Ghosts of Christmas

In 2011, we made a conscious decision to have a frugal Christmas. This resulted in some unexpected benefits, and also unearthed some deep-seated emotions.

Christmas past

When I was growing up, Christmas was a big deal. It was an exciting and happy time for my siblings and myself. As a kid, I loved seeing the tree on Christmas morning with all the wrapped presents reflecting the tree lights. I liked making guesses about who they were for and what might be inside. I liked opening presents, and would be lying if I didn’t confess to being hyped about getting something awesome.

Christmas 2002 - Piles of Presents!
Christmas 2002: Piles of presents!

Our family exchanged gifts on a large scale — presents were both expensive and numerous. I’m not really sure why; our family wasn’t that well-off. My dad was a graduate student, then a post-doctoral researcher, then a rookie college professor. My mom had to work various service jobs to help support the family of five. We were lower-middle-class, I’d say.

My parents spent a lot of money, a lot of time, and a huge amount of effort on the celebration of Christmas. There was a fair amount of socializing (parties and dropping in on friends, or having them over), we went to midnight Mass, and had a big meal on Christmas day. But the main focus was on opening presents on Christmas morning.

Except for a few years in college when I was strapped for cash, I carried on this tradition as an adult, and loved it. Now however, while I still like to get gifts, my pleasure comes from feeling deep down that the giver was thinking about me and cares about me. What’s under the wrapping is not all that important. And I vastly prefer giving to getting.

Christmas present

And yet … I want Michaela and Claire to experience the wonder and joy of a Christmas morning with piles of wrapped gifts. Childhood is so fleeting, passing so quickly, that I want every experience for them to be as exciting or entertaining or heart-warming as possible. Logically, I know that not only is such a thing impossible, but that it’s likely not even advisable. Logically, I know that good parenting is as much about helping children learn the tools they’ll need when leaving the nest as it is about nurturing them while they’re in it.

Still, I want their childhood experiences to be at least as good as mine were, and better if possible. However, this year, we could not afford such a Christmas. We didn’t have the $500 or more that it would cost. Or more accurately: we made an assessment of the impact of such spending and decided that it would be risky and potentially damaging to our long-term finances. In years past, I’ve put a lot of the holiday cost on credit cards and paid it off over the course of the year. However, for the past few years we’ve made a vow to not incur credit card debt. We still use one card, but never carry a balance or spend more than we can immediately repay. Never.

Christmas 2011
Christmas 2011: If you squint you can just make out the gifts. :)

Karawynn and I have a fairly strict budget, so we discussed things and decided to make some changes to how we celebrate this holiday. First of all, we opted to not buy a tree this year. I’ve always had a small ethical issue with killing a tree just to decorate the house, but the main reason was cost. Instead, we made our own wreaths from materials already in our house and with evergreen branches from our own yard. We also decorated our mantel with boughs and ornaments and lights.

The other thing we did was limit our spending on gifts. We bought relatively inexpensive gifts that we knew people wanted, and filled in the gaps with a few items from thrift stores. We managed to spend less than $40 total per person for the four people in our household. I made fudge as a holiday treat and to give away locally to friends, and for those people who weren’t local, I put together a web card with photos and a narrative of life events that happened over the year.

Karawynn and I had a good time, and I get the impression that the kids enjoyed the decorating and the gift exchange (however modest). I know they liked the fudge! We tried to temper expectations to minimize disappointment with the volume and caliber of the gifts, but an uncertain part of me can’t help but wonder if they just missed out on an irreplaceable childhood Christmas experience.

Christmas yet to come

Nobody complained. In fact, while the Christmas presents were less than epic, I think this will be a memorable holiday. Being forced into frugality by our current economic reality has resulted in positive changes. We did things (like make our own wreaths) we had never done before. We savored the gifts because there were fewer. Maybe I’m kidding myself, but I’d like to believe that Claire and Michaela took another step towards appreciating what they did get instead of lamenting what they didn’t.

In fact, I had been feeling quite satisfied with our (non-traditional) celebration until after I’d been on a group call with my dad, sister, and brother. After the call, Karawynn pointed out that I was apologetic and embarrassed when I’d talked about what presents the kids had gotten, about what the gifts we had exchanged.

I realized that even though none of my family was critical or condescending, I had a deep-seated embarrassment over the “inadequacy” of the presents. That embarrassment was derived from the difference between my experience and those of my other family members as compared to our collective history.

Thing is: I didn’t even realize that I felt that way. Karawynn had to point it out. And now that I know this about myself, I will do my best to combat it. I really am satisfied and, yes, even proud of how much holiday cheer we had.

I do really believe that Michaela and Claire had an experience worth savoring and remembering. I just have some work to do to be okay with that in comparison to my past and to the cultural norm. Next year is likely to be another frugal one, so I’ll have another chance.

Christmas 2011

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