Every year when I was little, the same thing happened. Every Christmas Eve, my family would gather either at our house or my grandmother's house. And every year, as the clock ticked closer to 7pm, my siblings and I would find ourselves sitting next to stacks of gifts. If we were at our house, we would be in the family room, the room with the fireplace and the tree, the best furniture. We would pick a spot and divvy up the gifts, which would often be dragged into the house by my grandmother and grandfather in giant, black trash bags.
My grandmother was one of "those people." You know the ones. The ones who just can't not buy a gift.
We got things we wanted, sometimes. We got sweatshirts and toys that featured our favorite characters, art supplies or computer games. But we got plenty of things we didn't want either. Things we didn't need. Junk piled up in our rooms until summer came and we took it to Goodwill. A continuous cycle, over and over and over again.
As I got older, we decided, as a family, to stop it. To stop the gift thing. We do a small gift exchange every year--no more than one or two gifts each, if that--but that's it. For a few years, we have tried to do just Tree of Joy gifts: we would all go to the mall and choose an ornament featuring the want or need of a foster child in the area, aged from 0 to 18. In lieu of gifts to each other, I try to make sure we all give to someone who really needs it.
I still remember the anxiety of that pile of gifts. I hated clutter, even as a kid, but found myself inexplicably acquiring things that piled up and up and up. Boxes for computer games, books and journals, notebooks and pens and electronics. It stressed me out, even as a young teenager.
When Forrest was born, Danny and I had to decide what we wanted our Christmas to be like. We could make Christmas an affair based on gifts, based on buying and giving and receiving. Or we could make Christmas about the spirit: hot cocoa and a clean house, warm blankets and a pretty tree, driving together at night to look at lights, giving to those less fortunate, baking cookies and watching our favorite movies.
Which one would you choose?
It was this Christmas that I proposed that we limit ourselves to one gift each and stocking stuffers.
That means, I only get Danny one gift. Danny only gets me one gift. And we only get Forrest one gift. We fill stockings; we wrap one gift. When Forrest is older, that one big gift will be from "Santa"--until he's old enough to know that, you know, Santa is us. We set a spending limit. We use the time we would have spent shopping and wrapping and stressing and counting our money on other things: watching movies, cleaning the house, being together.
Aren't those things more important?
I don't want to sound like a fuddy-duddy. Everyone gets to choose how they spend their money and how they spend their Christmas. But I'll admit--it's hard to watch people I love spend hundreds of dollars on gifts for their kids, just so they can have piles upon piles to open on Christmas morning. It's hard to know that many children in the United States go without--not just without gifts on Christmas morning, but without food every day, without the basic necessities like coats and warm socks.
Our logic is that we have everything we need. Trust me when I say, Forrest does not need more toys. He needs more clothes, but he grows slower now than he did before and guessing season-to-size matches is hard. He wants for nothing: he is warm and fed and happy and enjoys throwing every toy he owns over the baby gate, repeatedly, day in and day out. He doesn't need anything else to throw, I promise.
It's the same for Danny and I: we don't need anything.
So we are limiting the gifts, but increasing everything else: more nights baking cookies together, drinking hot cocoa, watching movies. More days spent sitting on the couch, reading books and singing. More days spent together, instead of shopping.
We still get asked, plenty, what we want for Christmas or what Forrest wants, and our answer is the same: please buy supplies and gifts for foster children, or children in need, in your area. Please donate time or money to a local soup kitchen. We don't need anything, I promise.