Tangent — A New Scrooge

December 22, 2010

I love giving gifts, but I hate giving things out of obligation. Is there anyone who likes that? Oh, you do?! Masochist.

Christmas for some has become about obligation. How can it not be with the continual bemoaning from so many about how much Christmas buying is killing them? And it’s not chiefly the result of a bad economy; that kind of plaint has been around for years. It’s just more pronounced with the current financial squeeze. But these days when it’s earnestly said to me, I sometimes reply, “Don’t do it.” I never say this with a flippant tone, and it still gets me looks as if I’m teasing or have two heads. But the looks never bother me. I understand what drives them. A significant number of people really do hinge their identities on what they do for Christmas (been there, done that, got a t-shirt), so they will almost kill themselves trying to maintain whoever it is they think they are or should be, and to suggest otherwise is laughable or freaky to them. Their behavior is specifically wrapped up in being a good person, friend, child, mate or parent, and the last one is the real killer. I mean who wants to let down the kids? People who let down their kids are scum. Right?

May I suggest that generally kids’ expectations have been corrupted, and it’s time to take back their inclinations or at least make a serious adjustment to them? And what a great year to do it when resources are so low for so many. May be the perfect time to make a change. I mean who’s driving what the kids want? And is it reasonable? At first it can be fun buying for them — they’re so little and cute and really don’t want that much and are happy with almost anything. But unless a family is living in a hole in the ground or lives in a developing country with no access to any media, chances are good that as the kids get older their appetites are growing by continually being whet with all the “needs” that barrage them almost every waking hour, and parents are under tremendous stress to meet those “needs.” Well, I stopped meeting them, and surprisingly my kids do not see me as scum.

I’m not going to act as if this was an easy thing. It wasn’t, and I give SO complete credit for having the backbone to say, “Enough is enough.” This started a couple of years before we decided to move out of the city, but hey, media still gets to the country. We simply did not buy as much that Christmas, and what a relief it was. The key was letting go of this idea that creating magic for our kids on Christmas morning with “good” gifts was supposed to keep them from great emotional damage as an adult. LOL! Sorry I couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of that. But back to how I became a Scrooge. Oh, there were some tears from the kids when we cut back, and I think my oldest actually said we ruined her life (she said the same thing when we got rid of the tv for five years). Such is the wisdom of a child, and sadly too many of us listen to that as if it really is wisdom, but it’s not wisdom and never will be.

And each year I watch some friends painfully go into hock over Christmas, and when they explain why (as they almost invariably do if for no other reason than to convince themselves), it’s not uncommon for the reason to be about their child really really wanting something, and they just don’t have the heart to deny them even if it creates stress enough to bring on health issues. Often their rationalization for taking the burden of debt is something like, “My parents never got me ______________ at Christmas,” and you can almost hear the longing in their minds concluding, “My life would have been so much better and my relationships more fulfilling if I’d had one of those like everyone else.” Marketers have done a superb job when someone feels like that. That’s the gift that keeps on giving to their hip pockets.

But the marketers don’t care about anyone’s relationships. They only want to sell you something. Oh, you already know all of this? Well, it seems many of us often forget it and succumb to the number their trying to do on our heads — tying our worth as a parent, as a human being, to what we can provide for Christmas and worse implying that our relationships with our kids will suck if we don’t buy certain things for them. The real horror is that the message is given to the kids to in turn give to us.

The only way to get loose is to first be aware that “good” Christmas presents will never help anyone’s psyche and second stop succumbing to the idea that it does. That means buying the things you want to buy and can reasonably buy (obviously this is different for everyone) and being happy with it — reveling in the joy of giving, the heart of it. Most important being happy to be with family and friends and not making Christmas about that few minutes on Christmas morning when the kids dive into all the stuff. It’s amazing how kids pick up on our attitudes. Maybe not immediately, but they do eventually. Parents are still the most influential people in a child’s life no matter what “they” tell you. Don’t listen to that internal voice that’s being fed mostly by marketers that you must buy more and more in order for your child to be well adjusted. It’s a lie. And you have more power than you realize. It may not seem like it immediately, but it’s true.

Now for the most important part, and no part of me is being snarky. You take the stuff away and something usually needs to replace it, and maybe for some of you this isn’t an issue. At our house it was about time, therefore SO and I have made an effort to spend more time with our kids and to really listen to what’s going on with them. Christmas is just another time to focus on them a little more because we have set more time aside to do it and to hopefully make memories with our interactions rather than some expensive electronic gadgets. In the past I was so busy making money and making a mark that frankly, it was easier to give material things, and I salved my conscience with the idea that I was able to give “good” gifts. But my time is the real gift they need, and that’s the kind of obligation I need to joyfully meet.

My kids might not have felt that way about it when I first began to give it, but they see it now. One of my “little” SOs is faraway right now and can’t make it home for Christmas (feeling choked as I write this), but unbeknown to her, I’m going to surprise her on Christmas day, and I can hardly wait. That means I will be around here less in the next couple of weeks. Oh, I have a couple of posts loaded up, but I will not be hovering over my laptop when they let fly. So think of me in coming days hanging out with my kid and roaming the streets with her and laughing about God knows what, and I know she will not expect me to come bearing gifts, but I will, and what a wonderful feeling to give with absolutely no obligation. That is surely a joy, but the greater joy is knowing I can hang out with her and she will want me to.

And I know there will come a moment as there always does when I look at the great person she has become and is becoming and realize that it could have been a little different. We could have stayed on that same path with her and her siblings that left no part of the living room floor bare of gifts on Christmas morning and had us facilitating an ever growing gluttony for things, and ultimately building a bondage to things which would have made them dull people.

Edit: It’s 2012, and I’m going back to NYC at Christmastime. I now have two “little” SOs there. I can hardly wait.


  1. Hah, I’m a long-term Scrooge. The “before his transformation” Scrooge. I can’t get into the whole materialism thing. This year I didn’t even send cards which would have been thrown away or become clutter. I’m not trying to sound holier-than-anybody but I donated the extra money to charity this year rather than sent cards and/or gifts. I am sure everyone understands. By the way, I hope your kid is home when you show up at her door unexpectedly, LOL! Should be a great surprise! Memories are the best gifts. Warm wishes to you and your family. See you in the new year.

  2. Wonderful post! You are so right. It is so easy to get caught up in that materialistic buying frenzy this time of year.
    What a wonderful surprise your daughter will have! I hope you post something about it. :)
    I thought this post would be about Bill Murray’s version of the Christmas Carol. LOL was I ever wrong!

  3. My daughter is working a double until midnight on Christmas. I’ll show up about 9pm with my carry on. I’ve already had my other daughter feeling her out about what’s going on that night and later. MUHAHAHAHA.

    I’ll get back to snark sometime after Christmas. :D

    I hope you both have a wonderful, wonderful Christmas!

  4. I spent last weekend with my sisters and their families for an early Christmas celebration. The things I will remember most about that experience aren’t what I got (although I was quite amused at my sister’s sly grin when she presented me with a leopard print caftan and slippers to wear to write my novel this year and I presented her with S1 of RH, as she has never experienced the glory of Guy except in the stills I have sent)–it was being with my family when no one was seriously ill, in the hospital or nursing home, dying or dead.

    I didn’t realize until I lost so many members of my family over the last few years–parents, in-laws, a 22-year-old nephew–how precious and fragile it all is and how much the time spent together, laughing, joking, breaking bread together, remembering, and even crying a bit is so very important. And I observed how beautiful and sweet and bright and generally wonderful my great-nieces are, and rejoiced in that.

    I am a Scrooge after the transformation, a big, soft marshmallow of a creature, but I can easily see how people can become caught up in the pressures to succumb to the media and marketing people and put themselves in hock to provide a “big” Christmas and make themselves miserable doing it. And that isn’t what it’s supposed to be all about, is it?

    Last night I drew artwork on the envelopes of each of the cards I am giving to my co-workers today as I watched the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol (the hands-down best one). That little extra effort put smiles on their faces. That was a reward for me. That being said, I am not mailing out hundreds of cards (who can afford the postage?) or splurging on gifts I can’t afford, but looking for bargains I know the recipient will like and enjoy.

    Give memories, not things. Things break and batteries die and we get bored. Memories sustain us through the dark and painful times and make the good ones even better.

  5. Angie, I think that’s great what you’re doing!!

    I hope that it’s clear that I don’t think giving is the problem. Give, give and give more. I absolutely love giving. Truly, I love it, but it’s when the motivation is wrong, and especially when it’s been manipulated that I take issue with.

  6. I’ve always tried to do something personal along those lines–making goodies and taking them to friends, creating Christmas cards (I used to design and draw cards for my immediate family members) or at least decorating the envelopes, doing artwork and framing it as a gift–but some years I have had more time and energy than others. I worked in retail for a few years and let me tell that, that almost sapped my Christmas spirit, ladies and gents! (Although I did find some fantastic bargains. *grin*)

    I totally see your point, RAF. Giving is good and it’s the right thing to do, but our hearts need to be in the right place. Not trying to outdo or impress or “buy” the affections of someone. I do believe the Lord loves a cheerful giver (and an appreciative recipient, too).
    I use my husband–who gave me a Guy laptop skin, an autographed photo of RA, and a Mrs. Richard Armitage keychain lest year–as an example of a generous, understanding and creative giver, bless his sweet, loving heart.

  7. Frenz: plus points for the use of the word “plaint”. LOL!

    Angie: I hear you on the theme of “visiting when no one is sick.” That must have been wonderful.

    My parents were mostly moderate on this issue, neither crazy gifters nor non-gifters. I do remember one really memorable “gift” Christmas when we each got the traditional package of underwear and a book of devotions, and one of the first Atari game systems! That was really neat — and my parents tended to be early technology adopters (they had a microwave oven in 1968). It was once, though. And though I certainly remember Christmas presents I received, none of my most vivid Christmas memories are related to the presents.

    When I saw how many presents my nieces were getting from their godparents, I decided that I didn’t need to compete, LOL! Now they each get a book from me or a couple of books, if there’s a good series available, and a donation to their college fund. My brother and SIL also get a donation to their college fund, which is what I also get from my brother and SIL. :) I give my parents a box of really high quality citrus fruit (appreciated in the Wisconsin winter, and something that takes them back to their childhood, when such gifts were a bigger deal) and a donation to my nieces’ college fund. And then I think about charity — first on the list being my nieces college fund :) but I also give to other, mostly educational, charities, including those that paid for my education. Hmm, fixated much? :)

    Hope you have a fantastic time surprising your daughter, Frenz! She’ll be really excited, I bet.

  8. Servetus,

    It was great not having that pall cast over the occasion. My olderest sister said last weekend that she knew it sounded odd, but the agonizing ordeal of my mother’s last days actually had a good side–we got to spend more time together than we had in years, which was true. Everyone has gotten scattered out and with their own obligations and schedules and it is hard to get together anymore. So I am really glad it all worked out.

    As for gifts, I am big on books and bookstore giftcards. To me reading is the gift that keeps on giving, over and over again. Of course, Mr. A is also the gift who keeps on giving through his DVDs and audiobooks, so I have shared several of his works with my sisters for birthdays and Christmases. I think giving to support charities/scholarship funds is also a true testament of the spirit of the holidays.

    My good friend Frances Frakes, who is in her 80s and a marvelous lady, told me a couple of years ago how they give to selected charities in the names of their children and adult grandchildren each year and concentrate on enjoying good food and family time. She paints the most beautiful icons, by the way and also took shingles blown off the roof of the Episcopalian Church during one of the hurricanes —the church sustained quite a bit of damage–and painted wonderful angels and scripture quotes on them, which they sold to raise funds for their ministries. Talk about taking lemons and making lemonade!

    I have one she gave me. Needless to say, it’s special.

    Frenz, I hope you have an absolutely fab time with your daughter. Make lots of good memories.

  9. Servetus took the words out of my fingertips re ‘plaint’ :)

    Christmas is always a weird time for me, being an atheist. By the end of December my patience for politely indulging so much Christmas cheer has run quite thin. As a kid, Christmas taught me a lot about gender. Being given gifts that reflected by status as a girl, rather than what young Skully was actually interested in, implied that I was seen as a girl, rather than a unique person with her own interests (like He-Man and matchbox cars!). Its a weird way of looking at it but Xmas always felt like a time of self-erasure.

  10. @Skully: I think a lot of people share that experience (if maybe not the same reasons for it). The impulse to cheer can become overwhelming even for Christians.

  11. My husband loved GI Joes as a child and I have given him several collectible ones as an adult, but he does bristle just a little if you refer to them as dolls–they are ‘action figures.” He has the good grace to laugh at himself about it, however,@Skully, I think every child should be treated as an individual and encouraged to pursue their particular interests.
    Truthfully, I loved Barbies and baby dolls and traditionally girly stuff, but I also loved Tinker Toys and and my bouncy “horse” on springs I rode on wild adventures, and hauling my Radio Flyer wagon around on explorations into the pioneer wilderness.

    As for the whole cheer thing, I was re-watching the live action Grinch again the other night, and realized how much I disliked it. Whoville is consumed by Consumerism, trying to outdo each other with maxing out their credit cards, out-tackying their neighbors with excessive lights and stuffing their gullets, but they can’t accept the poor little odd-looking Grinch. I would have been disgusted with them, too, if I were him.
    And I am a very unGrinchy person. Forced cheer, false cheer, can be wearing. It’s OK to admit you’re tired or a bit sad or pensive.

  12. @skully, I know many others who have had your experience. Mine was a little different. I was an only child for a long time, and my dad’s “boy,” so I was never given things that were strictly girlie. I had my own tools when I was fairly young, and I had all sorts of gadgetry. Got a reel to reel when I was about 9 years old, and yes, it was completely mine. :D I had a blast with that thing, and then a couple of years later I got a cassette recorder, and I had a ham radio set and I don’t remember all the stuff I had like that. In hindsight it was a lot. Some of this may not seem like much to you, but when I was a kid, it was a big deal to have those things — boy or girl. And I think I just well and truly dated myself. LOL!

    I realize how truly spoiled I was in some respects and deprived in others, and this has been for me to work out lo these few decades. Some of it I worked out before I became a parent, and some of it I didn’t. I just pray the stuff I didn’t work out before having them doesn’t harm them too much.

  13. Or let me put it this way about the gender thing, I was one of the early members of Radio Shack’s battery club. I don’t think any of the girls I knew were even aware of Radio Shack. I practically lived there as a kid until I graduated to Heathkits. I thought I had died and gone to heaven when I found those. :D

  14. And my only real regret about Christmas is that I never got a set of walkie talkies. Had to buy them myself. :D

  15. Frenz,

    You reminded me of a favorite gift from my childhood–a cassette tape recorder. I used to record music, sing, and made up plays and did funny voices. What a blast I had with that thing!! Wish I still had some of those old tapes . . .
    Because of the age difference (sisters 6 and 10 years older) I was sort of like an only child in some ways. Being the youngest, I tended to expect Santa to be extra-good to me, I have to admit. *blushes*

  16. You’re so right! the best gift is one’s time, it’s the most valuable thing too. You’re children are so lucky! I found this out the hard way… was working too much and studying when my youngest became ill & everything went from wrong to worst… at the end she was screaming for my time and attention, realized that just in time she is still young… but sure would wish it had been sooner.
    Thanks for this post made me happy.
    Have a wonderful time (no doubt) with your children.

  17. Thanks, Sus. I’m sorry that happened with your daughter but glad it’s working out. And please know my situation with my children has not been a bed of roses. I hope it didn’t sound that way ’cause it’s so far from the truth. It took me having a nervous break down to change what I was doing. I wish that weren’t the case, but I would be lying to say otherwise. Somehow my children don’t hold this against me. This among other things makes it abundantly evident to me that there is a God.

  18. […] all year round and without having to spend inordinate amounts of money. Since I’ve already waxed on about spending money at Christmas (also written as my sane self), I’ll refrain this time […]

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