The Christmas shopping season is upon us once again, and again I am struggling with the expectations for gift giving. I wrote on a similar theme last year, and you can read that post here. This year I am specifically worrying about giving my children too many gifts. I talked to my husband about this a few nights ago, and his biggest concern about cutting back was making sure that our children experience the magic of Christmas. That’s a legitimate concern. We all have magical memories from our childhood Christmases, and as parents we hope to create memories like that for our little ones. The day after that conversation, I actually had a quiet hour to myself, and I used part of it to reflect on why I want to reduce the number of gifts my children receive.
Saving money is one reason, and it’s a good one. My family has just been through a very difficult year financially. We have recently received some relief from that and should not have to struggle to pay our heating and snow plowing bills this winter, but that doesn’t mean we can buy our kids anything they ask for this Christmas. Yet, that’s not my main reason for wanting to cut back this year.
Reducing the clutter in my home is another good reason. Physical clutter produces anxiety for me. When I am surrounded by piles of papers I don’t know what to do with, and toys are scattered across the floor, and dirty socks appear in random locations, I shut down mentally. I feel trapped, and I don’t get any cleaning done because I am overwhelmed. But that’s still not my main reason.
My main reason is that I want to cultivate the virtue of gratitude in my children. It’s hard to appreciate what you have if you’re always getting more. As I was reflecting on this, I remembered a scene from the book Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I recently read this book to Daniel, who loved it. The Ingalls family has moved to an isolated homestead 40 miles from Independence, Missouri. With no snow for a sleigh and a flooded creek cutting them off from their nearest neighbors, little Laura and Mary doubt that Santa Claus will be able to reach them on Christmas Eve. To their surprise and delight, their neighbor, Mr. Edwards, arrives on Christmas morning, having swum the flooded creek with a pack on his head, and tells a story about how he met Santa in Independence and agreed to deliver the girls’ presents for him. Ma tells the girls not to peak and puts the presents in their stockings as Santa would have done. When they are allowed to look, they find that they each have a new tin cup, a stick of peppermint candy, and a little heart-shaped cake dusted with white sugar. This is what happens next:
Laura and Mary never would have looked in their stockings again. The cups and the cakes and the candy were almost too much. They were too happy to speak. But Ma asked if they were sure the stockings were empty.
Then they put their hands down inside them to make sure.
And in the very toe of each stocking was a shining bright, new penny!
They had never even thought of such a thing as having a penny. Think of having a whole penny for your very own. Think of having a cup and a cake and a stick of candy and a penny.
There never had been such a Christmas.
Those girls hardly had anything, and the small gifts they received were deeply appreciated. That just makes sense. But what really stands out to me when I re-read this chapter is the wonder and magic that they experienced. Santa didn’t forget them, and with help from their kind neighbor he found a way to get those gifts to them. And they never wondered why Santa, who could make anything at his workshop, didn’t bring them a rocking horse or a porcelain doll. They were thrilled with a shiny, new cup.
After I thought about that scene for a few minutes, another scene from a children’s novel popped into my head. This time it was Dudley Dursley’s birthday from Harry Potter and Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling. Dudley, of course, is Harry spoiled cousin. The scene begins when Harry enters the kitchen for breakfast:
The table was almost hidden beneath all Dudley’s birthday presents. It looked as though Dudley had got the new computer he wanted, not to mention the second television and the racing bike.
After Harry finishes cooking breakfast, this is what happens:
Harry put the plates of egg and bacon on the table, which was difficult as there wasn’t much room. Dudley, meanwhile, was counting his presents. His face fell.
“Thirty-six,” he said, looking up at his mother and father. “That’s two less than last year.”
“Darling, you haven’t counted Auntie Marge’s present, see, it’s here under this big one from Mummy and Daddy.”
“Alright, thirty-seven then,” said Dudley, going red in the face. Harry, who could see a huge Dudley tantrum coming on, began wolfing down his bacon as fast as possible in case Dudley turned the table over.
Aunt Petunia obviously scented danger too, because she said quickly, “And we’ll buy you another two presents while we’re out today. How’s that, popkin? Two more presents. Is that alright?”
Dudley thought for a moment. It looked like hard work. Finally he said slowly, “So I’ll have thirty … thirty …”
“Thirty-nine, sweetums,” said Aunt Petunia.
“Oh.” Dudley sat down heavily and grabbed the nearest parcel. “Alright then.”
Uncle Vernon chuckled.
“Little tyke wants his money’s worth, just like his father. Atta boy, Dudley!” He ruffled Dudley’s hair.
Dudley is at the opposite end of the gratitude spectrum from Laura and Mary. He also has no sense of wonder or magic. What does he need with a second television of his own? Obviously, the scene is meant to be absurd. Dudley is more spoiled than any child the reader might meet in real life. But Dudley is also miserable. He will never be happy because he will always be looking for more.
It is unrealistic to expect my children to be thrilled with a cup and a stick of candy, but I know that they don’t need piles of expensive toys or electronics to believe that Santa has worked his Christmas magic. Yes, seeing the presents under the tree on Christmas morning is a moment of wonder, but the wonder will last only if our expectations for what’s inside those boxes and bags isn’t too high. The magic we experience at Christmas comes in direct proportion to our ability to feel gratitude for all that we have and all that we receive.
Besides, taking a little focus off of the gifts that come in brightly wrapped packages helps us to keep in mind the greatest Christmas gift of all.