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Could I celebrate Christmas without buying gifts?

My husband and I have picked the apex of the consuming year to stop : consuming.

Unexpected financial difficulties, coupled with student debt from two law degrees, have left us stressed and overwhelmed. We want to be out of debt, and we’re willing to do just about whatever it takes to get there.

Therefore, this year we decided to celebrate Christmas. With two children. Without spending money.

The first thing to go? Presents.

I truly believe there is such a thing as too many toys. At any given time, my older son, now two-and-a-half, actively plays with about three to five toys. For a solid month, the only thing he has really been interested in playing with is blocks. I see no point in filling his room with twenty to thirty gifts, a majority of which will become background noise in an already cluttered play area.

That said, he is going to get presents on Christmas morning – just not any purchased by us. Unbeknownst to him, I have been storing away birthday presents for the past two years to give him at Christmas. At the time, this wasn’t done out of any financial necessity. For his first birthday, I asked our guests to bring their favorite toy from childhood. I thought it would be more fun for them but I also didn’t want a house full of toys he would only play with for a couple of months.

In many ways, I’m proud of my resourcefulness. I love that he will open all these great presents without me having to open my wallet. Plus, the few specific items he has asked for are being purchased by generous grandparents. Still, I can’t help but be a little sad.

My older son understands Santa and he definitely understands that Santa brings presents. And compared to his first Christmas, when I insisted we go buy him presents to open on Christmas morning, this will be really different. Back then, my husband argued that he was only six months old and would have no clue what was going on, but I didn’t care. It felt so special to be in the toy aisle thinking about what he would enjoy. The rest of the year we have to be responsible. We have to worry about spoiling them or imparting a sense of entitlement. Christmas is the one day when all bets are off. You can give and give just to see their eyes light up with each new toy.

My younger son, a six-month-old, will only be getting his brother’s old toys, including some I bought that first Christmas, dusted off and recycled. Again, I know logically he has no clue what a day even is much less that it’s Christmas Day, but I can’t help but feel guilty. I feel like he deserves exactly what his brother got but I just can’t justify buying new toys for him when we already own perfectly fine hand-me-downs.

And here’s the hard, funny truth: My children aren’t having trouble celebrating Christmas without consuming because they are not consumers. I am. Since the beginning of our little experiment, I’ve had to constantly remind myself that this isn’t about me. Just because my expectations are not being met or I’m feeling disappointed doesn’t mean my children are. In fact, they don’t seem to be suffering in the least. We haven’t opened a single present and not a day goes by that my son doesn’t exclaim, “I love Christmas!”

It’s more than that, though. My new-found frugality has forced me to see the entire holiday experience with fresh eyes. When I have to find ways of celebrating that don’t involve mindlessly consuming, I’m forced to decide what it is I’m celebrating in the first place. More importantly, I’ve had to really think about what I’m teaching my children to celebrate.

I don’t want to teach my sons that the holidays are about receiving. I don’t want to teach them that the number of presents is what makes a happy Christmas. I want them to be generous of spirit and spend just as much time working on the list of presents they are giving as on those they hope to receive.

Since we are saving money by making a majority of our gifts, I’ve noticed there has been more emphasis in our house on the process of giving this season. Instead of spending a day at the mall crossing everyone off my list, I’ve had to be creative and spend time crafting each present. Not to mention, I’ve included my older son in this process in a way I’m not sure I would have otherwise. I realized I wanted him to make a present for the people most important to him. I’ve asked him what he thinks each person would enjoy or if he’d like to make them something. Sure, he insists that my mother really wants a tractor but, if nothing else, that’s a memorable exchange I never would have had with him had I bought her a scarf and said it was from him.

It hasn’t been easy. Sometimes I feel like everywhere I look I see things I’m missing out on, or worse, that my children are missing out on. I want to enjoy the newest holiday drink from Starbucks! I want to give my son the newest breakdancing Elmo! I just have to keep reminding myself that being a good parent is about deciding what’s important to your family and then sticking to your guns … even at Christmas.

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