When my grandparents lived in South Africa, we used to have massive family Christmases. There were giant hams, at least 20 people at the long dining room table, a pile of presents around a Christmas tree and screenings of old family videos, speeches and carol singing.
In all of that outrageous opulence and wild socialising, the childhood Christmas present that I remember the best was a large multicoloured crayon, accompanied by a card that said, “With love, Sappi”. Sappi was my grandmother’s cat. I don’t know if he gave me a present every year, but I can remember being delighted that he did that time.
But that present from Sappi carries an important message that we should all remember about Christmas. Of all the gifts that I received as a child, that’s pretty much the only one I remember. The reasons are simple – it had an element of surprise, and it was given to me with love and thoughtfulness.
These days, we jump through hoops to give our children everything they want for Christmas. It’s as if every child who celebrates this tradition – whether or not the family are practicing Christians – must receive a pile of presents. A friend of mine once commented that it’s a month in the planning, two weeks of shopping, two days of wrapping, and about 10 minutes of ripping apart the entire pile of presents, leaving very little time to appreciate anything.
I spend every Christmas feeling a little sick about the consumerist experience. Author Marian Keyes once had a marvellous Twitter rant about Christmas presents. When she was a child, she said, there was no such thing as Sylvanian Families (little fuzzy forest creature toys, for those who don’t know) to put on your Christmas list. One Christmas, she went on, her present was a pillow. Yes, a pillow, because she needed a new one. It’s not like that anymore, is it?
As parents, we venture out in the weeks leading up to Christmas and we swear we’re going to go easy this year. And then the combination of fluorescent lights, Christmas carols played in just the right key to carry you to the brink of insanity, and the desire to get out of the shops as quickly as possible confound all reason. I’ll burn a hole in my credit card without thinking properly about what I’m buying just to get away from it all.
And when I get home, I am horrified by what I have bought. My kids don’t need all this stuff! Once or twice, I’ve even put away a couple of purchases to bring out at my daughter’s birthday in April or to give to other children (don’t tell).
I don’t know what the solution to all of this is. I mean, it’s obvious – spend less on Christmas presents. Instead, I should teach my children that the most important things in their lives are good health, future prospects and the love of their friends and family. But, try to tell that to a child who’s keyed up on mince pies and ready to demolish a pile of artfully wrapped gifts. It’s obvious that the road to a thrifty Christmas is lined with the prospect of disappointed children on a boring Christmas day.
The other obstacle to saving money on presents over December is that you have to get any friends your child might come into contact with on the same page. If your child gets a book and a small box of Lego, and someone else’s kid got a pony, and an electric guitar, and a Barbie castle and the full cast of Frozen serenading her from her garden, your kid is going to hate you.
It’s really difficult to make a decision to contain your spending when you – and all the Christmas marketers – have made getting presents directly proportional to the amount of joy your child will experience on Christmas morning.
This year, I have resolved to really try. I will plan in advance – getting my children one big present and three smaller ones each. I will make a list (and check it twice) and make sure I buy only what’s written there. And I will try to fill my children’s holiday with the things that are really meaningful – quality time, family affection, appreciating the small things and spending time together in the garden, at the park or at the beach.
I am not sure if I will succeed in reducing the cost and the clutter. But this year, moderation is my goal. I will try to remember ways to bring magic into my children’s lives – like giving them a small present from their favourite pet – that don’t involve a massive show of money or a towering pile of presents, and instead remind them how fortunate they are and that I (or the cat) love them.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of 1Life or its employees.