Christmas Worries

In a recent reader mailbag, Dave wrote:

Up until January, I had a wonderful job where I handled all of the IT needs for a small company in our area. At the end of last year, the company was sold and the jobs were folded together with another company with the “redundant” jobs being eliminated, and mine was redundant. Since then I have been looking for work without much success and I’ve been working at a local McDonalds.

Christmas is coming and we don’t have much money to buy gifts for our kids. Basically, we have almost nothing at all. I have no idea what to do. My Christmases growing up were wonderful. What can I do to make this Christmas wonderful?

This letter really hit home for me.

There’s a family in my life that’s gone through a very similar situation. In this family, the parents were facing unemployment for most of a year while raising two pre-teen girls. They struggled mightily with their finances, but at the end of the year, they still had the things that mattered. Namely, they had a wonderful family where there was obvious mutual love and care.

The first thing to remember is that no family is perfect. There is no such thing as perfection. It is really easy to look back to the past and see the holidays as this perfect time, particularly when you’re re-examining childhood memories.

When I think back to my childhood Christmases, they were wonderful times, but I can also see that they were not perfect. My father was laid off from his job during multiple Christmases and I had a few members of my extended family who consumed excessive alcohol and made the holidays rather … uncomfortable.

Those negative elements did not make my childhood Christmases into a negative experience. What I remember now are all of the good things. I remember time spent with my grandmother and great-grandmother when they were still living (and quite active). I remember the incredible excitement of the time leading up to Christmas and the wonderful feeling of waking up early on Christmas morning.

Here’s the thing: aside from perhaps one present each year, I don’t really remember the presents at all. There are many Christmases where I cannot recall a single gift I received.

Even as a child, I realized on a very deep level that Christmas wasn’t really about the presents at all, and I’m pretty confident given the tone of your email that your children are similarly thoughtful.

As a parent, it’s important to keep in mind that Christmas really, truly isn’t about the presents. If your worry with regards to the “perfect” Christmas involves having great gifts under the tree, that should be pretty low on your priority list.

In fact, if I were in your shoes, I would try out one of these things this Christmas.

One option would be to mutually agree to forego Christmas presents within your family. Talk about this together as a family. (This does not mean that Santa couldn’t leave a gift for each child, but it would mean that there wouldn’t be other presents.) Talk about the abundance of things that you already have and question whether or not you need more things. Make it into a discussion about what Christmas is really all about with your kids.

Hand in hand with that, you could spend Christmas Day voluntering as a family. Look for a soup kitchen or a food pantry to work at. Almost all of these charities are open on Christmas Day because quite a few families actually do this, and they always have things that need done.

You can carry that even further by doing what we call “reverse Christmas-ing.” Instead of getting presents, all you do is give them on Christmas Day. For example, you could spend a few weeks as a family beforehand doing a small canned goods drive and then donate all that you’ve collected on Christmas Day. Thanksgiving is a great time to jump-start such an effort.

Another option (if you truly don’t like the gift-free route) is to make gifts. Simply have everyone in the family make something for everyone else in the family. If you don’t have a skill that you can use here, learn one. It’s okay if the other person knows what you’re making – in fact, it can make for some great family evenings throughout December.

No ideas here? Learn how to knit or crochet so you can make a sweater or a scarf. Learn how to cook so you can make a big batch of someone’s favorite cookies. Work hard on creating a nice piece of art, then frame it so it can be hung in someone’s room (this is a great one for kids to make for parents). The supplies for these items do not cost very much. The real investment here is thought and time.

Yet another option is to select one gift as a family for the whole family to enjoy. Sit down and think about the things you enjoy doing together as a family, then talk about one item that would improve one of those experiences. Then, purchase that item, wrap it up, let the children open it on Christmas morning, then spend part of the day utilizing that item (if possible).

There’s one big thing worth noticing here. Everything on this list involves time spent with your family. In the end, that is what matters about Christmas.

If you’re worried that your kids will be disappointed by fewer presents under the tree (or none at all)… well, they might be. It’s a disappointment that won’t last very long, though, if you are actively spending time together and building a strong bond with them. It’s that bond that will last, not concern about what was or wasn’t under a tree in your living room one morning.

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