I love the holidays, and the months between September and January are admittedly my favorite time of year. Not only do we have something to look forward to each month, but the raw truth is that holidays are important because they’re good for the soul. They break up the monotony of our everyday lives and give us a sense of purpose, whether it’s crafting Thanksgiving dinner, avoiding our in-laws, or Instagramming what the Elf is up to tonight.
Over the years, I’ve struggled fiercely to strike that perfect balance between making the holidays magical for my kids and fulfilling their wish lists while still teaching them to be gracious and avoiding entitlement. I would be lying, though, if I didn’t tell you that I personally struggle with this as a mom. Having my daughter Hayley as a teen, I am accustomed to fighting every statistic to prove to the world — and to myself — that I am capable of successfully raising her and giving her a life that she deserves. Even though I’m now 30 with a nice suburban lifestyle, those feelings run deep. In some ways, I feel as if I’m obligated to make sure she has everything because she spent her first four years of life in a college dorm. Logical? Probably not.
When Hayley was turning eight, our little family of then three took a trip to Disney World for an entire week, with our last full day of vacation falling on Christmas Day — her exact birthday. We prepped her beforehand that this wouldn’t be a very big Christmas quantity wise for gifts because, as we prefaced it, Santa knew she was traveling and didn’t want to burden her with too many items to take home. We had also spent a fortune on the trip, itself, and she had a couple hundred dollars in spending money for souvenirs from her grandparents that we had already accounted for space wise.
Christmas morning, she awoke to a filled stocking and a few other other small presents. Even though it wasn’t much quantity wise, as we had warned her, the total amount of her gifts still added up to a couple hundred dollars — quality wise, she was still receiving a very nice Christmas in addition to the trip we were taking. Unfortunately, she didn’t quite see it that way as she eyed her small table of gifts.
“This is it? This is all I get?” I so fiercely remember her asking as the tears fell in streams down her cheeks.
My husband and I gently reminded her that yes, this was her Christmas. She had spent the week in Disneyworld and had experienced everything the parks had to offer. We had warned her that Christmas this year wasn’t going to be extravagant, yet it was still a very nice Christmas and something she should be very grateful for.
“But I didn’t really think this would happen!” she had cried. Believe me, she wasn’t the only one who cried that day. She had broken my mama heart so badly, and she didn’t even realize it. I was in graduate school at the time of the trip, and I remember how proud my husband and I were that we were in a position where we could comfortably take her on such an incredible vacation. At that moment, it seemed like all of our hard work and sacrifices had been in vain. Realistically, she was an eight-year-old little girl who didn’t have the capacity to fathom what this trip meant to us, but it was hard not to take the situation deeply to heart.
Here’s the ugly, raw truth — her sour mood carried over to her Bippity Boppity Boutique makeover that we had so carefully planned for her months in advance. She ruined most of the day for us — her birthday and Christmas — because of her inflated expectations and her lack of gratitude. I wish I could say that I was joking, but here’s your proof.
I have a confession: I felt like a complete failure as a parent that day. This was my child, who I had worked so hard to raise as a grateful, kind, and gracious individual. I realized, though, that she had been so in the past because she had always received so much. It’s easy for her to tell us that all she wanted for Christmas was a healthy, loving family when she was sitting next to a stack of presents under the tree. I also realize that developmentally, children don’t fully grasp the concept of gratitude the way we as adults do, and the way we hope they will as they grow.
From that day forward, Christmas and the holidays in general have looked very different in our house. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that we have become minimalists, because we haven’t — but now with three kids, we have set the foundation from day one that the holidays are about giving and family. We are spending our days volunteering and learning about various ways we can give back to our community. We are talking about gratitude, even at ages one and four, and what that means to us.
Striking that balance between magical and grateful is hard. Gifts are my love language, so it’s my instinct to constantly pick up tangible, material items for my kids as my way to express love and affection for them. Deflating holiday expectations in my house has been a challenge because it essentially goes against everything I not only grew up with, but also against my natural instincts as a person. I can tell you, though, that when you shift the focus away from what’s under the tree or what comes after you light the candles, it feels so good to watch your kids’ faces light up when they receive — but also equally when they give.
Sit down for a moment and ask yourself what you remember the most about your own family’s holiday traditions when you were growing up — and then ask your friends the same question. You likely won’t remember all the gifts under the tree, aside from a few really special ones. What you’ll remember are things like matching Christmas pajamas with your siblings, mom’s special cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning, and your silly homemade ornaments. In many ways, the magic of the holidays may have become lost to materialism in our society, but we have the power to keep those holiday expectations in check and teach our kids the real meaning of the season — giving, love, and gratitude.