Something you want,
Something you need,
Something to wear,
Something to read.
I’m sure I stumbled across this little bit of genius somewhere on the internet years ago but I’m not sure of its exact origins. However, the moment I read it I found that it spoke deeply to the exasperation I always felt around Christmas and birthdays. Like many parents, the initial euphoria of tearing through gifts often ended with a deflated heaviness that settled over the room. What really pushed me to make some changes was the year that we stacked the boys’ gifts in tidy piles to have friends over. They took the things they were most excited to play with and then the remaining items sat, unmoved, for days. The excess was apparent to me and that feeling only grew as I spent the following weeks shuffling and rearranging to make room for new things. This problem is a given once you have kids but it becomes a true dilemma when you have a small space. So, when I heard this little set of parameters I knew we should give it a try.
We’ve since amended it to add the clunkier line, “Something to see…” so the boys can each request an experience they would like to have over the holidays. For example, our 12 year old asked for a go kart day for himself and a friend and our youngest one wants a trip to the good zoo that’s an hour and a half away.
If you find yourself struggling with the excess of any gift giving time, I cannot recommend this framework enough; even if children don’t get media exposure in the way of commercials and ads, it somehow manages to seep in all the same. This leaves kids with what we affectionately dubbed, “the wantsies.” They lose sight of the items that would actually bring them true joy and become convinced they need to have it all. We start this dialogue early on so they have time to consider what they would like early on and by the time we actually need to get the gifts we all feel confident that they’ve settled on what they really want. If 5 gifts seems like a meager offering for Christmas morning, consider that each child will also get a gift chosen by their sibling(s), along with those from neighbors, friends, grandparents, etc plus a gift from Santa. It adds up!
When it comes to Christmas our biggest problem solver has undoubtedly been our advent calendar. Purchased over a decade ago from Pottery Barn, this oversized linen piece with 25 large numbered pockets is the one thing that makes it officially feel like the holidays at our house. I purchase stacks of blank white cards that are just the right size from a local printing shop (so, so cheap) and each night we put a handwritten note in the next day’s pocket, typically the note tells the kids what holiday activity we’ll be doing: making our teacher gifts, buying the tree, going to look at lights downtown, etc and occasionally a little toy or treat will make an appearance. One thing I absolutely love is that as they’ve gotten older, the boys like to take a turn writing the notes for us - a gesture that is always appreciated during the marathon that is the holiday season. I save the notes from each year not only for sentimental reasons but also because it helps jog my memory for the days ahead. Tucked away in a large ziploc are about 10 years worth of advent notes that I consider to be some of our most prized possessions.
More Ways to Make the Holidays More Meaningful:
Encourage kids to get involved in a gift giving initiative for those in need - when we make children aware that everyone will, at some point, face hard times, we teach them to have compassion without pity or judgment and allow them the freedom to connect on a more authentic level. Collecting gifts for patients in a local children’s hospital, donating to a coat drive or “adopting”a family for the holidays with a group of friends, classmates or teammates are all great places to start.
Schedule a pre-holiday clean out - we’ve often explained to our kids that in order for new things to come in, other things must go. Sometimes we pack up items to be stored and swapped out later but mostly, toys and books are donated.
Find a craft that kids like and make it en masse - we have a few tried and true holiday crafts that we love and work our way through the rotation each year. These are the gifts that are given to neighbors, friends, etc. It saves time and the kids still love to decide which color or shape is just the right thing for each person.
Start a collection - it can be anything; holiday mugs, record albums, the possibilities are endless! It’s fun to come across things when you’re out and about and each one, when unpacked, carries memories from years past.
Don’t be afraid to embrace the power of functionality! - Remember the horror stories of wives whose husbands gave them a dishwasher for their birthday or a vacuum for Mother’s Day? Me too. But I have to admit that at some point, the idea of replacing things I use all the time that are broken or missing sounds pretty great. When I’m really stumped on what to get someone, I try to think of things they use everyday that can be repaired or upgraded. This year I happily put a new pair of kitchen tongs on my wish list and have plans to spend an evening sharpening and organizing all my oldest son’s drawing supplies. Clean out someone’s garage space, touch up paint the baseboards while someone is out shopping or organize a loved one’s magazines or bookshelves. Lame as it may sounds, these little gestures go a long way toward the happiness of others.
Gift ritual - We typically have all the same ornaments on the tree each year but we’ve made it a tradition that each boy gets a new ornament, wrapped and under the tree, that they can open on the 15th of December. It’s always fun to pick these out and it helps make the wait to Christmas morning a bit easier. I also love the idea of a white elephant party with friends or a prank day…I’m just not brave enough to try that one out.
Family service day - we’ve done this the last few years and although it takes some organizing, it’s something we all love. We choose an open weekend day before Christmas then draw names out of a hat (we rotate who gets to be partnered with our youngest) and then spend the day doing nice things and giving small gifts to the person on our slip. We draw the line at indentured servitude but some ideas are putting away the person’s laundry, making their favorite breakfast, treating them to a movie, a bike ride or a walk into town for a coffee or hot cocoa. It pushes us to really think about the person and what they enjoy the most.
Scavenger Hunt - I think this would be an awesome idea if you have a house full of guests for the holidays. I can definitely see a group of dads embracing this after a few beers on Christmas Eve. One year we did a scavenger hunt as the main gift and the boys spent the morning all over the trails near our house, looking for clues that each had an experience gift with each one (going to see Star Wars, sledding with friends, etc) and it concluded along the quiet, deserted streets of our little town, which is cozy and empty on Christmas Day.
Holiday to-do list - If a large advent calendar is not your thing, maybe just making a list of fun things to see and do over the holidays is enough. You can also keep an empty jar with some slips of paper and pencils nearby so people can quickly jot down ideas as they come up.
Save one for later - A friend once told me that he and his sister became so depressed and whiny after the initial euphoria of Christmas was over that his mom, exasperated, started stashing one gift away that they could open the day after Christmas. We started saving gifts from neighbors, kid buddies and teachers to open the morning of December 26th and I love it - these gifts often get more attention and appreciation when they are not being unearthed from a pile of wrapping paper. Plus, if you’re at all like me, you can always be counted on to scare up a long-forgotten gift from the back of one of your closets.