Every year, in early December, my husband and I have the same conversation:
Him: Can we not overdo presents this year?
Him: But you say that every year.
Me: But this year will be different. I promise.
By middle December, I start to feel panic rising. “The most magical time of the year” pounds at the door of a cherished childhood memory. That memory of the morning, mid 1970’s, when I walked downstairs to see my dream come true. There, under the tree, was Baby Alive in the flesh, the doll that could “eat, drink and wet.” My life had reached a new euphoric high. For days afterward, I woke up with the sleepy awareness that something very good had happened. As my brain retrieved the information, happiness would wash over me in waves. I jumped out of bed with a tingly excitement for life. Regular tide did not ensue for weeks. It was a magical time indeed.
Fast forward twenty years and I became the parent with clear expectations of how a Christmas should feel, how the day should be. I struggled every December to perpetuate the dreaminess of that Baby Alive day. It became heavy on my shoulders. I was the creator and keeper of memories. The pressure was strong on the night before Christmas, a moment of reckoning. Had I fulfilled everyone’s deepest wish? I bought extra things just in case. Dumb things they did not need. That damn plastic baby that wet itself was the reason I lost my way of reason every single time. I reneged on my promise and hid little things in the back of closets and in suitcases. By December 20th I was dizzy and overwhelmed, reworking little lists by my bedside table. Had I left something out?
Things did not improve as my boys got older and outgrew their belief in Santa. In fact, it became even more complex and expensive. Baby Alive, bicycles and Gameboys were memories for us all. There were no equivalent replacements. Plus, they had what they needed and two of them were in college, the brink of adulthood. Wasn’t it time to let it go? I tried. I really tried. But still I googled “top ten gifts for teens.”
Last year the landscape changed. We were hosting two girls from Nepal, raising the number of kids to make happy to six. A new challenge emerged. How could we thoughtfully make the holidays special for everyone without the embarrassment of over indulgence? The girls would not be able to bring much home because of weight limits for their suitcases. Baby Alive finally lost her pull on me as I considered, finally, the bigger thing that mattered.
I impulsively came up with a plan one morning after a big cup of coffee. It was a caffeine fueled confident plan.
I retired from my post of alpha girl dream maker December gift buyer.
I let go.
And before the caffeine wore off I called my friend for help.
“Can you assign everyone a secret name from our family?” I asked. Send them an email. Don’t even tell me. Just give me my name. Even though I could not see her I could feel her rolling her eyes at me. She is used to my ideas. But, good friend that she is, she didn’t ask too many questions.
Here is what I told my family. (Actually I emailed everyone because I was not open for feedback. I was holiday tired.) We were to each keep our name secret. Our name was our one person for whom we would focus on for the holidays. I explained how much everyone could spend and encouraged them to think beyond traditional gifts. I provided the funds for my younger kids and our Nepali girls. And then I sat back and watched. I thought about my small list of one.
I breathed a sigh of relief. And then I felt the stirrings of holiday excitement back in the air.
I began to sense my plan was working well when one of my older kids realized that they would ultimately be responsible for the happiness of who they had picked for the entire holiday season. Funny conversations ensued at the dinner table and sometimes by text, “if anyone happens to have me, I could really use some headphones.” They got creative with their ideas. They hunted around for clues of what their one person might need or want. They started to pay attention. It was not a new experience for my kids to buy each other things — they had done that for years, especially on birthdays. It was a new experience, however, for them to be the only one giving gifts for that one person. There was no back-up in case their giving or ways of showing thoughtfulness fell short- unlike the traditional Secret Santa game they sometimes played in school with random names and ubiquitous gifts.
It was the best December. I enjoyed the days leading up to Christmas (truly!) without calculating and assessing material lists of things. The wondering if I had done enough was gone. It was replaced by a different sort of surprise as I curiously watched my kids figure out how to truly consider the experience of someone else. They started to see their person anew. Ordinary details of daily lives became a source for ideas. There was a shift in the quality of attention and conversation and in their awareness of each other. They wanted to succeed in making their one family member happy, a want that superseded any care about what they received that day. Ultimately I had empowered them to have an impact on the experience of each other, an enduring gift that served us all. A new type of magic echoed all around, my Baby Alive was back.
2016 Christmas update:
We tried something that worked out just as well, maybe even better! Everyone got everyone one gift.