Uh, We Bought Our Kid Too Many Christmas Presents, Didn’t We?

You know those shopping-haul vids where teen girls show off their recent mall purchases so other teens can compare how pretty they are, how much stuff they have and whether or not to get a nose ring? Parents should be forced to do that with the Christmas gifts they buy their children. Then we could all come to the conclusion that half as many gifts would be just as good, and no one needs that Play-Doh Plus stuff in the purple can that's basically designed to dissolve into all available fibers.

I'll start. The kitchenette, building workshop, Play-Doh flip n' frost cookies, digital camera (for a 3-year-old!), cash register, post office play kit — did I mention the workshop has a drill, a miter saw AND a bench vise? — colored pencils, books, puzzles, watercolor set, and this isn't even counting the stuff from family members, which include an entire band in a box and that fake wooden fruit with the Velcro for cutting.

Sure, this is paltry compared to what Tori Spelling did for her kids. Tori Spelling probably created an enchanted forest of magical creatures to build highly individualized armies of toys for her children that can sense when they are sad. We did that too, just with this stuff made out of salt, flour and a retrogradation inhibitor.

In retrospect, I suppose we could have opted away from the Miter Saw for Gender Equity and just gone with the kitchen set. We could have skipped the post office play set and stuck with the more modest and art-encouraging colored pencils and watercolor set. We could have only bought the presents on the list in my head, the ones that up the odds that your child will be a creative and smart and really unique but just up to the line of eccentric: you know, art things. Wooden things. Whatever Alicia Silverstone does. Somewhere between what Tori Spelling does and what Alicia Silverstone does is probably the holy grail.

And I know for a fact the kid would have been just as happy. At least for now. Really, kids have no concept of anything, and as a parent you create the narrative for them. I can't impart this enough! If you make a huge deal out of getting one present for Christmas all the rest of the year, you could totally just buy the one present to more than happy returns.

As people on earth, we should be challenging old traditions and improving on them or abandoning them altogether, not just automatically recreating them based on our own experiences because that's easiest. We should be our best versions of ourselves to make better future people. That's the whole thing about being a good ancestor, which is the whole point of being a parent, right?

Parenting is supposed to be a fresh start on traditions and approaches, your chance to correct the wrongs of your own folks or forge ahead in the name of progress! What's so hard about that?

I, for one, was trying to do my part in that. I wasn't even sure I was going to celebrate Christmas at all. For one, I'm not religious, and for two, I genuinely don't buy much stuff on purpose and also because I have no money. But I toyed with the idea of finding some kind of way of observing the spirit of the season for our child but parting ways with the mad frenzy of buying stuff. Maybe we'd just do community service of some kind, or take a trip to see the snow up in Big Bear, or treat Christmas as if we were merely visitors in a foreign country: a strange, fun tradition that was not our own.

Sure, it would be radical and difficult and a little bit crazy, but in the end it would teach us to be kinder, more compassionate, less caught up in the irrational part of the tradition. I was able to maintain this illusion of Christmas-madness transcendence for two whole years, because the first year, she couldn't even hold her head up to care, and the second year, she still thought tearing the wrapping paper was The Whole Point.

But this year she is almost 3, and she started to notice Santa, and the lights, and the shiny presents, and the Christmas trees. She had a holiday party at school, and started asking questions. And when it came time to devise my master plan for Christmas transcendence, I had a sinus infection and was really tired and stuff.

I kid. No, I really did have the sinus infection. But that's not a real excuse. In the end, it was just so much easier to fall into the habit of the classic thing: Christmas tree, decorations, stockings, and loads of presents. Too many presents! I took some small comfort in reading about other parents who had the exact same post-Christmas parental guilt hangover, but it felt bigger than that, like some invisible strong arm of tradition was at work, making it impossible to go my own way.

That strong arm of tradition is cultural norms, the same stuff that makes women shave their legs or guys not ask for directions. It's built into everything. It's not necessarily bad, as it's the same force that makes us all wait patiently in line or hold a door. It's peer pressure on steroids, the inescapable messages around you that normalize everything into one big hodgepodge of "DO IT BECAUSE EVERYONE ELSE IS."

Some ornery gene in me always makes me think I can strong-arm it back into submission, and I am usually proven wrong. But as I sit here composing a letter on plastic postcards with wax crayons for the post office kit, genuinely excited about popping open another fresh can of Play-Doh Plus to make neon green frosting, I have no doubt these toys will be played with. And even as I sit here acknowledging defeat, my ornery gene reminds me that I still have over 300 days to plot a better Christmas ambush.

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