When Karen Peterson's two sons were little, the family limited their Christmas gifts to three per child, anticipating that the boys would get more gifts than they needed from their extended family. Still, she wanted to minimize gift giving at home while maximizing creativity. "Every year, wrapping the presents turned into a bigger thing as we all were figuring out ways to disguise what was inside," said Peterson, of Bloomington.

As with many families, the tradition shifted somewhat following Peterson's divorce when Ty was 9 and Ben was 12, and not long after that, a new tradition was born.

"My resources became more limited, but I also realized we didn't need to spend as much money on gifts. I talked to my family and we came up with a new idea: a $5 limit on each gift you purchased for a family member," Peterson said.

During the first few years, she gave the boys what they needed to buy for their extended family members, but now, with Ben, 18, and Ty, 15, the brothers earn the money on their own.

"Now, it's become a contest to see who can find the funniest gift," she said. "One year, my oldest bought a single, unfinished table leg at Menards. We'll make a point of looking for things all year long."

Season of misdirected wants

With Black Friday (and Cyber Monday) looming, this is the time when many families will start thinking about holiday spending; and after the holidays are over, will once again find themselves wishing they had done things differently, said Nathan Dungan, a national speaker and consultant on financial literacy and founder/president of Share Save Spend (www.sharesavespend.com).

"If you let the culture define the experience for your family, you're in for some tough sledding," said Dungan, of Minneapolis.

For instance, a modest tween or teen holiday "wish list" is fine, but a holiday list posted on Facebook is not a great idea. Neither is a 50- to 100-item spreadsheet, carefully categorized by item and potential gift giver -- Dungan has actually seen one of these -- which in his view, puts the entire concept of holiday gift giving "on steroids."

With the National Retail Federation expecting this season's holiday sales to reach $586 billion -- up 4.1 percent from last year -- there will be many opportunities for families to be willing participants. Dungan advises parents to be clear with their kids about what the family budget is for holiday spending. And, even with young children, it's not too soon to emphasize the value of supporting local businesses as a positive way to make a difference in the community.

Gifts that are personal

Dungan found another statistic that he believes eliminates what should be the true intention behind holiday gift-giving.

"Sixty percent of the population wants to receive gift cards this year, which just makes me sad," he said. "A gift, any kind of gift, should be about paying attention to people, what their rhythm is and what makes them happy. There is just no imagination needed for a gift card."

Instead, Dungan suggests other options such as thinking about planning a family event or experience (with or without extended family), charitable giving or family volunteering as ways to redirect the holiday experience in a positive way away from what can become for kids "the season of all about me," he said.

Karen Peterson incorporated a similar philosophy into her family's holiday gift giving habits. If any family member wants to go over the $5 limit on a gift, the rest should be spent on a donation -- monetary or otherwise -- to a local charity.

"We've adopted a family before, or delivered gifts to various social service agencies," she said. "I've just always seen that as an opportunity for my boys to learn about organizations that are helping other families."

Perhaps especially this year, in the wake of superstorm Sandy, Dungan said the holidays are a perfect time to take stock of what it means to be grateful and in so doing, continue to shape the narrative of the family.

"There is nothing wrong with wanting things, but when energy is so overweighted in that direction, that's when parents are in danger of defaulting to the culture," he said.

Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer.