I take Christmas gifts for my children very seriously, keeping a running list on my iPhone of gift ideas (some of their choosing, some my own brainstorm) and then sitting down in November to chart exactly what each child will receive, factoring in fairness and wants and needs and budget. I aim for each child to receive one “big” gift, not necessarily expensive (though it might be), not necessarily physically large (though it might be), but rather something that, in their eyes, will be magnificent. I want each of them to receive a gift that not only meets an intense desire, but that also speaks to who they are and who they are becoming.
Forgive my immodesty, but this year, I rocked my kids’ Christmas gifts.
For Leah (13), my nature- and animal-loving girl who knows her own mind and has no interest in conforming to the world’s expectations of what 13-year-old girls do and wear and like, I got a beautiful polished wood bow and a passel of arrows. When I was going through her e-mails a few days’ after Christmas (yes, she knows I read her e-mails), I was gratified to see her friends’ breathless response to Leah’s Christmas gift: “YOU GOT A BOW AND ARROWS??????!!!!!!!!” Yup. Yes, she did. Lucky girl.
For Meg (9), who has always gravitated toward caretaking roles and dolls, and who thrives on having friends over to play, there was a beautiful bed and desk for the American Girl doll she received for her birthday a few months earlier. She lovingly set it up in her bedroom, in front or her sunniest window, arranging the desk accessories and bedding just so. Every night, she puts her doll to bed in her special spot.
And then there’s Ben (almost 7), our nontraditional boy, who wanted a house for his and Meg’s collections of Barbie dolls. A specific house (there are many, did you know?), with a purple shower stall and a hot tub on the roof. The week before Christmas, I went over to my parents’ house to assemble Ben’s gift, so he could play with it immediately. When Ben asked, a day or two before Christmas, “Mom and dad, if I get the Barbie house, will you put it together on Christmas so I can play with it?” I just nodded distractedly, “We’ll see…,” all the while smugly thinking of the fully assembled house waiting in my parents’ garage for a surreptitious Christmas Eve delivery.
Our Christmas was far from perfect. We’ve been subjected to a Christmas curse of sorts; this was the third year in a row that a stomach bug made its way through numerous family members over the holiday. But my children’s gifts were just as perfect as I expected them to be. The children were giddy with pleasure. Toward the end of Christmas day, Meg said to me, “You made me so happy, Mom.”
But every dollar I spent on their gifts this year was, to me, a dollar well spent. I know the happiness brought by material things is fleeting, but it is also genuine. I saw, on Christmas morning, that my gifts did indeed make my children happy. I’d like to think their happiness went beyond momentary captivation with something shiny and new, to a sense of belonging, an unnamed gratitude for parents who know them well enough to get the perfect gift.
At their best, this is the function that gifts—even frivolous, unneeded gifts—can serve in our overly materialistic culture. They can further cement the bond between parents and children, spouses, siblings, and friends, as a gift becomes a symbol for the comfort and security of having someone who knows just what will make you happy.
Spending time and money choosing just the right gift for my kids reminds me that I love them. That sounds odd, I know. Why would a mother need a reminder that she loves her children? It’s just that, most of the time, parental love is expressed in the mess and muddle of family life—hair held back during a vomiting episode, nagging to practice piano and do homework, school lunches made, dinners served, shoes tied, arguments refereed. It’s often unpleasant, or at least dull. I’m often annoyed, tired, crabby.
But when Christmas forces me to go above and beyond the daily muddle, to pick just the right present, to research different options online, to spend hours assembling a large plastic house, I receive a new clarity around my life as my children’s mother. Engaged in a somewhat frivolous, pleasurable pursuit to provide my children with fun rather than the bare necessities, I understand more clearly that the reason I wake up every day to do all the boring, annoying, messy stuff is, simply, love. And when my children thank me profusely for their perfect gifts, telling me how happy they are, I choose to believe that somewhere in their declarations, even if they might not recognize it, is thanks for all of the less shiny but more necessary daily gifts I give them. Call it my own little Christmas delusion, strong enough to carry me beyond the holidays and back into the mundane mess of family life.