Then I realized, I am apparently not like other people. That, to me, does not sound like a gift at all. If my spouse were to put us into debt just to get me something sparkly for Christmas, I'd be pretty damn unhappy. But people do this all the time. They get their kids mounds of gifts, financed by credit cards, because that's what their kids expect. They get their spouses lavish gifts because, again, that's what's expected. Right?
But who sets these expectations? When I was growing up, my parents always made sure that we each had a number of gifts. Even with four kids, we got quite a few gifts each year from our parents. There was one year when, to my everlasting shame, I got fewer gifts than my brothers and ended up pouting a bit. My mom explained that my gifts had been more expensive than the items my brothers got, and a lightbulb went off. I was young enough to not have realized that my parents tried to keep spending roughly equal between all of us, rather than the sheer number of gifts. I pondered and apologized to my mom later that day, feeling incredibly ashamed and greedy about something I suddenly realized didn't matter at all. That was the day that the number of gifts I got stopped being any sort of metric by which I judged my holiday.
HusbandX also grew up with piles of gifts under the tree for him and his brother, and that was our combined normal. However, when we first started dating we were old enough to realize that we could do holidays our own way and poor enough to not have much money to spend on one another. We gave small gifts, more concerned with the gesture than the monetary output. I was sent flowers that first Christmas, a fact that I obviously still remember. (I dried some of the rose petals to keep!)
As our relationship evolved--we moved in together, realized that we wanted to spend our lives together--our gifting relationship changed too. As our future became one that we knew would be shared we began to think less in terms of what each of us would want and more in terms of what we both wanted, and what would help further our goals in life. One memorable year we pooled our money and gifted ourselves a food processor. It never got wrapped and put under the tree, but I think of that Christmas every time I pull it out of the cupboard.
Many years, we haven't gotten each other anything at all. Heresy, I know. But we realized that gifts are not our love language. We prefer kind words, service to each other (doing the dishes so that the other spouse doesn't have to is a major currency of love in our house), and time spent together. Gifts are nice, but not necessary. When we do get gifts, they tend to be either something that we wouldn't splurge on for ourselves or special events. This year, my spouse got me tickets to go see "The Nutcracker" with his mom and aunt. I have loved ballet since I was a very small child, spending days with my grandparents and watching ballets they'd taped off PBS for me. Every time I hear the music for "The Nutcracker" I think of the performance by Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland, dancing in front of the TV and forcing my grandfather to do the lifts with me. My wonderful husband knows how special this is to me, and that going to see it will be better than anything I could get wrapped and placed under a tree.
|The first Christmas tree in our|
For other family members, sometimes we do gifts and sometimes we don't. Last year my siblings and I decided that it would be far better to do charitable donations than to give gifts. This year we're doing gifts, but I am doing charitable donations on behalf of my parents. Hot tip: until December 31st an anonymous donor is matching gifts to the ACLU. Also, my work will match one charitable donation, up to 30%, so my other donation (to the Electronic Frontier Foundation--my dad would have loved that) is also getting a bump. It's important, at least to me, to be charitable all year, but if you can only do a little bit then you should know that around the holidays you can frequently find ways to make your donation more impactful.
If neither of those options suits, sometimes the best gift is simply time. Every year we gift time with our daughter to my in-laws, because that's the most special thing we can give the three of them. We were both close to our grandparents and, when we discussed having kids, we readily agreed that we wanted our kid(s) to have that same special sort of relationship. Though it's bittersweet to be away from our girl for weeks at a time, we know it's precious and important too. The memories they make are irreplaceable.
"Mommy, I want it!"
Just as we set the tone for giving gifts to each other, we also set the tone for how our child perceives gifts. In the beginning, this was easy. We didn't get her any Christmas or birthday gifts for the first two years of her life. Shocking, right? We knew that family would be getting her gifts, and we also knew that--just like every other child in the world--she'd have far more fun with the boxes and wrapping than she would with any gifts she was given. Babies and small children don't understand presents and don't particularly care.
For her third birthday and last Christmas we got her some very small items, but she still was a bit confused by all of the hullabaloo. Very happy to rip open paper with impunity, but bemused as to why.
Now that she's four, she finally seems to be understanding holidays. Maybe she remembers last year well enough, or maybe she's taken in enough cultural excitement from her friends at school. In the lead-up to her birthday she kept talking about presents. There was obviously an expectation that she would get things. I had to make a run to Target and she kept pointing stuff out. "I want that! Ooh, I want that!" I reminded her quite a few times that her birthday was coming up, that maybe she'd get these things for her birthday.
She did not. However, I don't think she felt the lack. Her birthday fell on a Saturday so we had her party that day. Before the party we gave her one of her gifts, a bunch of Mega Bloks I'd found at Goodwill. She already had some that my parents had given her the Christmas before, and had complained a few times that she didn't have enough for what she wanted to do. Now she has LOTS, and she loves to build with them. During the party, children and parents alike were playing with the blocks, and they haven't lost their allure in the weeks since. It's not an exaggeration to say that they get near-daily use.
Our other gift was a toy box full of dress-up items. I'd gotten the box itself for free from a local Buy Nothing/sharing group from a family that was looking to get rid of it. The clothes I scoured Goodwill for in the week after Halloween. I went on the perfect day, as they'd marked all of their Halloween stuff down by 75%. In addition to the costumes I bought three "fancy" purses, I found some gloves in a trunk I'd inherited from my great-aunt, and I put in a couple of shawls I happened to own but (almost) never wear. All told, her birthday presents cost us less than $40 and she doesn't care at all. One of the dresses is obviously used, has a big visible stain on the skirt, and the edges are fraying. It's her favorite one, though. When we gave this box to her, her best friend was the only kid left from her party. The two girls went through 8 different outfit changes in about half an hour. We counted.
|Free toy box. It's cute enough to store in our living room.|
I'm not saying this to brag that we do things better, but simply to show that gifts do not have to be elaborate or expensive to be special. The most important part about these gifts is not where or how we got them, but what they inspire and what parts of our child they bring out. We wanted gifts that would inspire her imagination. We wanted things that would challenge her and bring out her resilience, which the blocks definitely do. ("Why do you think that tower fell over? Where do you think that bridge needs supporting? Don't get upset, figure out how to make it better. You can do this.") They're also toys that she can play with with friends, so when she has them over we might end up with a mess of blocks and clothes all over the living room but it will have been time well spent. Sharing and bargaining and collaboration will be learned when playing with these things as a group.
I'm not anti-gift. I would feel absolutely Scrooge-y if I didn't get my child anything for Christmas at this point. However, that doesn't mean that I think she "deserves" a giant pile of presents under the tree. After all, that may be the least important and even fun part of the holidays. There are so many other things for a kid to get excited about: cookies and special foods. Pretty lights all over the place. Decorating the tree. Christmas carols. Seeing the decorations and displays when out and about. Wreaths. Stockings and Santa.
|One of the few gifts we've bought: matching nightgowns|
for our daughter and niece. They'll love being "twins"!
Most important, family time. This year we get to have both of our families together, so we're expecting at least thirteen people for Christmas day. Just as special, we get to host at our new house. The Munchkin has been talking excitedly about getting to play with "my friend, my cousin" and seeing all of her uncles as well as her grandparents and great-great-aunt. It's going to be loud and crazy and so, so much fun. The part that concerns me the least is the gifts, because they will pale in memory compared to the laughter we'll share and the fun we will create.