How To Finish Your Christmas Shopping Before Thanksgiving (or: How We Keep It Christmas)

writing Christmas cards

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.

Christmas packages

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.

dress 2

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!

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  • Pennie
    December 9, 2014 at 11:58 am

    I love this post, and can completely identify with it. I grew up in a family with little money, and we had one main present and a stocking from our parents, with possibly one or two smaller items, but which were always needed rather than frivolous. We were encouraged not to buy anything for ourselves in the month before Christmas and Birthday, but to instead add it to our list, so we could be sure we were not just getting bought ‘stuff’. Nowadays, with two parental bereavement anniversaries at the end of November, my sisters and brother don’t really ‘do’ Christmas which I find devastating, and my in-laws Christmas is exactly as the first one you described – it’s physically sickening to see the amount of money spent on the children, and I find it a wholly uncomfortable time. To me, the spirit of Christmas is to have family and friends together, sharing memories and stories, along with good food and a drink or two, but mainly just making the time to be together. I’d sacrifice all the gifts in the world to just have my siblings and partners round the same table with me.

  • Evelyn
    December 9, 2014 at 12:46 pm

    Fantastic!! This echoes my own thoughts and feelings. Husband and I are working on implementing the idea of Family Experiences over Getting A Bunch Of Stuff. Thank you for sharing how your altered gift-giving has played out in your family — I never would have thought of some of those unexpected results! Happiest of holidays to you and your loved ones.

  • Amy H
    December 9, 2014 at 1:00 pm

    Yes. Yes. and Yes. We made similar changes in our family seven years ago as well, when my youngest was an infant, and we found ourselves wondering what to buy an infant when the kiddos seemed to have everything. We just stopped. We went to three gifts from Santa, one big and two small. And we buy and wrap an outfit for each and a pair of shoes for each. That’s it, and it is all together lovely. We have seen some of the same benefits. My youngest asked just the other day if she could ask Santa for toys for someone else instead of her. My middle child wants to take blankets to the homeless men we pass on the way to swim practice for Christmas. We will do both, because we can and because their hearts desire giving more than getting. I have found that less is almost always more. I’m glad to know we’re not the only ones.

  • Liz Harvatine
    December 9, 2014 at 1:21 pm

    What a great post. Thank you for sharing! This really speaks to me. I’ve never had to set a gift limit (limits make me squirrelly!) but I am so conscious of how having too much quickly becomes overwhelming and that the more you have, the less meaningful it all is. We always travel across the country for christmas. One of the first years we did this after having kids my sister was surprised that we had brought ALL of our daughter’s gifts with us. All of her gifts didn’t amount to a whole lot of suitcase space!
    This idea comes into play everyday with my kids. With sweets, TV and other “extras” we don’t indulge very often. If we do it becomes expected and it’s not special anymore. My kids are young still (oldest is almost four) but I’m very pleased that we’ve managed to maintain excitement around these things and not make them part of our routine. My daughter will tell people she has “so many toys!”, when compared to most kids we know she has a very modest amount.

  • Kim
    December 9, 2014 at 1:29 pm

    Excelent post! This year, more than any other, I have simply not been moved by the season. I have felt more run over by expectations mostly from wrapping papers and holiday lights being available as early as August! It takes something away form waiting for A Charlie Brown Christmas on a Monday night, that you only get to see once and savor every moment. Every year my children ( mine are from 27-7) have been told ” You may choose three gifts but be happy with one.” This has been in place for years and I think my children are thankful. I hope they are.

    We have not gotten a tree or taken out my decorations, I will be making cookies with the children this weekend and have planned out some ornament making for when they are on break. I am taking Katy to The Nutcracker, she appreciates that more than any gift she can open. I am thankful for her appreciation. She was especially excited when she went to choose her fabric for the skirt she will be wearing. Little joys matter!

    Thank you for the reminder and taking the time to share your family experiences of how thoughtful giving can replace mindless buying. The pressures of being able to outdo have become so great that the message of giving and the grace of receiving have been lost along the way.

    Merry Christmas to you and your family!

    ( sorry for the rambling comment)

  • Laura J.
    December 9, 2014 at 1:48 pm

    So much truth! I grew up in a family where we got EVERYTHING for Christmas. It was total gluttony. We would actually get tired of opening things. It wasn’t just toys — it was toys and clothes and books and just everything. I think they loved buying it, and they loved watching us open it all. And my parents still do it. It’s very weird at this point, since we are grown adults with jobs of our own. And now that I have a daughter, I have to beg them not to spoil her rotten (and then forgive them when they inevitably do).

    My husband and I are working to make the whole Christmas season more of a gift — so it’s not just that one morning of presents. It’s all the fun things we get to do together: picking out the tree, driving around looking at Christmas lights, our Advent calendar, baking cookies together. All those experiences are gifts.

    For some (lucky) reason, my daughter hasn’t gotten into asking for gifts. She told us she was going to ask Santa for food. She freaked out and didn’t ask him for anything, but we assured her we would always have enough food. Eventually she decided she wants Elsa and Anna dolls, so that’s what she’s getting from Santa, along with a couple gifts from us and her stocking. My parents…. are probably out ransacking Toys R Us. But I hope they’re having a blast doing it.

  • Jemellia
    December 9, 2014 at 1:50 pm

    This article is everything to me. I love it and this is pretty much what we do, James and I detest how much out of hand the gifts get, it is just SO MUCH.

    I never really thought about being able to actually enjoy your gifts if there are less, I just got sick of all of the shit everywhere and realizing some of it never got put up for weeks (mostly from family). It’s all out of love, but, we can do better than that.

  • Karen
    December 9, 2014 at 6:24 pm

    Deb- You are so right and I never thought of the unintended, unexpected benefits (kids thinking more of others.) Congrats on taming the grandparent gifts! We’ve got one who has been happily redirected to legos (which they enjoy, we know how to store, and can totally be passed on in five years) but the other side finds paring down Christmas to be a bit offensive. 🙁

  • Cheryl Arkison
    December 9, 2014 at 6:37 pm

    Okay, so the companion gift idea is brilliant!

    We have the same rule for Santa gifts and stockings. And even go so far as to coach the Santa ask to be reasonable. And for the last two years we haven’t actually given the kids any other gifts. With so many aunts and uncles and cousins, not to mention the Grandmas, they don’t notice a gift from us or not.

  • Agnes
    December 9, 2014 at 6:41 pm

    I’ve been trying to do this for the past couple of years! The companion gifts is a great idea – I will have to be more proactive for my extended family who love to give lots of gifts.

  • Sabrina B.
    December 10, 2014 at 11:35 am

    Awesome post! So true.

  • Tachel
    December 11, 2014 at 12:51 am

    Thanks for sharing! My husband and I decided on two gifts for each kid this year also. I’m really happy to hear your perspective!

  • Maureen
    December 11, 2014 at 8:22 am

    This is the most thoughtful and inspiring post I have read in a long time. I can identify with your story about Christmas Eve shopping at Target. Every year I catch myself worrying if I did enough, if I bought enough, if I cooked enough, etc. This year we are coping with my husband’s illness, and I have been growing increasingly anxious about how “to do” Christmas this year given our circumstances. After reading about your Christmas, I have decided to let it all go. Christmas is going to be different this year, and now I know it will still be wonderful. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  • Heather L
    December 11, 2014 at 2:51 pm

    Love this post!! I will be sending this out to a lot of people I know, just because it’s such a neat idea. Thanks for sharing. Really, thank you so much!

  • treen
    December 15, 2014 at 8:44 am

    Such a great outline! And very timely for me to read this morning. We’re doing a mostly-handmade Christmas this year and I’m behind on the sewing. Last night, I felt ready to throw in the towel and just go buy a bunch of stuff. Thank you for slowing me down to reassess what still needs to be purchased and what can just be ignored.

  • Samina
    December 18, 2014 at 11:18 am

    Insightful post – one I’m saving to read & reread as I go nuts this holiday season. Our family has fallen victim to overconsumption & I think it’s time for us to slow down, breathe & enjoy what we really have. I’m planning on implementing your system in the new year to come. Not just for Christmas, but for all the year.

  • Amanda
    December 18, 2014 at 2:21 pm

    I love this. We havent set strict limits but we have tried to be more aware. This year we are taking the kids on a trip for their gift, and all gifts are for the trip (plane ticket, carry-on bag, autograph book, etc). We’ve also done companion gifts which has been so nice. We have had a couple of Christmases that were completely overwhelming. I’m hoping this year is a little more relaxed and reasonable.

  • Jonilou
    January 20, 2015 at 6:40 pm

    Thank you for taking the time to write this very thoughtful essay. I am older and we only got a few gifts–one special one and a few smaller ones. I have fond memories of opening my toys and getting that one special one. Every year one of my friends would ask what I got and when I answered, she would say “What else?” But I still remember those special gifts: one year it was the Mr. Ed talking hand puppet, another year a cardboard stove and sink, another year it was the Mousetrap game, then a toy cash register, then Chatty Cathy, then a Polaroid camera. And I still have the teddy bear I got my first Christmas–Tod is now 57 years old. You have lucky kids!

    • Deborah
      January 20, 2015 at 7:28 pm

      What incredible memories to share!! Thank you so much for helping me to see the long-term effects of doing this with our kids played out. I figure, we each seem to have had that ONE gift that MADE Christmas for us. I’d love to focus on that and give them room to really love, love, love it–the way you’ve loved your Tod for 57 years. Memories are stronger that way, and stronger memories are sweeter longer, yes?

      So glad to hear your list of wonderful toys!! Sounds like an incredible, happy childhood. 🙂