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Can You Ever Break the Cycle of Bad Family Gifts?

As a closeted kid in a huge Catholic family, Christmas presents were an annual reminder that I had nothing in common with the other boys

The Calvin Klein sweater sits in the back of my closet with the size sticker still on. Objectively, the item is cute enough. The problem isn’t the color; I look best in navy blue. Or that it’s a quarter-zip; I’m always trying to look like a ’90s sitcom dad. The problem is that it’s just too big. The sweater is a size medium, but I wear a small. I could wear it, but every time I put it on, I inevitably swap it out for a tighter sweater that doesn’t bunch at my hips.

It’s way too late to return it, but I can’t part with it either. My uncle bought it for me as a Christmas gift, and it feels disrespectful to flat-out donate his gift without ever wearing it. Plus, donating clothes responsibly takes effort.

I’m not trying to be difficult, but every Christmas I end up with at least one gift I know I won’t wear. One year it was a pair of black pants from Macy’s; too many times, it was an H&M button-down. It’s time I finally start telling my family, “Thank you for buying me a gift, but may I suggest something I might actually like?” I just have no idea how.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for my family’s holiday gifts. They’re not buying me undershirts and socks (though I’m sure I’ll appreciate the latter as I get older). My mom and her sisters have great style. Without their sartorial sense, I wouldn’t have my trusty J.Crew scarf or the oversized Urban Outfitters button-down that makes me feel like I’m Elio in Call Me by Your Name. The Dr. Martens currently on my feet come courtesy of my mother; the Old Navy blue-and-black-striped long sleeve keeping me warm is a decade-old gift from Aunt Brigid. Sometimes, they nail it.

Still, sitting down to open a box covered in snowmen gift wrap makes me anxious. I’ll call it unresolved gift-opening trauma. Before I came out, at 18, holiday presents were an annual reminder that I felt like a black sheep. I was seen by certain family members as just one of the many boy cousins surely interested in sports, the outdoors and video games.

My dad is one of 14 siblings. My mom is one of eight. I have 43 cousins. It’s understandably hard to find personalized items when you’re gifting in bulk. That doesn’t negate my head bowing and my back hunching over after seeing my cousin Rachel receive cute, colorful Ulta Beauty supplies while I unwrapped a dartboard I knew I’d never use. I tried to never look ungrateful, but I’m sure it was written on my face. Even at age 10, Christmas was a reminder that I was inescapably different from the people I’m related to.

The obvious solution is to smile, say thanks and return the gift ASAP. Returning a gift is economical: You’re not wasting anyone’s money, and you’re not purchasing a new item. Just practice your fake smile for when you have to grin and say, “It’s so cute. Thank you so much.”

But in a large Irish-Italian Catholic family, that trip to Kohl’s on December 26th, gifts in hand, could be seen as an attack. My aunts have a tendency to compliment me on my everyday outfits by saying, “Didn’t I get you that cute shirt for Christmas?” (Thank you for the kind words, Aunt Erin, but it was actually Sheila who bought this one. I still wear the Costco thermal you gave me, though!)

So, if you’re wondering how to actually have that conversation and let everyone know exactly what you want and how high your bar is set, my advice is: Don’t. The only thing you can do is be more yourself around your family. The ones who care enough to catch on will notice. The right people will see you.

The bad gifts got better over the years, much to my surprise. In getting to know my aunts and uncles better, it unintentionally resulted in more personalized presents. Growing into myself and outwardly expressing who I am caused them to realize my personality doesn’t fit into a Calvin Klein sweater. But it does fit into a Topman one, and thank you, Aunt Katie, for that slim black crewneck!

Plus, I’m buying them gifts now, too. By putting in the effort to personalize their gifts, they’ve upped their interest in my own. Last year, I eagerly looked forward to gifting my aunt the Night + Market cookbook by Los Angeles chef Kris Yenbamroong as a thank-you for visiting me in Southern California last summer. We went to his restaurant’s West Hollywood location and bonded over nam khao tod, a spicy and fresh crispy rice salad.

To my surprise, she got me the same exact book. I still haven’t mustered the courage to make nam khao tod, but every time I see the cookbook on my shelf, I’m reminded of how lucky I am to have a family that cares enough to visit me, buy me anything at all — and finally see me for who I actually am.

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