About seven years ago, we had an AMAZING Christmas. Amazing in the sense that there were a LOT of presents. Like, SO many. It was an embarrassment of riches. And I couldn’t quite explain it, but it really did feel like…an embarrassment. There was something about the sheer VOLUME of gifts that made me feel overwhelmed and spendthrifty and gluttonous. After all the gift wrap drifted to the floor following the frenzy of ripping and tearing, I realized that I didn’t feel happier, not the way I wanted to. I didn’t feel more fulfilled. I just felt let down. Like a balloon that slowly loses air and is all wrinkled and tragic at the end.
One of my favorite writers to quote is Amy Dacyzyn, and she has written about this phenomenon. Based on her writings, we’ve come to call this the Ice Cream Sundae Principle. She says, basically, that when most folks take their kids out for ice cream, over time, the kids want more and bigger ice cream treats. It starts out with a cake cone and a scoop of vanilla, but pretty soon, that’s old hat, so their parents get them TWO scoops, but that’s not enough after a while, so it’s a sundae, but then that’s familiar (and so contemptible), and they have to have a banana split… You see how this goes. It’s the same idea behind eating any sweets: your taste buds get numb to the flavor, so the fifth bite really isn’t as sweet or as satisfying as the first.
Dacyzyn’s argument is that when the thrill wears off on a treat or a pleasure, the answer isn’t MORE, it’s LESS. She points out that most folks assume they have to keep cranking it up a notch, but for her family, they simply do it less often in order to allow time to bring back the original thrill. So when a cake cone with a scoop of vanilla isn’t satisfying or exciting for her kids, they just go to the ice cream parlor less often, until a scoop is AWESOME again. It’s not a punishment–it’s about pacing our lives and our desires in a way that prevents a good thing from becoming a bad thing, prevents a wholesome desire from becoming a greedy obsession.
This is the single most influential concept I have read or heard as a parent, seriously. In terms of how we handle basic, day-to-day navigation of a world where we can have so much for so cheaply, this one idea–that sometimes what we need is LESS of a good thing or it becomes a bad thing–has changed how we address a multitude of lifetime events for our marriage and our children.
So, then: Christmas. One year after the Christmas I described above, we decided to make a change. I had an idea. I had a wonderful, awful idea: what if we did FEWER gifts for our children? Like, JUST TWO? I know, I know: that’s insanity. But it has led to some of the most fulfilling Christmas memories we have.
Here’s how we do it:
- One gift for each child is from Santa. We monitor their ideas and requests super closely, and try to visit Santa as soon after Thanksgiving as we can. That way, whatever they’ve asked him for, we’re more likely to be able to get. We do emphasize, like this year, that Santa doesn’t always give exactly what you ask for, to give us some margin, but with just one exception so far, we’ve always been able to make sure that Santa delivers on Christmas morning.
- One gift for each child is from Mommy and Daddy. We do our best to get them what they most want, but tend to fold in here what we think they NEED, too. If one child always gets building toys, we might give an art-based toy. If one child always gets dolls, we might give an architecture toy. Because there are only TWO gifts, we can (1) give bigger gifts and meet more exciting requests, because we can spread our entire per-child budget over two really great gifts than over a lot of smaller ones; (2) invest in quality gifts that really last, and so build a library of things for our kids to do all year long, meaning that Christmas gifts really get used over an extended period and passed from one kid to the next; and (3) our kids don’t have that Law of Diminishing Returns on Christmas morning, where the 12th gift is just less exciting than the 1st.
- Stockings are INTENSE. There are always small things that kids need (socks, for example) that are a part of Christmas. We also maintain a tradition that kids are allowed to get up before adults on Christmas morning, but they can’t open any gifts–they CAN open their stockings, so I like to make them super fun (while the adults get their coffee and settle in for the Main Event). And I’m not super-human, so there are always little goodies I like to give that don’t fit into our only-two-presents rule. So we do not-too-large wrapped gifts inside the stockings–a boxed domino game, or a small locking diary, or a piggy bank–that the kids can get first thing. It gives me both a steam valve (to allow me to spring for a small gift that I’m having trouble resisting) but also a boundary line (I know we don’t give more than two gifts under the tree, but some things just won’t fit inside a stocking, so it helps me control any last-minute impulse spending on things that, let’s be honest, we just don’t need and they won’t really appreciate).
- We give Christmas pajamas on Christmas Eve. Christmas socks are included in stockings. Christmas-themed outfits are sewn some years (but not others) for holiday services, Santa photos, or family events. These are given during the weeks leading up to Christmas, and are not wrapped. No other clothing is included in Christmas gifts. That eliminates a LOT of the “filler” gifts under the tree, let’s be honest.
- I enlist the help of family members. When grandparents and aunts or uncles ask what the kids want for Christmas, I generally tell them what WE’RE getting them, and then make themed suggestions for gifts that might be in line with that. One year, my eldest got a digital camera, so her grandmother got her a Spielberg-style leather jacket. One year, our other daughter got a lovely handmade wooden doll house, so my mom gave a selection of doll house furniture. When our boy got a train set, my in-laws sent the roundhouse for them to “sleep” in. The extended family are giving a gift they know will be appreciated, but the children feel less overwhelmed by the number of gifts since they all “go” together.
We–the internet culture–spent a lot of time the past couple of years talking about FIRST WORLD PROBLEMS. Well, here’s a FWP for you: it’s Christmas morning, and you’re surrounded by presents and torn paper and ribbons and bows, and you feel empty inside. Like, you’re glad it’s Christmas and the tearing and excitement was awesome, but now that it’s all over, you feel a little let down and dissatisfied. It’s not that you want MORE, not really, it’s just that you’re not sure that’s all there is–or that it’s all there’s SUPPOSED to be. It’s a weird longing, a just-out-of-reach ache, when you realize you’re not super enthused about ANY of the gifts you’ve received and think maybe you’re just ready to head back to your regular life. Let’s turn on the TV. Christmas is over.
Have you ever had that feeling? How tragic is that? And let’s be honest: how pathetic? Right?
To have a world of presents dumped on you and STILL NOT BE HAPPY. It’s the root of what we’re fighting as parents, this sense of emptiness when given so many riches. And I’m trying so hard to fight that as I raise my kids. In part, I want them to learn to be grateful when they receive something they didn’t want or don’t necessarily like–my oldest is an ACE at this. She has gotten some, let’s be honest, totally CRAP gifts over the years from extended family who didn’t know quite what to get her but wanted to give her SOMETHING. And man, that kid can look beyond the object and to the giver and truly be thankful to have been thought of and remembered. She amazes me that way. I want all my children to learn that deep level of gratitude.
At the same time, I want to recognize that I have the power to limit the number of items they receive, and cultivate both that gratitude AND their appreciation for how it feels to experience true joy and rapture when opening that Perfect Gift. I remain convinced, just like that ice cream sundae, that FEWER gifts will allow them the room inside their hearts to deeply love what they DO receive. I don’t know where I read it, but there was a story a couple years ago about a kid who loved, loved, loved his two toy cars, so his grandmother bought him TEN new toy cars. And then she saw that he didn’t play with ANY of them anymore. She asked him why and he said, “Gramma, I can’t love TEN.” Something about having too MANY made it hard for him to love ANY. How’s that for a snapshot of what’s happening to our children in this culture of constant want and immediate gratification?
Here are the benefits from limiting our gift-giving to only two gifts (plus an abundant stocking):
- We have fewer things coming into our home, and the ones we do generally are able to fit into categories that make them easier to store (all the trains go together; the doll furniture goes in the doll house; etc). This extends the usefulness and shelf-life of gifts at our house–no more “disposable” presents or gifts that get tossed aside the day after Christmas.
- Our children can focus on a smaller number of gifts, which means they can really love, love, love the ones they get. Toys get played with more, and interestingly, the kids are more likely to share their toys with one another when they have fewer than when they have more–it’s fun to see the TWO treasures your brother got, rather than hoarding the zillion tiny treasures YOU got while nursing a confusing sense that you’re not super excited about any of them. (Have you ever read Morris’ Disappearing Bag? It’s like that–fun to share your thrilling gift with others, because your excitement bubbles over.) I am convinced this is building a sense in our children that Christmas morning is about appreciating what you have versus accumulating. No one wants a Cousin Dudley, counting gifts this year compared to last year, right?
- I am better able to control my own greed and spending, which I am realizing is an issue for me. I want so badly to give my children the world, and it’s hard to avoid over-buying. The two-gift rule helps me to reign it in, and reminds me very actively that I want to give my children EXPERIENCES more than THINGS.
- I am better able to resist last-minute impulse shopping, to which we are all susceptible. The first year we did Christmas this way was a bit of an experiment–I didn’t know anyone who’d done this, and I wasn’t totally sure it would work. I was in Target (gah!!) the day before Christmas, and realized I was anxious–what if it bombs? what if I’m wrong? do I need to GO BUY MORE PRESENTS RIGHT NOW?!? I talked myself down, convincing myself that if it all went to the crapper, big deal. Lesson learned. And it didn’t–the kids were actually more thrilled with their smaller haul.
- Our children learn to prioritize their desires. This one is huge. They know they’re only getting TWO gifts. So when they make their “lists,” they are forced to be very, very clear (with us and with themselves) about what they want MOST. Our 8 year old, bless her, told us two years in a row that she wants Santa to surprise her. Seriously?!? Yes. She doesn’t even ask for something specific–she loves that she wakes up Christmas morning and something is under the tree that’s JUST RIGHT for her, without her even asking. That kind of trusting love is impossible to fake, and if this practice at our house has had even a small hand in cultivating that in our children, then it’s all worth it.
- The grandparents go (a little) less crazy. Because WE have limited the giving, and because we encourage the grandparents to give “companion” gifts, there has been an unexpected side effect where we have fewer gifts overall coming into our home. The idea that it’s better to spend a little more on a quality, lasting gift and have ONE than to have LOTS of less expensive but lower quality things has rubbed off and rippled through our extended family, too. My grandfather was right (of course): buy the best that you can afford, or else you’ll end up buying it again and spend twice as much as if you’d just bought the good one to start with. He was talking about tools at the time, but he always understood: invest rather than spend.
- We are encouraged to purge before Christmas. Because we know we’re getting fewer gifts but that they tend to be more special, we are encouraged to purge old toys and games between Thanksgiving and Christmas to make room for the ones coming in. This has its own ripple effect–we have to have conversations with our children about how they use the toys they’ve received over time, and why they use some but not others; our kids have to evaluate what toys they truly love and what toys they won’t realistically use any longer; the children occasionally discover things they’ve forgotten they had, and either fall back in love with them or give them one last good play time before saying goodbye; we get to hear from our children more about what it is they look for in a toy, which helps as we select new things to bring into the house (including narrowing down the areas where they have strengths and the activities to which they’re most attracted); and we pass along to the thrift shop good-condition toys for another family who are themselves shopping for gifts, which gives us a chance to talk about money and charity and greed and giving with our kids while the rest of the world is busy losing their minds with shopping frenzy.
- Our kids have learned that “new” doesn’t equal “better.” Because we look to give our children just the right gift, we can’t always get it from Amazon or Target. Some things are handmade, by me or someone else. Others are vintage, found on eBay. Others are discovered at a thrift store. It doesn’t have to be brand-new or expensive to meet their desire, and I think it’s valuable to communicate that to children when they’re young.
- Our children have begun to voluntarily express concern for others. Very simply, because we only do two gifts and our kids have consistently received the things they most hoped for, they are growing up with the sense that their needs will be met. The result (again, unexpectedly on my part) is that they are free to think of OTHERS in this season, and show desire to meet THEIR needs. Never saw that one coming, but it’s a good reminder that when each of us feels safe and loved, we are better able to love others openly. Shouldn’t Christmas teach that?
- I am better able to offer our kids handmade gifts each year. Because we don’t do a LOT of gifts, I have the time to really invest in a GREAT handmade present–either by me or by a cottage maker. Our eight-year-old is getting multiple American Girl doll outfits with matching dresses for her this year, which is exactly what she most wants. Because I have the time, since that’s her only big gift this year, I can add details and trims and make them really special for her–I’m not busy spreading myself over a ton of shopping for a large list of gifts. Two years ago, we bought her a whole collection of granny-made Barbie clothes from eBay–not made by me, but made by hand, and carefully selected and accumulated, and which she treasures.
- I spend less time overall shopping for Christmas gifts. While I’m more inclined to really think about and focus on each gift, on the whole, the month of November is the ONLY month during which I do Christmas shopping. If I did it too early, they might outgrow their request or change their minds, so accumulating over the course of the year isn’t the best practice for our kids. I had the time to search and search eBay for those Barbie clothes because all the other Christmas gifts were taken care of, but I did all of it in the space of about two weeks. Fewer gifts equals more time to devote to making each one special, but it doesn’t mean I’m a slave to the shopping.
I’ll close by openly saying that this practice does NOT (so far) seem to save us any money. We set a budget for each child and work to stay within it. I am not concerned with spending an equal amount on each kid, only on meeting that child’s hopes as best as I am able within the set amount we’re willing to spend. We nearly always go over budget on one of them, but come wildly under budget on another–our four-year-old this year stated emphatically before Thanksgiving that all she really wanted from Santa was an Anna doll to play with her Elsa doll. It’s a $25 doll, and we were delighted to order it for her. She came in well under budget this year, but will be elated with her gift.
What it DOES save us is our sanity and, I think, our integrity. I can’t feel good about spending 364.25 days a year writing and talking about loving handmade and teaching our children the value of good quality–and then buying up a zillion cheap gifts on Christmas. I sincerely believe that by limiting what we put under the tree, we’re communicating to our children in the most powerful way that we mean what we say: it isn’t THINGS that matter, it’s people. It isn’t STUFF that makes life special, it’s experiences. And that the Christmas memories–the FAMILY memories–we most want them to have are about loving each other and being together.
I don’t know how helpful this is to others to hear that we do Christmas this way, and I freely admit that it’s an on-going process through which I learn more about myself and my children every year (did I mention that I’m discovering I have issues with greed and hoarding?). I feel deeply convicted that this is a step in the right direction to building a family culture of generosity and thoughtfulness and gratitude and contentment, and one of my dearest wishes is that my children will grow up and carry that into the world with them where it will spread like ripples in the water. Here’s hoping it does the same for you and yours!