I swear I’m not a Grinch. I love Christmas! There’s something about the lights and pageantry that makes the world seem to be dusted in magic. The cold weather becomes tolerable, just because it fits with the theme. I look forward to the holiday parties and the ugly sweaters. I don’t even criticize the phony images of families in stylish knits out in the snow, no coat, not even cold because love and cocoa warms them from the inside. Despite my affection for every other element of Christmas, there is one singular part that I truly loathe. The Gifts.
Presents ruin Christmas for me. There’s an episode of The Big Bang Theory, a show my husband and I watch in syndication practically every day, where Penny buys Sheldon a Christmas gift and she’s met with a lecture where he explains, “You haven’t given me a gift. You’ve given me an obligation.” Every time this episode airs, Omar looks at me and smirks. It’s as if Jim Parsons’ character plucked my feelings about presents directly out of my chest and brought them to life.
Nothing fills me with more dread during the holiday season than an unanticipated present from someone. Did you know that giving someone a surprise gift that they weren’t expecting can just make them feel worse about themselves and the relationship they have with you? Your need to feel good about gifting may give someone a bag full of shame that they didn’t think to buy you something, even if you expect nothing in return. Its kind of selfish. What if they just don’t have the money? Your gift just reminded them of how little they have to give in terms of material items. To make yourself feel good, you’ve made someone feel bad, and almost everyone feels bad when they receive a gift from someone they don’t regularly buy for. Sure, it’s the season to give but maybe its better to take all of that money and donate to charitable causes that are close to your heart instead. Donate presents to an organization that provides gifts for children in need. If you care for me at all and value our friendship, for the love of God, PLEASE, do not give me a gift! I promise I’m not planning to buy one for you. Not because I think you aren’t important, but because you don’t need another candle or random ass scarf to show you that I care. Know that I care because when you texted me at 3:00 a.m. on some random Thursday in March to talk you off the proverbial ledge during a crisis, I got out of my bed and called you. Know that I care because I went to some thing you invited me to back in June when I really didn’t feel like it. Want to bring a smile to my face during the holidays? Show up at my house with a bottle of wine and a bag of kettle corn for us to share and plop down on my couch and chat with me.
It’s extending to my kids now as well. My daughter came home from school in a panic last week because a friend announced that she bought presents for everyone in their friend group and planned to give them out the next morning, which was the last day of school before the break. Sydney was buzzing around begging me to drop what I was doing and take her to the store so she would have something to give this friend at school in the morning. She didn’t want to be left out or feel bad that her friend got her a present and she didn’t reciprocate.
Great. Now I also have my kid’s friends gifting me with more obligations on my time and money. She doesn’t have a job or a car. I didn’t have time to take her to the store that evening as my night was already accounted for. As a working mom of four, my days tend to be jam-packed, and right before the holidays the time and money gets even tighter. I figured this kid can’t possibly be giving out significant gifts. I had never even met this kid so they can’t be that close. Instead of taking her to the store, I helped her put together a little gift bag of hot chocolate and candy canes and cute marshmallow stirrers with the Christmas-y things we already had available at home. We wouldn’t want to over-give and make that kid feel bad about her gifts either, and its likely a small token gift. Our gift took five minutes and I could resume doing all of the other things I needed to do. The next day Sydney came home frowning that her friend’s gift to her was far better than the gift bag we made. A neon desk sign and a cell-phone tripod for making videos. Still random crap that she doesn’t need, but more expensive. Merry Christmas! Here’s a box of guilt that you didn’t guess the appropriate level of gifting to match my perceived representation of our friendship.
What about buying for my own children? Surely, I’d love buying presents for my kids and watching them open the boxes and seeing their eyes light up over the shiny new things they have. Nope. Let me paint a couple of pictures for you:
When Sydney was three years old, she begged for a pink Cadillac Power Wheel. On Christmas Eve, I braved the long lines and tired cashiers at Toys R Us to buy that gigantic truck. I didn’t realize it needed complicated assembly until I got it home, and I wouldn’t have time to put it together out of Sydney’s sight so I begged a guy friend to put it together that night. As he was just getting off of a double shift at his job he whined, “I’m so tired! I can’t do it tonight. I really need to get some sleep.”
“What if I have one of my girlfriends flash you her boob after you finish putting together the truck?”
“Which friend?” I knew I had his attention then.
“The friend you like. Both boobs.” I promised.
“I’ll be there in an hour.”
Before you judge me, my friend was right there listening to the whole conversation. There was consent. While stunned at my audacity, she was willing to do it for the kid. A favor for a favor. I also believe prostitution should be legal but that’s a discussion for another day. I’d have offered to flash him myself, but I knew he wasn’t interested in my boobs and that wouldn’t have gotten me anywhere.
Christmas morning I presented Sydney with her new truck outside so she could ride it right away. There was no lighting up of the eyes. There was no proclamation of my status as Best Mommy Ever. There was a dry “thank you” as she sauntered over to the truck and drove off down the sidewalk, quickly swerving into the grass and getting stuck in the mud, then climbing out and saying, “I’m done now.” The idea of the truck was more meaningful to her than the actual thing. I can probably count on my fingers the number of times she actually asked to drive that truck. More often, it was me suggesting she drive it, just so I can feel like I’ve gotten my money’s worth. She was far more excited about the BOX that her new kitchen set came in. She played with that thing every day for weeks.
Fast forward to the year my daughters were seven years old and we asked them what they wanted for Christmas. They had no idea. They couldn’t actually think of things they really wanted that they didn’t already have. We’ve been blessed to have the resources where we can meet all of our kids’ needs, and we satisfy a lot of wants throughout the year because they are good kids that excel in school. Because they couldn’t come up with a reasonable Christmas list, they let the television decide. I watched as they plunked down in front of the TV and wrote down every toy they saw on the commercial breaks. I read those lists and knew for sure they didn’t really want half of that shit. They just felt compelled to write it all down because Christmas has become the season of buying crap just for the sake of buying crap. Even though I knew what was going on, I went through the lists and purchased items from there anyway, just so I’d have something to watch them open. It felt hollow.
That following spring as I cleaned out their closets, my heart sank. All of the presents were shoved in the back of the closet, with random other things piled on top. They played with most of it only for about a week after Christmas, if that, and then tossed it all aside, never to be used again. The rest of it was still in the original packaging because they didn’t even care to play with it. It confirmed what I already knew. None of it mattered. We loaded up the hundreds of dollars of barely used toys and donated them. It was then that Omar and I decided to never buy our daughters toys for Christmas again. From then on we bought them things they could actually use or experience. We surprised them with tickets to amusement parks or fun things to do as a family. We’ve found that years later, they can’t remember a single toy they received for Christmas, but they regularly bring up the trips we took and the things we did together.
Our Christmas tree is never crowded with gifts. The twinkle in their eyes that we thought we would see when they opened presents never came, but its there when our flight takes off for vacation. It’s there when we make gingerbread houses. We see it when they reminisce on stories of funny things that happened when they tried something new. I feel Christmas when we put up the tree and watch holiday movies. I see it when the kids ooh and ahh over the houses that go crazy with their Christmas lights. Those are the parts of Christmas that I love. Taking the time to hang out with my friends and family means more to me than anything anyone could wrap in a shiny bow. Maybe one of these days I can convince everyone around me to do a completely gift-free Christmas where we focus on the spirit of the season, baking cookies, decorating and hanging out. It’s the idea of the holidays that matters more than the stress and expense of being able to watch someone unwrap a present. Like my kids with a big empty box, the idea is better than the things.