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The Christmas Conundrum

Buying Christmas presents for my two kids stresses me out. Normally, I hate purchasing new things because of the environmental effects and the questionable labor conditions of factory-made items.

But during the holidays another side of me comes out: the side that
worries that there are never enough presents for my two children, ages 6 and 3, the side that hopes the excitement of opening presents can make all other conflicts vanish, at least momentarily.

Last year, for example, worrying that there weren’t enough presents, my husband and I ordered two last-minute gifts for rush delivery—one of which didn’t even make it on time. (The missing present was, of course, not even noticed.) It’s a good thing for me that stores are not open on Christmas morning.

I decided to ask other parents with some children around the ages of mine how they make the holiday joyful. I also wanted to know whether they get as stressed out as I do—going over the gifts for each child multiple times in their heads—and how they know how much is enough.

My friend Kate Hinman, a Manlius resident, mostly has fun buying Christmas presents and often gets it done before Thanksgiving. She has three kids: Nate, 5, Anna, 3, and Wes, 10 months. The two big kids will get about eight presents each (“It could be reasonable-sized boxes but a $3 puzzle”) with about five that are for both. (Sorry, Wes, you’re getting socks.) She does not feel the need to buy a big present for each of them.

This year, she says, she will make a list for the kids’ presents just like she does with presents for other family members, so it’s easier to remember what each one is getting. She also wants to be sure they’re getting the right number of gifts, instead of her forgetting about something or shaking presents she already wrapped.

Kate’s family does not participate in the Santa tradition. She believes children should behave well all the time, instead of just as a gambit to get presents. And in trying to teach her kids that they cannot get everything they want, she does not encourage them to have a list, and there are no letters to Santa or hoping Santa will bring something that Mom has already said “no” to.

“Without the Santa factor, we can talk about budget,” she says. “Not that I’m showing them my receipts or something.”

Nate and Anna have birthdays shortly after Christmas, so if Kate regrets not getting them something in particular, she can easily make up for it at birthday time.

Does Christmas gift giving get more stressful as the kids get older and more demanding? Not necessarily. Katherine Saufley, of Syracuse, and her husband have five children: Lucinda, 15, Tristan, 9, James, 8, Bram, 7, and Liesl, 3. They limit the present buying to $50 per child, plus small, inexpensive stocking stuffers.

She hides toys and clothes bought at sales all year long and avoids the stress of the mall at Christmas time. The children receive fewer than five gifts each: “one big present and a couple of smaller things.”

“I suppose if you have a lot of money, then it’s hard to say ‘no’ to your kids,” she says. “We’re not rich, so we’re not going to be getting all (the kids) want.” Still, she says her children have never yet had a disappointing Christmas.

“I can’t pretend that I haven’t been a child and I know that, yes, of course, (Christmas) is for presents!” Katherine says. Still, opening presents ends up being only a small part of the holiday for her children.

They go to church the night before, and, after opening presents in the morning, they go to their grandparents’ house for brunch, leaving their presents at home. On Boxing Day, a U.K. holiday celebrated the day after Christmas (Katherine’s father is British), the adults organize an entertaining “White Elephant” gift exchange, and the children get to devour the gigantic gingerbread house piled high with candy.

Serezniy/Getty Images

The weekend after Christmas the family travels to Pennsylvania to visit the other set of grandparents. Of course, all the traveling, baking, cleaning and decorating can be exhausting, but Katherine loves the holidays. “If I didn’t have family around,” she says, “I would probably host something to prolong the whole Christmas season.”

Since parents of only children might indulge them a bit more, I wondered whether there’s a temptation to overdo. I asked Michele Westphal, of Syracuse, about presents for her daughter, Ella, age 6. “When Ella was first born, we went a little overboard. Each year I feel like we kind of pull back a little bit.”

Michele, a last-minute shopper, hates the mall, and shops mostly online. If a gift doesn’t make it in time for Christmas or if it’s cheaper after Christmas, she tells Ella that another present is still on its way. “If we get what we intend to get, fine; if not, we can always get some things after Christmas. It extends the surprise and excitement.”

At their house Santa puts candy canes on the tree, fills the stockings, and brings a “bed present.” When she was a child, “Santa would always leave us a bed present,” Michele recalls. “So if you woke up at any point you could open your bed present and play with that.”

Michele’s daughter gets one big Santa present: “We explain it to Ella as ‘Santa is trying to provide for everyone.’” Making the other presents from Mom and Dad allows the family to talk with Ella about limits. “We do talk about finances and trying to not go overboard and that just because it’s Christmas it isn’t the time to blow the bank.”

“It’s a little bit easier when it’s an only child because she’s not comparing it to another sibling to say, ‘you got more than me!’”

To make the season calmer, the family has aimed to limit their traveling, cooking and other activities. Michele says, “I feel like before we were always on the go and we never got to sit down and just enjoy being a small family.”

For my part, I can accommodate my desire to give my children plenty of presents by hiding away good finds from garage and rummage sales in the summer and fall.

Consignment sales, like the Polka Tot events, consignment stores like Tales and Toys on Burnet Avenue in Syracuse and Wear It Again Kids in Cicero, and thrift store shopping also help limit the costs and consequences of consumerism.

If I squirrel away enough good finds in the summer and fall, maybe I can keep us to just one new last-minute purchase for each child in December. Maybe.

Do these strategies guarantee that Christmas will be peaceful and perfect? Probably not, but I owe it to my kids to try to relax. In 20 years, they might not remember the toys they got for Christmas, but they will definitely remember whether or not we were happy.

Diane Williamson lives with her husband and two children in Syracuse.


Top photo by Mediaphotos


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