and my husband has five siblings. We are mostly scattered across the country and our parents are no longer living.

I have a sister who lives in the area where I grew up who insists on “drawing names” and forces us to buy a gift that no one needs for $50.

I asked that we send a contribution to a charity in the name of the sibling whose name we draw, and now my sister is not speaking to me. She has always been rigid about “upholding family traditions,” but honestly, I feel it’s a waste of time and money to “uphold family traditions” by ordering (even online) something for a sibling whose tastes I don’t really know all that well. We have been apart for many years  (40 years for me, since I left for college and never came back). Now this has turned into a pitched battle, and she is spending time emailing and calling all my siblings and telling them that that I don’t care about the family and that I am cheap.  I am always present when a sibling is in trouble, financially, emotionally or with a health crisis. I travel for operations and crises.

Is there anything that I can do about this problem, or do I just get on to Amazon and buy a $50 gift?



Dr. Ford Responds:

Dear Barbara,

The pressure to do things the way they have always been done in the past besets many families this time of year. And, like yours, family members vary in terms of how much they value upholding traditions. Your sister seems to have done a good job imposing her ideas on the rest of the family for 40 years, though it is not clear how many of you actually share her interest in doing this.

Certainly you don’t. It may be that some of your other siblings don’t either. Is it fair for your sister to begin a campaign against you because you want to alter her notion of how things should be? You have a right to stand up for your own values and ideas, even if they don’t coincide with hers.

On the other hand, Christmas is a nice way to stay in touch, and it would be a shame to limit contact to emergencies. Since your sister has felt free to open an online dialogue about your behavior, why not continue and ask for suggestions from the whole family about ways to alter and thus perhaps enrich outdated traditions. Usually a good way to get rid of an unwanted behavior is to replace it with a better one.

I think you probably resent this ritual because it is being forced on you. Gifts and gestures that are freely given are usually more even rewarding for the giver than for the recipient. If you stick by your guns, and you and your siblings are willing to be creative (hard to do after 40 years, I know, but you can lead the way), you could turn this around.

Better yet, maybe you can succeed with doing away with the gift routine altogether. Between you, you and your husband have 8 siblings, and I’m guessing you are now in your sixties. Perhaps you have had enough “family time.” No one wants to be thought of as a Scrooge, but really, can’t it be argued that the commercial side of Christmas should be relegated to children, while adults shore up the spiritual side before it disappears altogether?


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  • Diane Dettmann December 20, 2013 at 6:40 pm

    Through natural circumstances of loss of parents, a spouse and changes in our family dynamics, gift giving has gone by the wayside. Christmas at our house is always a “spontaneous process”. No gifts expected, just time with family or whoever can show up for a visit or dinner. Sometimes it’s hard to accept the changes, but as they say “that’s life”. Thanks Dr. Ford for your insights and suggestions!

  • Nana Gregory December 19, 2013 at 9:44 am

    I was just about to say how much I appreciate Dr. Ford’s clear thinking when I saw that Emily Kelting had said it for me. Looking forward to a New Year, I also look forward to Dr. Ford’s very helpful guidance. Thank you, Dr. Ford and thank you, WVFC.

  • Emily Kelting December 19, 2013 at 7:57 am

    I so appreciate all of Dr. Cecilia Ford’s elucidation of thorny interpersonal situations. Once again she has hit the mark on this one. Family and Christmas: It doesn’t get any better, yet it can be a minefield of issues around gift-giving, family traditions, the spiritual vs. the secular, and in my case, splitting “kid” time with my ex-husband. Dr. Ford is so adept at clarifying the issues and laying out options. She is a great Christmas present to all WVFC readers!