A Quest for Sugarplums

swissmediavision/Getty Images

swissmediavision/Getty Images

Every year, buying Christmas gifts for my girls presents a challenge for me. Do we buy what they need? What they want? Is it too much? Too little? How do I stay fair with all 3 girls so close in age, yet so different from one another? Should we even exchange gifts? Just to complicate matters more, I recently learned that the origin of gift-giving to children at Christmas has more to do with politics than holiday spirt. 

Over the years, I’ve been through every iteration of how to tackle the gifts part of Christmas.

When the girls were little, I would collect their Santa lists and pretty much buy whatever they asked for (don't judge). At that age, the cost per item averaged about $15 with American Girl doll outfits having the highest price tag. Otherwise, it was games, Webkins or art projects. I’d wrap each gift, stuff the wad of gifts into giant felt sacks, and perch them by the fireplace as if Santa himself had dropped them down the chimney from his sleigh. Each girl had (has) her own bag with a distinct color and design. Bea, a lover of tradition, has a red one that says, “Merry Christmas.” Josie has a green “Ho Ho Ho” bag, being our joyful Ho (haha! not a double entendre for whore… we call her “Ho” instead of Jo). Frankie has a blue bag with a playful snowman because it’s the most child-like motif; and she will always be my baby, even when she’s 55.  

To this day, I do this giant sack-bag thingy.

Except today. I am struggling with the whole process. Stuffing it with things feels weird, and unrealistic. Their Barbies have turned to Lululemon leggings, so it’s also expensive. Plus, intuitively I know this tradition of giving presents to them tugs at my heart because, no matter what I do, I can’t stuff what they really need into that Santa sack.

We’ve tried a number of traditions over the years to keep from being presents-focused (probably to save me from feeling this way every year). When the kids were super little, we used to spend Christmas morning running in a road race that raised money for a shelter. After the road race, we’d eat breakfast at the shelter. It was my first attempt at trying the “don’t make it about the presents” Christmas. As the kids got older and more aware that the rest of the world stayed home sipping hot chocolate in a warm house while they dressed for sub-freezing temps to run a 5K, they all protested. Shocker.

“Why can’t we just stay home?”

They asked in a kind way, almost confused about why we drove 45 minutes to then run up and down barren and stark streets while the world sat toasty-warm in their homes. They appreciated visiting the shelter, but wondered why they couldn't just donate money instead of running. Seemed like a fair question.

“Because I don’t want to raise you to be selfish!” I would retort. “Christmas isn’t about being warm and getting presents. Christmas is about Jesus. He was a gift. That’s the gift. It’s about giving to others, not getting presents.”

Deaf ears.

And even as I said the words, I realized how dumb I sounded. What I was really doing was trying to defy the material quest of Christmas for myself.

So, we adopted the stay-at-home tradition, and started spending Christmas morning at home, with the “great big bag of gifts reveal”. Oooh. Aaah. They, of course, were thrilled to be warm and surrounded by their new gifts, with the scent of cinnamon buns wafting in the air. Thoughts of running in the cold, and being at the shelter, drifted into a past experience like PTSD.

Another year, I struggled with the excess of the big bag o' gifts, and announced we would be sponsoring a family to buy gifts for instead of for ourselves. Getting older, they appreciated some people just didn’t have as much, and that this was a good idea. The girls were actually very excited about doing this. Giving is better than receiving. So, we got the other family’s wish list and began shopping. I watched as they bought an X-Box for an anonymous kid. They were happy, but conflicted. Some of the gifts seemed extraordinary, and even out of their realm of asking. But I got to hand it to them -- they were very generous in spirit, and did not make that Christmas about them at all. Of course, I was so proud of them, I asked for their lists anyway, and filled their giant felt bags that year, too. We paid that year’s Christmas debt into the spring months.

We also went through the “give experiences, not things” Christmases. Goats and chickens from Heifer International for villages, concert tickets or various trips. These were my favorite, but I still filled their bags with accompaniments like stuffed goats and chickens, luggage and socks.

Fast forward to today. I love those felt bags. They’ve carried light-up toys to puzzles to teddy bears to underwear to iPod nanos throughout all stages of my girls’ lives. But today I sit here and struggle still. Long ago, they beamed after opening up an iPhone. Today, I’m yelling at them to get off their phones, sharing research that links iPhone addiction to depression. Great! Way to make gift-giving even more complicated when you realize your gifts of yesteryear morphed into today's personal demons.

So, I asked one of my girls this year, “What do you want for Christmas?”

“Nothing, Mom,” she answered with a peaceful smile on her face. “I have everything I need.”

Said not one of my girls ever.

Of course, that's a joke. 

But, for me, it’s fine.

Because even though I know I can’t give them what they really need – advice on how to live without a smartphone, how to avoid drugs & alcohol, how to navigate a porn-filled world, how to stay safe when living overseas, how to make sense of global warming and GMOs and glyphosate and career choices and how to master spiritual enormity in a material world-- I’ll fill that empty sack, anyway, with a meager materialistic attempt to give them something they need.

Maybe I’ll write HUG on a paper and stuff it into a giant wrapped box for the Santa sack.

Or maybe that’s what I need this Christmas.