FLASHBACK: I’m eight years old. My mom and sister and I decided to be in the community production of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.” I was a baby angel. Adorable, I know. We had rehearsals/performances every evening Monday-Saturday through Christmas Eve. It was fun and festive and everything always felt so Christmassy! But what about my dad? He couldn’t be in the play with us because rehearsals started before he was done with work. He came to several performances, but mostly, he was left to fend for himself most evenings leading up to Christmas. Christmas is about families and he missed us. Christmas morning arrived and we were all together. My sister and I came running down the stairs and saw the biggest load of presents around the tree I’ve ever seen! It turns out my dad spent his evenings buying us stuff… lots of stuff… to make up for not being with us. As the stuff pile grew taller and the wrapping paper pile got more out of hand, my mom got a bit tense. The following year my mom made a sweeping declaration: this wasn’t going to happen again.
Since there were only four of us in my family, the “draw a name out of a hat” thing wasn’t super exciting. But mom wanted to change the focus of Christmas shopping from buying to experiencing. So, at the beginning of each year, we chose three places as a family we wanted to go shopping. These included a cute little boutique street downtown Portland, the Saturday market, a bookstore, we even did the airport one year! We scheduled three nights for our destinations. We usually went out to eat (or at least a treat) at or near our destination. Then we would draw a name and break up into pairs (luckily my sister was old enough we could go shopping together if we each picked a parent’s name). I honestly don’t remember the presents (except for the business card holder I got my sister because it was an adorable miniature suitcase from the airport… nevermind her lack of business cards…) but our family had three scheduled evenings together during the Christmas season and we didn’t have to do any shopping outside of those events (my mom usually just ordered some sort of food basket like Harry & David for all the other relatives).
We also had a fourth rotation (yes, we got someone twice if you’re doing the math correctly). For this one, you had to be a little more sneaky. You were to donate money to a charity in that person’s name and then wrap the donation letter for under the tree. This got tricky when they mailed something back before Christmas and we were all trying to get to the mail first. That first year, I drew my mom’s name for this. As a nine year old, I had no idea to which cause what my mom would want me to donate and I also admit that I couldn’t think of a possible charity that I would be excited to find out had been donated in MY name. I talked to my dad who suggested maybe a foundation for a disease my mom suffered from. He explained to me that the money would go toward research for figuring out how to help my mom and maybe find a cure one day. I remember how good it felt to send that money. And on Christmas morning, I opened up a picture of a wolf named Matsi that had been adopted in my name! Matsi was proudly displayed on my shelf the rest of the year!
My parents also let us in on a Christmas secret. Every year they sent an anonymous envelope of cash to a family we knew that could use it (a huge amount to a nine year old!). They asked our opinion on their choice of a family for that year. We agreed because we had no opinion on the matter at that age, but then the secret was ours too. This changed Christmas because it was giving that was much closer to home. This wasn’t some generic organization helping strangers. These were our friends.
Recap of the Experience-Based Christmas:
- Choose (at least) three places you want to go as a family this Christmas time and put them on the calendar. Make it an event with food! If you are choosing to give gifts, draw the name of one family member and break up to shop. If you choose not to shop, take a picture of a present that would make them laugh if they opened it. Gag gifts are always fun, but only for the moment. Take a picture of it and wrap that instead! Or make the destination somewhere that doesn’t involve shopping (ice skating! movies! going to see your community theatre’s production of “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever!”).
- Draw the name of a family member for whom you will donate to a charity. Think about what this person likes and what charity might be meaningful to them. This was a great exercise for me to have to do as a kid. I really had to think about what would be significant for each of my family members and what their individual passions and priorities were (mine were obviously wolves!).
- Choose someone you know that could use some cash. Don’t be judgy about circumstances… they probably aren’t as good with money as you, but that doesn’t make their struggle any less real. Then secretly send them an envelope of cash. I found growing up that sometimes you would hear the story of the receiving and sometimes you never did, but I also learned that it didn’t feel any less awesome if we never heard them mention it.
This year, my family is headed to Hawaii (the ultimate experience-based Christmas!) and we are forgoing gifts for the trip. My kids have been remarkably on board which shows me they’re ready to do something similar to this next year. We’ll see how we adapt it to fit our family’s needs. I’m still thinking of the specifics with such young kids…
Did you have non-traditional shopping traditions growing up? Do you now? How do you choose to give this season?