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Trying to keep gift-giving real and under control this year. Photo by Flickr user SimplyPanda (Creative Commons license).

Last year at the holidays, I wrote about going overboard on gifts for my son. Delirious with purchasing fever if not actual holiday spirit, I bought and bought and bought and felt guilty about it. I wanted him to have a memorable Christmas morning because it was the first year he really seemed to understand what was going on, but I also despise how capitalism crushes humanity.

Perhaps for all of us, holidays are a mixed bag. No matter how into it we are, there is always someone we want to see and won’t get to–someone who lives far away, or someone we’ve lost. Maybe the holidays remind us of cumulative losses, of happier times, or of times that were tense and traumatic. We try to find the joy, which might often feel like putting on a brave face so we don’t bring down those around us.

Add to those complex emotions a strong proclivity toward retail therapy and boom, I’m overspent. Last year, Jax was happy. I was paying it off until February.

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My one decorating splurge. I see a whole tree full of fruits and vegetables in my future.

This year, I want to tell you that things are totally different, but…

Now, to be fair, unlike last year, this year we went out and picked a big fat fir tree and scored white garland lights and assorted silver balls and a few specialty ornaments and a lit star for the top. Also new for ’16 is the necessity of small gifts for all nine of Jax’s preschool teachers, as well as some other new people in our lives who do nice things for us all year long. Money well spent.

But still. I feel a need to strike some sort of balance. Here are a few things I’m doing to ensure that Jax knows Christmas isn’t a toy store free-for-all but a holiday with actual sentiment (right? Right.):

  1. We talk about helping people. I remind Jax that not everyone is as lucky as we are and that even though Santa visits all the kids (forgive me this lie), sometimes their moms and dads can’t afford a tree or presents or a big supper. I tell him that Christmas is a time to remember that we should be kind and generous all the time. “Like Santa,” he says. Yes baby. Like Santa.
  2. We focus on the natural world. Jax is aware of the changes in season because we talk about them. We walk about how it gets dark earlier, how it’s colder. “Look at all the lights, Jax,” I’ll say when we drive or walk around at night. “Some people try to light up the cold dark nights until the seasons change and the nights aren’t so long.” To which he adds, “And so Santa can find our house!” Yes, baby. That too. We bundle up and take our walks in the woods, gathering pine cones to bring home and hang on our awesome tree. Last week Jax smelled a spruce tree and I had hippie mom feels about it. “It smells like Santa is coming!” Yes baby. It does.
  3. I’m teaching Jax to say “Happy Holidays.” I told him that some people don’t celebrate Christmas–that they “call it something else.” I told him that that’s ok, and that saying “Happy Holidays” is a way of ensuring that our well wishes include everyone. And to the woman at the grocery store two weeks ago who responded to the sweet cashier with a stiff, “I say ‘Merry Christmas’ because I’m a good Christian!”…well, if you don’t give a shit about being inclusive, you really aren’t. Peace and goodwill to you, though. “Santa says ‘Happy Holidays,’ right?” Jax asks. He damn well ought to because it’s not like he’s Christian, either! I think but don’t say. Little man, if it weren’t for you, mama would celebrate only the solstice, not Christmas, I don’t say. Yes, baby.
  4. I involve Jax in the gift-giving for others. I told him that surprises are different than secrets, and it’s ok to keep a secret about something that will make someone else happy, like being surprised by a gift. I’m letting him pick out a present for his little cousin, and he handed out the tiny teacher gifts himself. While I have little hope I can convince a four-year-old that it’s just as fun to give gifts as receive them, he does take pride in picking out and delivering presents. “I’m just like Santa!” he shrieks. Yes baby. You are.
  5. I’m laying the groundwork for deeper understanding when Jax is older. I give to charities every year, usually food banks and always the domestic violence shelter. I bake, because baked goods are excellent gifts and because the winter months give me this pagan urge to warm the house and stockpile the kitchen and pantry. I go through Jax’s old clothes and toys for things he’s outgrown, and involve him in the process of choosing who to give those things to: “I bet Ricky would love to have his big cousin’s potty chair, don’t you?” and “Let’s take these stuffed animals to Mimi’s store (Mimi manages our local Goodwill) so other kids can take them home and play with them, ok?” I establish traditions that are about spending time together, like watching The Grinch and Rudolph and Home Alone, decorating cookies and the tree, and getting hot chocolate for a drive through the neighborhoods with the best lights. “Is Santa coming soon?” Jax asks. Yes baby. He is.

I do these things to try to de-center presents as the ultimate point of Christmas, even as I keep buying them for him. Jax’s gifts this year include plenty of the car stuff he loves, but also lots of books and games. I want him to wake up dazzled on Christmas morning, but also to understand that this holiday is about love and love has no price tag. Aren’t I just a gooey piece of Christmas holiday fudge?

So, it’s been a crap year. Tell me about your holiday plans, gifts, and how you keep the spirit alive, especially while spoiling small and deserving children. 🙂

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