I do understand why they give the gifts. Indeed, my dad told me the other night (last night?) that there will be another family at our Christmas celebration, one that he has unofficially adopted as his own. We see this family a couple of times a year but really don't know them. Still, I know that I must provide gifts for those children just as I do for all of the other children. I don't know them, nor what they are interested in or what they like, but I must come up with something. I won't resort to gift cards but I recognize that they are the default gift for many. When in doubt I try to give food gifts or art supplies, both of which are meant to be consumed. I've yet to meet many people who don't love receiving a tin of truly homemade chocolate chunk cookies.
The thing is, I'm starting to think it would be better to give cash if one doesn't have enough information to choose a thoughtful gift. Cash in hand can be applied to something the child already knows he or she wants, rather than needing to take them to a specific store in search of something they didn't know they wanted (and probably don't really want at all). I personally choose not to give cash to children under 13, but in this case I would rather my children receive cash than gift cards.
I need a plan, soon. I could buy the gift cards off the children; this works well if the cards are for a store such as Target where I can buy socks and tooth brushes, but is very costly to me if it is to a store such as Toys R Us (where I would be hard pressed to find anything we need or want). In that case I suppose I could regift the gift cards, perpetuating the whole gift card thing but at least avoiding it for my own children. I could gather all cards and cash and offer to replace them with an experience the boys have really been wanting.
What I don't want to do is take my children, gift cards in hand, to a big box toy store or other retailer. I remember all too well how badly that went last year; I think we all cried tears of frustration that day and I'm pretty sure I vowed never to go through the doors again.
Sometimes it is very difficult to be different. To not want to fill our home with too many toys (and too many of them plastic junk). To not expect a 9YO or 10YO to be able to go to a store and calmly choose their purchase without getting overwhelmed by the choices and worrying that all of the other choices were better. To not want our holiday to be about how much was spent and how many gifts were received.
Follow up: Each boy received $10 from their great-aunt, something that was expected. I am happy to say that they didn't receive a single gift card!