When I was growing up, I didn’t walk 5 miles to school through the snow, uphill, both ways. This is no sob story. But money was tight, and my parents chose my few gifts thoughtfully. One year I woke up to a homemade table and two chairs, just my size, with a new doll and a small tea set. There were some lifesavers, colored pencils, and fruit in my stocking. (And maybe some clothes—but what child remembers the year of the sensible Toughskins?) I was thrilled with my gifts, and I still remember the feel of those little cups and saucers, and the colors of the doll’s dress. The table lasted through many incarnations, from child’s new desk to adult’s worn gardening table.
Fast forward to my twenties when my new husband and I visited another home on Christmas morning. The children of the house manhandled their way through a mountain of gifts, not knowing who had given them what, not pausing long enough to appreciate anything. Colored paper flew through the air, often obscuring other presents, some of which were actually trampled in the stampede. Grab, rip, throw to the side. Grab, rip, throw to the side. It was a gift bloodbath.
On that day, my husband and I excused ourselves from the festive carnage and made our way outside. We looked at each other and without preamble promised that Christmas morning would be different for our children, should we one day be blessed to have them.
In my thirties, our family grew to include two wonderful children. Buying Christmas gifts for them was such a joy, not only for my husband and me, but for both of our families. In the days leading up to December 25, the presents poured in. I watched one Christmas morning as my children grabbed gifts, ripped off the paper, and threw their gifts to the side.
“Whoa, whoa!” I said to my daughter. “Who gave you that princess coloring set?”
My daughter looked up from her pile of presents. “What coloring set?”
“That coloring set.” I pointed. “That’s what you just unwrapped. Did you see? It has a pack of colored pencils and a little instruction book on how to draw Disney princesses.”
“Oh,” she said, clearly more interested in whatever was inside box #2.
My husband and I shared a look. Time to take evasive maneuvers on Giftpalooza.
First, we channeled more of our love of giving to children into giving to others. Among other acts of charity, each year we have our children choose tags from a local angel tree, and then we go shopping for those unknown angel kids. And our children really love this. We encourage them to get kids their own age and then think about what they themselves would like to receive if this bag of gifts was the only thing waiting under the tree for them on Christmas morning. My daughter, now age nine, has become more practical than her little brother. This year Nina picked out some toys but also some clothes for her mystery kid, making sure that the shirts and pants were interchangeable, and then accessorizing for the whole set. She also made certain that the clothes were particularly warm, just in case (like so many in our county) the child’s parents were having difficulty paying the heating bill.
Our second solution came from the Christmas carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” In stead of letting our children have all their Christmas gifts from family and friends on Christmas day, we spread out the giving over 12 days. Day one, December 25, our kids wake up to stocking and a few toys and books spread out to maximum effect—the big wow moment of kids on Christmas morning. On each day following, we choose to open gifts from one person. “Today let’s see what Poohpa and Grandma sent us!” The kids open those gifts, then we call Poohpa and Grandma down in Florida, that very day, to say thank you and to let them know we really appreciate those gifts.
This system is not without a few disappointments. Sometimes the gift of the day is a pair of sensible Toughskins. But that’s just fine by me.
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Angela Dove is an award-winning columnist and author of the true crime memoir, No Room for Doubt: A True Story of the Reverberations of Murder (Penguin/Berkley 2009).