I buy my girls exactly three Christmas gifts each: One from Santa, one my husband and me, and one from her sister (I’m ditching this one as soon as they’re both old enough for an allowance).
“Don’t buy anything else,” my husband said. “They get way too much.”
Because they do.
Last Christmas, I watched my mother pace around the tree, consumed with fear that the kids didn’t have enough to open. “Your dad’s about to retire, so I only did half as much this year,” she lamented. “Do you think it’s enough?”
“Yes,” I said, overwhelmed by the number of presents she had amassed for each child. “You can cut it in half again next year.”
She hasn’t. Honestly, I don’t think she can.
My mom handles Christmas like a boss. From the gifts to the food to the music selection, we all know to just shut up, stand back, and enjoy the fruits of her labor. Christmas is Mom’s special holiday because hers kind of sucked as a kid. She has dedicated her adulthood to ensuring no one in her life experiences anything like them.
My childhood Christmases were legendary. My brother and I built forts with the beautifully-wrapped packages under the tree. Sure, some of those boxes contained underwear, but the others held our entire Christmas lists plus countless other gifts my mom thought we’d like. She’d bake for hours, plan elaborate menus (for my dad to cook), and wrap each present with meticulous care.
Mom doesn’t talk about her childhood much, but all through mine I heard stories of the Shirley Temple doll she wanted, but never requested. “I knew better than to ask for one,” she said. “We didn’t have money for a gift like that.”
She brought up the story whenever she felt my brother or I were acting spoiled, a reminder to be thankful for what we had. Still, she bought us anything we ever wanted and cut corners elsewhere. I have memories of glittering Christmases and not being able to pay my field trip fee or cobbling together dinners from the back of the pantry until Dad got paid. We rarely travelled or went anywhere that cost money.
My childhood was filled with small experiences and many things. It was also tinged with the worry familiar to anyone who stretches the dollars in the bank a little too far, too often.
The ghosts of Christmases past haunt my mother and me in very different ways. As she hoards puzzles and dolls for her grandchildren, I hoard experiences and cash for my children. Each weekend, I plan “adventures” to shows and museums and restaurants. During the week, I pay every bill that comes my way, including every field trip fee, fundraiser request, and class gift collection. I tell my children “no” often when they ask for things, but usually agree to requests to do something.
I’m trying my best to teach them (and myself) not to show affection through material things. Despite my gift-heavy childhood (or maybe because of it), I ended up with an anti-materialist. Even after seventeen years together, I’m still disappointed sometimes when my husband doesn’t buy me thoughtful or expensive gifts.
“That’s not how I show love,” he tells me. “I unload the dishwasher and weed the garden and proof your blog posts.” (He also travels anywhere I want to go and supports me in every way that counts).
Which is so right, yet feels so wrong at Christmas and birthdays. “That’s what we do in my family,” I say, trying not to sound disappointed. “We buy each other stuff.”
A few years back, I went on eBay and found my mom a used Shirley Temple Doll. I spent forever wrapping the box and tying the perfect bow. When she lifted the tissue paper from the doll, she put her face in her hands and cried. My nana just looked at her like she’d lost her mind. “I never knew you ever wanted one of those,” she said.
To keep the ghosts of those past Christmases for creeping to the next generation, Mom and I have strived to find a balance between our fears. Every year, I will ask my girls for a few of the things they want most. My mother or I will wrap them in beautiful packages and snap pictures when they pull the tissue paper back to reveal something they treasure. Mom will likely continue to put too many presents under her heavily-decorated tree, giving us all memories of glittering Christmases. Hopefully, my husband and I will continue to provide everything our children need and give them fond memories throughout the year that don’t involve plastic or boxes or bows. Between us, the kids should have it pretty good.