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The Present That Matters

For me, the peak of Christmas giving is the heart-pounding moment when my children pick up that first wrapped package from the pile and tear away the paper, expectancy and excitement illuminating their faces.

When I watch it with my own eyes, the tears always come.

I’d like to think that my response is common to many parents. We’re at our happiest when our children are happy—and holiday time is a chance to be indulgent and make every wish come true.

But I didn’t always feel this way. For many years a sense of guilt shadowed this time of year. I often asked myself, Why is gift giving so difficult? It wasn’t the shopping, wrapping and hiding of presents, or keeping track of what everybody wanted. It was the idea of extravagant excess that troubled me. It was the opposite of how my husband and I had hoped to raise our daughters, Jaye and Em.

We tried to show by example that shiny new stuff wasn’t essential to happiness. I bought gently used items, furnished our home with estate sale furniture, and frequently shopped for clothes at consignment and thrift stores. The first time Jaye said, “But somebody already wore that!” when I held up a secondhand shirt, I answered, “And now we will too. There’s nothing here that a washing machine can’t take care of.”

As a kid who’d grown up wearing hand-me-downs from friends and neighbors, I’d promised myself that my own children wouldn’t suffer as I did. Everything in their lives would be brand-spanking new. But then something my neighbor Pat said triggered a shift in my thinking.

The two of us had been volunteering at a church rummage sale, sorting through bags of donated toys and children’s clothing. To my eyes, Pat seemed out of place. A blond Martha Stewart-type, she and her children were always impeccably dressed. Her home was artfully decorated and she gave off an aura of privilege.

“Look at this!” She pulled out a set of child’s plastic stacking rings.

“Yeah, they’re pretty grubby,” I said. “We should probably just throw them out.”

“No, they’re fine! The ones they make nowadays aren’t as sturdy. The plastic is cheaper. Just scrub them with cleanser. Your girls will love them.”

“Used toys?” I said doubtfully.

“My kids’ favorite toys all came from garage sales. Sure, we could afford new stuff, but most of what’s sold in the stores falls apart. Junk toys don’t make it to garage sales. They break, they get thrown out.”

The incident helped me shed any embarrassment at buying secondhand. I began to choose quality used items over cheap new goods, and so did my daughters. They picked up books and toys at garage sales, and bought jeans at the thrift store.

We were mostly content with our choices—mostly being 10 months of the year. Once November ushered in the holiday season, however, the girls went berserk.

“Mom! Come quick!” a voice screamed from the family room. Panicked, I rushed in to see my daughters flipping through a holiday toy catalog, circling items with a red Sharpie.

They wanted, they wanted. . .  and I dreaded this expression of “the gimmes.”

Yet I wanted to make them happy. So I paid attention to the TV commercials and the stuff circled in red, and stood in line to obtain those must-have toys even though most qualified as junk.

My personal Waterloo was the Barbie Jam ‘n Glam Tour Bus, 55 dollars’ worth of pink and purple plastic on wheels—a mobile stage for the iconic doll. Em had coveted it for months, but after unwrapping it and playing with it for two weeks she returned it to its original box and pushed it to the back of her closet. She said it took up too much space and I could get rid of it. I sold it on Craigslist in early March.

My worst fears had been realized: Em’s become ungrateful. All these presents have spoiled her. Then, reconsidering, I noted that she didn’t whine or complain; she simply admitted the toy wasn’t what she thought it would be. She’d learned two valuable lessons: Few things live up to the hype, and what we think we want doesn’t always make us happy in the long run.

However, in the short run it did. She’d been dreaming of that bus, and there it was. And that kernel of truth almost got lost among the bits of shredded wrapping paper and abandoned toys I gathered up that year.

There was no need for me to feel guilt-ridden. My kids weren’t going to turn into greedy monsters because of one pile of presents one day of the year. And even if I wasted a handful of dollars on a gift that turned out to be junk, what was the harm? I had the pleasure of seeing my children deliriously happy, and that memory would outlast the gift.

Not every purchase will turn out to be the treasured item. It’s enough just to lose ourselves in the joy of giving—in that one moment when we’re filled to the brim and so overwhelmed we’re convinced we’ll burst with happiness. We don’t need a photo or video to recall the moment. Once you feel it, you never forget.

That’s the gift. That’s the present that matters.


Linda Lowen writes for MSN.com, teaches at the Downtown Writer’s Center and is co-producer and co-host of Take Care, a health and wellness radio show on WRVO. She lives in Syracuse with her husband and two college-age daughters, who go by the pseudonyms Jaye and Em in her writing.

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