Here in upstate New York we’ve had our first big snow of the year, and then we had Thanksgiving, so now it’s time to turn our thoughts to Christmas. As much as I love Christmas, the last couple of years have also brought some serious tension into the season for me. Ever since I discovered the FlyLady and began to declutter my home, Christmas gifts have become a tricky issue. I recognize that gifts are given from love, but how many gifts are enough? How many are too much? How do I teach my children gratitude when the presents just keep coming?
Over the past couple of days I’ve read a few blog posts on simplifying Christmas, and they have gotten me thinking about where the peace, joy, and merriment actually come from. One of these posts had me awake at three o’clock in the morning, reflecting on an “ah-ha moment.” (You can read it here.) The author, Everett Bogue, asks his readers to stop and think about the Christmas gifts they have received in the past. How many were put away in a closet out of sight? Donated to a thrift store after holding on to them long enough to assuage your guilt over not liking them? How many of your Christmas gifts do you truly love or find useful? How many make you exclaim, “This is just what I wanted!”? If you don’t particularly care for the majority of gifts you receive, what do you think that means about the gifts you’ve been giving others all these years? It’s a good bet that your friends and relatives are stuffing the candles and scarves and lotions and slippers and mugs into their closets too.
I was awake for a long time Monday morning, thinking first about all the gifts I have received as an adult. Unless I have made very specific requests (I’d like to read this book: here’s the title and author. These slippers look comfy: I’m a size 8, and I like them in blue.), I’m usually underwhelmed by the presents I receive. I actually can’t remember receiving a book I thoroughly enjoyed that anyone else selected for me since my parents gave me Anne of Green Gables when I was 12 or 13 years old. I’m not writing this to make my loved ones feel bad. I’m writing this because I feel bad if I’ve been burdening my husband, my parents, my sisters, my in-laws, and my friends with items that are doomed to become clutter in their homes. Now I’m thinking maybe all the adults on my gift list will receive gift cards for the movies or their favorite restaurant this year.
But then there are the kids. I have three young children, and Santa is supposed to bring them lots of toys, right? Certainly, kids are happy with the presents they receive on Christmas, right? When I think back to my childhood, I can’t remember too many of the toys I received on Christmas morning. I can tell you that Santa brought me a new Barbie doll just about every Christmas, and I loved them. I played with my Barbies all the time, and they were treasured gifts. However, I also remember a couple of presents that packed quite a punch on Christmas morning but that ended up in the back of my closet, rarely seeing the light of day. Specifically, I am referring to the Barbie Dream Store and the Barbie Dream Kitchen. I was so excited to open both of these gifts. I probably spent a lot of time with them over Christmas break, but all the fun little pieces soon became a hassle. It was so much easier to imagine Barbie was at the store or in the kitchen than it was to fiddle around, trying to get the clothing rack to stand up on carpet or keep track of all those tiny forks and spoons.
What does that mean for my children? Don’t they love the presents Santa brings them? Two years ago my then-four-year-old daughter got ahold of an ad at Christmastime. She spotted the Sofia the First Royal Prep Academy Play Set. She had to have it. Whenever someone asked her what she wanted for Christmas, she answered, “The Sofia the First Royal Prep Academy Play Set!” She sounded just like Ralphie asking for his Red Ryder BB Gun. My husband and I couldn’t imagine disappointing her. I shopped around online and found the best deal on the play set for just under $60. Then I discovered that it didn’t come with all the princess figures it had been pictured with in the ad. A collection of Sofia’s friends was sold separately for just over $40. Well, how was she supposed to play with it if she didn’t have the princesses? So we spent $100 to make her Christmas dream come true. On Christmas morning we had her open the box with all the princesses first, and she exclaimed, “Just what I wanted!!!!” Then she opened the play set, and I spent a good part of the morning assembling it. In fact, one of my most frequent tasks for the next few days was reattaching the staircase. By the time I insisted on removing the whole thing from the living room a few days after Christmas, the glow was wearing off. It was nearly impossible to balance any of the princesses on the little plastic chairs. As soon as the dining table was set with tiny water goblets and plates, someone was sure to bump against it and knock everything off. Soon enough a spindly plastic leg broke off one of the desks, and we had to throw it away. Now the play set spends most of its time in Kathleen’s closet. Occasionally, her little brother pulls it out, but by the time he has everything set up, either he loses interest or I call him to supper and he never gets back to it. I think I could have saved us $60, and she would have been perfectly happy with just the collection of princess figures.
I’m not sure what that means for this year, but I want to put plenty of thought into the gifts I buy for my children. I will consider carefully the quality of each toy and think hard about how long their enthusiasm for it is likely to last.
So, if gifts don’t really bring as much joy to the holidays as I thought they did, where does the joy come from? I know my husband loves the glow of the Christmas tree. My kids are amazed by our neighbor’s house, which is lit up brightly enough to keep us awake at night. Perhaps you look forward to the music, or traditional foods, or spending time with family members who live far away.
As for me, I think it’s my memories from childhood that make Christmas magical. After Mass on Christmas Eve, we would go to my aunt and uncle’s house for dinner. My sisters and I spent the evening playing with our cousins and staging an original Christmas-themed play for our parents. Then my dad read “A Visit from St. Nicholas” before we went home, sleepy but excited. One of my favorite memories from my entire life is a brief moment after we had arrived home on one of these Christmas Eves. It was snowing, and the ground was already well covered. The snow made the whole world seem quiet and as I stood on our walk while my dad unlocked our door, I just soaked it all in: the peace, the stillness, the happy evening, the love of my family, the wonder of Christmas.
No present can ever compete with that memory.