Around about now, my gift-buying panic sets in. I didn’t buy enough stuff! I got more fun stuff for my son…my daughter will be disappointed! I got more expensive stuff for my daughter…my son will be disappointed! Somehow, in the chaotic peak of the Christmas rush, being judged a good gift-giver is a referendum on my self as a mother. I didn’t get everything on their list.
After Thanksgiving, my kids write to Santa with their list of what they want for Christmas. My daughter is pretty good at coming up with a quantity and a variety of realistic and shoppable girly items, acceptance into college notwithstanding. My son has one thing on his list, year after year. A dog. (Actually, a dog is on my daughter’s list every year as well, but somehow we have keyed in on the dog being more of my son’s desire. That is because she, like girls everywhere, is more accommodating and adds other items to the list. He is single-focused, dare-we-say-it … stubborn.) He’s resigned himself to the fact that we are not going to get a dog because our lifestyle is not compatible with having a dog. Besides, he’s grown attached to our dog surrogates: two beloved parakeets named Cooper and Ginger – both Christmas presents from the last 2 years. With two birds already and no dog in sight, his realistic and shoppable list is bare bones this year.
The list ensures that everyone gets stuff that they want and Santa doesn’t waste time and money on stuff that people don’t want. This is an expedient way of dealing with the chore of gift-giving that I learned from my parents. New pajamas. Check. Esoteric book from the top 10 list. Check. God forbid you should deviate from the list. The gloves need to be black not brown. The slippers can’t be too firm nor too slippery. And the hand knit scarf that took weeks to design and create? Too long. Too thin. A strange color. It’s languishing unused in the back of the shelf in the closet.
Gift-giving was a very transactional process when I was growing up. There was little room to surprise and delight. As for Sheldon, in my son’s favorite show The Big Bang Theory, gifts (and friends) are an anxiety-producing obligation. When Penny tells Sheldon she has a wonderful gift for him, he rushes out and buys a gift basket in every size and value so he can immediately reciprocate with exactly the right basket. She surprises him with a napkin autographed by his hero, Leonard Nemoy. Sheldon is so overcome with surprise and delight that, after dumping all the gift baskets on Penny, he realizes that he can’t possibly reciprocate such a meaningful gift and does the unthinkable. He hugs her.
The combination of a spiritually bereft upbringing with an obligatory approach to gift-giving has made me approach the holidays quite Scrooge-like. Don’t give me another chotchke! When will the parties be over so I can get back to my disciplined routine? Bring on the new year’s resolutions! It is with effort that I create a holiday with my family that is more than a realistic and shoppable list. A holy day that is about love.
This year, I was determined to be joyful. To look at the work involved with Christmas as a labor of love, not of duty and obligation. My husband and my children love Christmas. We’ve worked hard to make it a special and magical time. We maintained the myth of Santa so well that neither child figured it out until each was 12 and in 6th grade, when my daughter overheard two careless moms discussing it at the bus stop and my son burst into tears when we took him aside and revealed the truth – afraid he was getting to be so old that his peers would make fun of him. To deal with the end of the Santa era, we spent the following Christmas on a sailboat with almost no vestige of our usual traditions. It didn’t feel like Christmas. Last year, I breathed a sigh of relief as the effort to maintain the myth was gone. But then, my children complained that the appearance of the gifts under the tree was no longer a magical surprise. They begged us to do it after they were asleep on Christmas Eve. Even though they’ve been inducted into the secret of Santa, they (and I) want to hang onto childhood secrets just a little bit longer.
So, this year, my daughter’s last Christmas before college, we set up our tree earlier than usual. I did not complain about schlepping down the ornaments from the attic. Well, that’s not true. I did catch myself yelling at my son, as he brought down all the Other decorations from the attic, “Do we really need all that stuff?!” He calmly looked at me and said, “Yeah, Mom, we do.” He proceeded to decorate the mantle and then put back the boxes. I breathed and remembered my intention to be joyful and tried not to anticipate the chore of undecorating.
This weekend, I decided to tackle the stores one more time, because even though I got most of the stuff on their list, I did not get enough, equating quantity of gifts with quantity of love, never a successful equation. I found myself braving the traffic, the parking lot, the lines, the people. I went over the lists one more time. And then, I stopped. What can I give them that will be a delightful surprise? What can I give them that will show them that I have listened to them? That I care about making them happy? That I love them? Instead of diligently crossing items off the lists, I opened my eyes and found a few funny and sweet things that are not on their list. Nothing big. Nothing expensive. Just something that I know they will appreciate. After all, isn’t that what Christmas is all about? Finding light in the darkness, giving love to family and friends. Creating traditions. Sharing celebrations. Honoring what is magical. Even, perhaps, awesome.
I am going to set my alarm for 3 am, my usual pee-in-the-middle-of-the-night time, and sneak downstairs. Stealthily filling the stockings and placing the gifts under the tree. I’ll move the fireplace screen, to look like Santa’s been there. I’ll make sure we leave Santa some incredible bitterdark chocolate as a special 3 am treat for myself. I’ll sit and gaze at our beautiful tree that we decorated, together, with love. I’ll sneak back into bed for a nap before magical, awesome Christmas morning.