The December holidays are no doubt a time for gift giving, but how much is too much? Jennifer Collins thinks our children are overindulged: the focus of Christmas should be on experiences and helping others. Kristina Cerise is trying to walk a middle ground between buying her children things they need and also things they want. Ellen Painter Dollar believes bestowing her children with generous presents at Christmas is a reflection of the holiday’s true meaning.
By Jennifer Collins
It has always been a priority to make Christmas just as wonderful and magical for my own children as it was for me. To make lots of memories and to spoil them a bit, too. But six years ago my husband and I decided to chase a job and move from Georgia to Maine, far away from our families. We were faced with the unique opportunity of creating our own holiday traditions anew.
In the beginning, our families overwhelmed us with gifts, because they weren’t there. They wanted the kids to know they were loved and thought of across the miles. I also overcompensated with things because I wanted the kids to have a good Christmas—to make up somehow for the distance away from their relatives.
But recently my husband and I have decided to scale back the focus on gifts. We notice the bins of toys the kids neglect, the puzzles that are never put together, the dolls that aren’t played with. Our kids have more than they need. More than they want. They really don’t even know what to write on their Christmas Lists this year.
A couple of weeks ago I asked my children if they could remember what gifts they received last Christmas. They could only name one or two. What did they remember most about our family Christmas traditions? My daughter said she loved going to the nursing home and singing to the residents. My son’s memories were about making holiday-themed cookies and wearing Christmas pajamas while reading “Twas the Night Before Christmas” before bed on Christmas Eve. And of course they remembered the shenanigans of our elf “Cole” that stays with us from Thanksgiving to Christmas and reports their actions to Santa each night.
My children remember more about the gifts they’ve given others than the presents they received themselves—such as the customized pencil-and-crayon vase my daughter gave her first grade teacher and the glittery handprint ornament my son made for our tree. They’ve picked out special toys for children their age from the Angel Tree and have dropped coins into the Salvation Army’s red kettle. My children seem to understand intuitively that the true joy of Christmas is connected to the thoughtful and careful process of giving.
This year we are doing Christmas differently. We will give our children fewer things and yet enrich their lives with more of the holiday experiences they remember so well from the past. They will be receiving a few handcrafted gifts from us and some items that they have on their lists— a sword, Legos and pajamas for our four-year-old; craft supplies and books for our eight-year-old. But they won’t be receiving any of the extra “fillers” that always seem to creep in. Our kids seldom have lists that are miles long. We are the ones that over-do it each year. We are the contributors to their overflowing, neglected toy bins.
This Christmas we are also going to spend more time serving others and looking for ways to help out in our community. We will sing Christmas carols in the nursing home again. We will make a pet food donation to the local animal shelter. My daughter also wants to bake cookies for the local police and fire departments. We have one project for each weekend of the month leading up to Christmas. Our new tradition.
Yes, our kids enjoy Santa and stockings, and all the typical holiday fun. But ultimately, for us, Christmas is a religious holiday. And I am thankful that we have put the tradition of giving—not receiving—back at its core.
Jennifer Collins is a mom with a day job and she likes to write about her victories and messes along the way. She is living an adventurous life as a Georgia transplant learning to thrive in Maine. Jennifer’s writing has been featured on BlogHer, iVillage Australia, Daddy Doin’ Work, and Mamapedia. She blogs at www.gracefulmess.me.
A Little Bit!
By Kristina Cerise
My Facebook feed is more divided during the holidays than during elections. On one side are those counting down the shopping weeks, days and hours until children charge expectantly into living rooms looking for parcels and cookie crumbs. On the other side are those who post links to simplicity challenges, bemoan outrageous holiday spending, and champion giving experiences instead of things.
The division isn’t only on my screen, it’s also in my bed. My husband’s holiday compass points to a different North than mine.
I come from a tradition of simple holidays. Exchanging practical gifts was what my family did. It exemplified our values. It showed we were too sophisticated to fall for marketing. It proved we didn’t need to keep up with the Joneses (or Bakers, in our case). The socks and underwear in our stockings were evidence that we were above it all.
Now, I see that we were just poor. And proud. But I also see the joy in the intimacy of those holidays. I remember selecting and distributing one present at a time from underneath the tree. I remember the slow reveal. The expression of gratitude. The passing around of the gift for admiration. The hug for the giver.
Despite having the means to give more extravagantly now, my siblings and I still choose to keep our gifts to each other simple. We exchange consumable gifts for each family to share: a jar of home-canned jam, a bag of special caramels. Some years even that feels like too much and, in the midst of the holiday madness, we call each other to say, “Wanna skip it this year and just know we still love each other?”
That would never fly with my in-laws or the sweet man who gifted me his last name.
My husband’s family distributes gift lists on Excel spreadsheets. They consider GPSs appropriate stocking stuffers. My in-laws start delivering gifts well before Christmas to try to disguise the fact that they won’t fit in a single car load.
The first time I witnessed the madness I felt physically ill and mentally confused. Their approach to Christmas was so different from anything I’d experienced that I couldn’t even recognize the holiday. I had thought I wanted to leave my own family and all its quirks behind, but that first shared Christmas made me long for second-hand gifts from Grandma’s garage wrapped in Sunday comics.
In the beginning years of our marriage, I raged against the consumerism. I touted the merits of jam giving. I fought the excess. But the joy from my husband and in-laws was greater than my judgment and I lost the battle and then the war. Admittedly, the Le Creuset stockpot helped ease the pain of defeat.
My childhood taught me that presents can either meet a need or satisfy a want and I want my kids to learn to be grateful for both types of gifts. So, I still give practical things: underwear, socks, math workbooks.
My husband’s family taught me the joy of receiving something you want but don’t actually need. Something frivolous. Something fun. So, I put practicality on the back burner and buy my kids some of the ridiculous things they ask for: more Pokémon cards, a platypus puppet. After all, I remember wanting a neon pink horse with a purple tail and glitter shapes on its haunches.
For me, the jar of jam approach to gift giving feels too small. But the Excel spreadsheet method feels too big. I am Goldilocks, still looking for the “just right” holiday experience.
Some people suggest that metrics such as a dollar limit or a maximum number of gifts can be used to ensure the right balance. For me, though, it is about ratios.
I want a holiday with more gratitude than greed.
I want a holiday with more wonder than wastefulness.
This is my tenth year of working with my husband to define “just right” for this family we’ve created by merging genes from two ends of the gift-giving spectrum. And each year I think we get a little bit closer.
Kristina Cerise is a Seattle writer, editor and mom trying to find meaning in the madness. The mom she planned to be often shakes her head at the mom she has become. She caffeinates daily, blogs regularly (www.definingmotherhood.wordpress.com) and tweets occasionally @DefineMother.
By Ellen Painter Dollar
Every year, my kids declare that gifts are their favorite part of Christmas. Does this make me worry that I’m raising materialistic children ignorant of the holiday’s “true meaning”? Not really. When I was their age, the thrill of a pile of wrapped presents under a twinkling tree was my favorite thing about Christmas too. I still feel that thrill, although now it’s less about what’s under the tree (mostly trinkets that my kids buy at the school craft fair) and more about anticipating them opening the gifts I have painstakingly chosen.
There’s no doubt our American Christmas is too commercial; I finish most of my shopping by Thanksgiving to avoid December’s hectic mall crush and focus on the home-centered activities I enjoy more. But as a Christian, I also believe that gift giving can be a meaningful reflection of God’s extravagant love and generosity, which is the holiday’s true meaning for us. While we’ve pared down gift giving among the adults in our family, we still joyfully present each child with a generous pile of gifts.
In addition to practical presents—pajamas, hats and gloves, lip balm, books, jeans, art supplies—I get each child one “big” gift, not necessarily expensive (though it might be), not necessarily physically large (though it might be), but something that, in their eyes, will be magnificent. These gifts are meant not only to fulfill a desire, but also to affirm who each of my children are and who they are becoming.
For example, two years ago, we gave our then 13-year-old daughter, who loves the outdoors and is unable to do most sports because of a physical disability, a real archery set. (What gratification I felt when I saw this email from her best friend: “YOU GOT A REAL BOW AND ARROWS FOR CHRISTMAS?!!” Yes indeed, she did.) My other daughter, a born caregiver, got a bed for her favorite doll. She placed it under a sunny bedroom window, where she lovingly tucked her doll in every night for months. My son, a nontraditional boy who gravitates toward sparkle and dolls and the color pink, received a Barbie dream house that I assembled ahead of time, so it would be ready for immediate play.
The happiness inspired by material gifts is fleeting, but it is also genuine. I hope that my kids’ happiness with their holiday presents goes beyond momentary captivation with something shiny and new, to a sense of belonging, an unnamed gratitude for parents who know them well enough to get them a just-right gift.
At their best, this is the function that gifts—even frivolous ones—can serve in our consumer culture. Thoughtfully chosen gifts reinforce the deep satisfaction of being loved by someone who knows what you need, what will make you happy. One Mother’s Day, I desperately needed something beautiful and unnecessary to lift me from an exhausted postpartum funk; my husband splurged on a watch that was far more than a time-keeping tool. The material illuminates the immaterial; a well-chosen gift can be a tangible reminder of intangible realities, such as love and grace.
Parental love is usually expressed in the mess of everyday life—school lunches made, dinners served, shoes tied, arguments refereed. Christmas giving invites me to take a step back from the daily muddle, to ponder my children’s talents, passions, and struggles, and what gift might offer the encouragement, inspiration, comfort, or distraction they need. I go to all of this trouble with Christmas gifts for the same reason I go to the trouble with the necessary, routine stuff—to show my children that I see them, know them, and love them just as they are, and am committed to helping them grow and thrive.
When my children thank me for their presents, I hope that somewhere in their gratitude, even if they might not recognize it, is thanks for all of the less shiny but oh-so-necessary daily gifts I give them. This season’s excesses need not be distractions from the essential meaning and joy of Christmas. Rather, they can kindle within all of us a renewed gratitude for the less extravagant, more fundamental gifts—food, relationships, warmth, beauty—that sustain us every day.
Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer whose work explores the intersections of faith, parenthood, disability, and ethics. She is author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012), and blogs for the Patheos Progressive Christian Channel.