My Christmas tree goes up the weekend after Halloween. I am 100% that person, i.e. the lady spinning around the kitchen to Mariah Carrey’s All I Want For Christmas promptly at 12:01am on November 1. I love Christmas cookies and Christmas movies and Christmas lights, and, if I had it my way, my house would look like the North Pole exploded inside it for as many months of the year as possible. HOWEVER. A few years ago, I did not buy my kids a single Christmas gift.
A little context: That year was a year of change overall. My husband got a new job and we moved; We packed up the house we’d been in for a decade and relocated 2300 miles from our family and our friends on the West Coast into the uncharted-to-us territory of central Indiana. By the time the holidays came around, we’d been in our new location for eight months already and our little family had expanded from four people to five. But it was weird and lonely to go through the motions of our holiday traditions in this new setting and without the people who make those traditions special. Laying in bed one night, nursing my new baby, I had a wild thought: What if we… ditched Christmas, or at least the stuff part of the holiday? What if instead of spending money on gifts we spent it on a trip west to visit the people who were constantly on our minds? After a lifetime of decadent Christmases, a year without presents seemed radical. But the next morning we booked five tickets from Indianapolis to Burbank.
Two nights before we were slated to leave for our trip, I felt some pangs of regret. No presents, really? If I made use of my lonely Amazon Prime membership, there could be gifts waiting for us when we got off the plane in California. But, ultimately, I held fast. Our money was spent already on our upcoming trip.
And that trip was amazing and exhausting. We spent 10 days watching our children jump on the trampoline with their best friends and dipping our toes in the frigid Pacific and eating real Mexican food — and wondering how exactly we’d ever managed to pull ourselves away to begin with. Our kids never mentioned the presents they didn’t receive, but they did both cry when our plane touched down just in time for us to ring in 2019 on the tarmac of Indianapolis International Airport.
Four months later, my daughter and I stood in the kitchen sharing an everything bagel and she asked me a question I wasn’t ready for. “Where are we going for Indy’s birthday?”
My initial confusion must have read on my face. Indy is my middle kid and up until that point we had not discussed any kind of birthday excursion. It wasn’t until then that I realized the shift our present-less Christmas had created. My kids were now tuned into another way of celebrating, one that revolved around a shared experience instead of more stuff. I told my daughter we could give Indy the option; if he’d rather explore than unwrap, we could swing a celebratory weekend trip.
And that’s exactly what we did. We ended up spending his third birthday stomping around Mammoth Caves National Park and camping in the rain. It was wonderful and a little miserable, but now it makes for a good laugh and an even better story.
Don’t get me wrong. I still miss watching my kids tear into the perfect gift, and I still miss the look they get on their faces when they realize that we know them well enough to pick out something they didn’t even know they wanted until the second they pulled the wrapping away. But, for us right now, the return on investment on an annual Christmas trip or a long weekend at the lake is higher. If you ask my daughter what gifts she’s received during Christmases past, she won’t be able to tell you, but sometimes when the house is quiet she’ll crawl into bed next to me with a dozen “remember whens” from our family adventures together.
Since that experimental Christmas, i give my kids the option the option of doing something or getting something for their birthdays and holidays, and they choose the former every time. Clearly something has shifted for them — as it has for me.