I had to go out the other day to run some errands and I got caught in the Christmas shopping rush. At Target, people were pushing carts heaped with toys through the aisles and there was a beat down going on in the toy department over a shipment of Zhu Zhu pets. I overheard someone say that getting a Zhu Zhu pet was the only way to ensure that their kid remembered this Christmas forever. On a message board I frequent, posters are talking about buying thousands of dollars in gifts to make this a “Christmas to remember” for their kids. People are buying elaborate, expensive decorations to stage a Christmas extravaganza that their “kids will always remember.”
The goal seems to be to buy the biggest gifts, the most expensive gifts, or the most gifts period in order to ensure that the kids have a magical Christmas that they will remember for ages. Christmas must be such a spectacular extravaganza that it can never be forgotten, no matter the cost or aggravation. It’s an expensive arms race to create the biggest, best Christmas ever and much of it is lost on the kids that are supposed to be so impressed. In the middle of Target, I started thinking about my own childhood Christmases. What do I really remember from those holidays?
Christmas was a pretty big deal in my world. There were always gifts from Santa and from mom and dad. Grandma always threw a big Christmas bash for all the aunts, uncles, and cousins (and there were a lot of us) and gifts were exchanged there, as well. There were Christmas parties with gift exchanges at my school. By the time the holiday ended, I’d usually raked in quite the haul for a little kid. You’d think I’d remember a lot about it, right? Wrong. As I sat and tried to recall the presents I’d received in my eighteen years of living at home, only three really stood out: A Barbie Dream House, a ten-speed bike, and the game of Twister. (Twister only probably because I would fracture my wrist later that year playing that game when someone much larger fell on me, but I digress.)
Out of all that hoopla and gift giving extravaganzas, only three gifts really stick out in my mind. Sure, when I got out the photo albums I could see many more that I remembered and appreciated at the time, but I had to be prompted with photos to recall them. Only three gifts in eighteen years made a huge impression on me. Hopefully no one in my family was buying gifts with the hope that I’d “remember them for a lifetime” because it didn’t happen.
What I do remember when I think of all those Christmases are the less tangible things. I remember sitting at the kid’s table at Grandma’s house and how all the aunts and uncles would talk for hours while we kids itched to get at the loot. I remember the smells of my mother cooking and the big production that was cookie baking day. I remember the luminaries sold by the Girl Scouts and how the whole town would be lit up on Christmas Eve. (I always thought the point was to make a runway for Santa.) I remember the tradition of decorating the tree and the thrill of seeing the ornaments again after a whole year had passed. I remember my dad playing the guitar outside under the lights while the kids sledded up and down the hill. I remember the Christmas pageant at school and I can still tell you every part I played (and even sing some of the songs). I remember rushing to the TV on the nights that Rudolph, Frosty, and the Peanuts specials were on and chowing down on popcorn. I remember dad taking us out to look at lights and driving around until I fell asleep in the backseat of the car. There are so many things I remember about Christmas, none of which have anything to do with the gifts I received.
Most of all, I remember the joy of waking up at dawn to see what Santa had left. Even though I don’t remember the gifts, I remember the anticipation, the listening for hoof beats on the roof at night, the inability to fall asleep, and the wonder at seeing that Santa had eaten my cookies. The gifts weren’t the point. The things that made Christmas magical were the simple joys of the season. Sure, I was thrilled when presents were under the tree, but looking back I think that one gift or ten, large or small, wouldn’t have made much difference in my joy. And it sure doesn’t matter now. What matters now that I’m older and that so many people from those early Christmases are no longer with me are the memories of the time spent together and the traditions we engaged in. Most of my memories were not (and could never be) planned or orchestrated to be “great Christmas memories.” They are simply the memories gained from being around the people I loved and who loved me, having fun together, and going about our Christmas season together.
So if you’re out at the mall spending thousands chasing “Christmas memories” for your kids, take a minute and really think about what you remember from your youth. I’ll bet it’s not the presents, or at least not many of them. Chances are no matter how big, numerous, or expensive your gifts and decorations are, they won’t be the things that your kids remember about Christmas when they look back as adults. What they’ll remember will be the time you spent together and the silly, random moments in time that can’t be bought or staged.
So here’s my advice: Get your kids a few gifts that you think they really want and that you can safely afford and forget everything else. Spend the rest of the season decorating the tree together, baking cookies, reading stories, watching TV specials, and just hanging out together. That’s where the memories will come from, not the mall.