Dear Santa, do we really need more stuff?

Dear Santa, do we really need more stuff?

Family and Santa

For as long as I can remember I have loved Christmas. As a child I used to take red and green construction paper and string Christmas chains all over the house. When I was a teenager and had a paper route I saved up money to buy Christmas lights. I was a little Clark W. Griswold in training.

Each year I could hardly wait to see the pile of presents under the tree on Christmas morning.

As my wife and I have begun to develop our own family traditions we have largely followed suit.  But over the past few years we have largely simplified and de-cluttered our lives. In the beginning this started out of practicality. We were going through a rough time. We were downsizing. And we simply had less money for gifts.

Our simplification has now moved beyond practical and into philosophical.

And hence the question was prompted: What are we going to do about Christmas?

Does piling a bunch of presents under the tree really match up with our family travel lifestyle? Does the tradition of heaping piles of boxes and bags under a tree help instill in our kids what we value most as a family?

Before I go any further I want you to understand 2 things:

  1. I am not against things. In fact, I rather like things. Most of all, I like things that are really nice. Just not a lot of things and I don’t like the idea of things taking over my life. If my garage has so much stuff that I can’t pull the car in the garage, I have too many things.
  2. This isn’t an anti-Christmas thing. I love Christmas. I want Christmas to be an incredibly special time for my kids. I want Christmas morning to be special for my kids. I’m excited and I want them to be as excited as I am.

Our kids are 4 and 2, so there’s still time for us to think very intently about this topic before our family’s approach to Christmas becomes instilled. Whatever we do over the next few years becomes the tradition. Trying to change things up when the kids are 13 and 11 would be a totally different dynamic.

I also want to point out that our family Christmas traditions are not be limited to what’s under the tree on Christmas morning. We have lots of traditions surrounding the holidays. What I want to address now though is the stuff that ends up under the tree to be opened on Christmas morning.

This discussion was largely prompted by the fact that both of our kids have autumn birthdays. Our kids were so excited to receive each package. They were excited as they tore the paper. And they loved the toys… for a few days.

Then I realized that I have observed in my kids to an extreme something that I as an adult do more subtly.

Here’s what my kids do:

  • They really want something.
  • They receive that something.
  • They are really excited about that something.
  • They love that something.
  • They guard that something against someone else getting it.
  • They forget that something.
  • That something is gone and they don’t care.

With a few very special exceptions this process takes place. The process can take a few hours or a few weeks.

We buy our kids stuff. When they don’t love the stuff we think that we just have to keep buying more stuff until we find that thing that they’ll really love.

What we don’t realize is that no toy is going to make them happy.

Here’s how the process takes place for me as a “grown-up”:

  • I really want something.
  • I receive/buy that something.
  • I am really excited about that something.
  • I love that something.
  • I guard that something against it being stolen or damaged.
  • I forget that something.
  • That something is gone and I don’t care.

With a few very special exceptions this process takes place. While it usually takes no more than a few weeks for my kids, for me and my fellow “grown-ups” that process can take between a few weeks and a few years.  Although sometimes it happens in a few minutes!

When we buy something that does not make us happy we think that we must just need something else.

What we don’t realize is that no toy is going to make us happy.

While I’m not against things I have become acutely aware of how cluttered our lives can become with things. And I am aware of how ineffective things are to bring any lasting happiness or real meaning to our lives.

What about Christmas? Am I planning on barricading the chimney and not letting Santa in to deliver that bag full of presents for the kids?

Emery and Santa

 In the end, this was a really easy thing for my wife and I to settle on. We’ll get them gifts that match our active lifestyle and gifts that encourage our enduring quest to live a family travel lifestyle.  My wife and I have long transitioned from buying one another gifts to buying one another experiences.  Ever since we were married we decided that rather than buying one another anniversary gifts that we would share an experience together.

I’m not going to barricade the chimney. But I am hoping that the presents Santa does pile under the tree are experiential based.

Memberships to zoos and museums are great gifts. It may be hard for our kids to get excited about a membership card under a tree, so in the past with gifts like this we’ve tied the card on a bow around a stuffed animal. One year we got our kids Snow-shoes shaped like bear claws, which are not only worth being excited about on Christmas morning but they have provided us fun adventuring as a family.  This year, we’ve gotten our kids some educational games and art supplies, along with a few special toys.

Whatever you decide to do for Christmas, I am really happy that my wife and I have thought very intently about how we can ensure what we do on Christmas morning matches up with our broader goals as a family.

UPDATE December 21, 2014. This past was written three years ago. I’ve slightly updated it now, but one thing that amazes me is how the decisions we made three years ago about Christmas have played out. We asked our kids what they wanted for Christmas this year, and they really didn’t know what to say. Jackson is now 7 and he loved stuffed animals, so he mentioned some favorite wild animals he wanted. Emery is now 5 and was totally at a loss as to what she wanted for Christmas. They’re still excited about the idea of presents under the tree, but by being thoughtful about our approach to Christmas as a family when we were just getting started, we haven’t gotten lost in commercialism.

This post was part of a series of post written by families on the move.  Check out these other posts by families trying to ensure their Christmas morning matches up with what they value most:

The Nomadic Family- Poverty for Christmas

New Life on the Road – Dear Mr Santa Claus Whats For Christmas 

With 2 Kids In Tow, It’s Backpacking We Go:  Dear Santa, For This Christmas We Wish…

Living Outside of the Box –  The Best Christmas Presents

Discover Share Inspire – Christmas is Coming – What Do We Give on the Road?

Bohemian Travelers- Gift giving while living a simpler life

Little Aussie Travelers – Presence vs Presents – Christmas Time for Travelling Families

A King’s Life:  Forget the Gifts, Give an Experience this Christmas

Pearce On Earth: A Different Kind of Christmas

Family Travel Bucket List – Feliz Navidad Without All the Stuff

Peter from Livin’ on the Road: A kids perspective

Susan from Livin’ on the Road: A kids perspective

A Minor Diversion – Reinventing Christmas

Carried on the Wind – Christmas Giving

Eventure Project: Christmas, A Reflection on the Real Gifts

What about you? 

What’s your family’s approach to gifts at Christmas?  Have you thought about how your traditions at Christmas align with your broader goals as a family and what you value most?  Your answer may not be the same as ours–and that’s okay!  But ask yourself that question and think about it.  Tell us what you think.

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  • You hit the nail on the head when you said that NO toy can make our children (or ourselves) happy. And I love what you said about thinking that, if our children don’t like something we gave them, that we feel like we have to buy more. There’s a SERIOUS flaw in our thinking and I have to say that being away from all the mass marketing in the US, I am not feeling the push to buy like I have in years past.

    Great post!

    • Susan, I know what you mean about being away from the mass marketing. Our home base in Lake Tahoe right now and we have no TV in our house. We visited Monica’s family for Thanksgiving and felt like the TV was shouting at us continually about all the things we needed to buy on Black Friday. Funny how content you can be when nobody is telling you that you need something new.

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  • Great thoughts! And right on time!

    I, like you, love Christmas. I love it. And I have seen in my kids everything you have seen with yours. we are very similar on this.

    Stepping back and looking at it, any over kill and waste has been on me.

    My kids never demanded much at all. I remembermy daughter saying at like 4 years old, “I am just putting 4 things on my list for Santa because he always gets me more anyway.” Ughhhhh.

    Kids really only love a few toys at once. If you know what that toy or gift is, the rest you can do away with. I have actaully had to force kids to open things because once they got THE gift, they could have cared less about the rest.

    I can’t wait to see how your kids respond. Some great ideas and in the end Christmas is way more than gifts, everyone knows that, even kids, especially when we are not shoving gifts at them.

    Thanks for the good thoughts!

    • Justin, there’s definitely a temptation as parents to overdo it. Last year money was especially tight for us and Monica and I got very creative. One of the gifts we gave Jackson was one of my favorite books from when I was a kid. I still had it! I wrote an inscription in it and hopefully it’s something he’ll hold onto throughout his life (not that I want to encourage he just accumulate stuff!)

  • I think material things aren’t exactly the best gifts for Christmas or for any occasion. They’re fun, yes, but not the best. I mean, you’re right – we want things, we receive them, but later in life, we forget about them. Once in a while, it’s good to spoil ourselves and the people we love with the latest gadgets and the trendiest clothes, but I think it’s worth more if we give ourselves and them something to really remember for the rest of our and their lives – bonding sessions, movie dates, fun trip to Disneyland, fishing by the lake, skiing, or a tour around Europe. I think those gifts are something no one will easily throw away. They’re not expensive, but they’re memorable and they give us a reason to smile. 🙂

    This Christmas (well actually, almost every Christmas), I spend some quality time with my family in a city not so close to home. It makes us appreciate each other more and at the same time, we get to know about the Christmas traditions of other people in the world.

    • Cherszy, it’s really a question of what you value in life. Stuff or experience. Some people really are more interested in stuff. I’m not one of them. Neither are you.

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  • So true that kids get something, they love something, and then they forget that something. My boys usually love the boxes their toys come in!
    I like your idea of buying your wife an experience! A day at disney world, and a day of skiing – now that sounds like the perfect gift! Wonder when we caught up in the “Idea” that Christmas is about buying the biggest most expensive toy instead of about the real meaning of xmas?


    • Lisa, I also think it’s really important to talk to your kids about these things. Otherwise they feel a little confused or even sad when their friends do get all the new and expensive toys.

  • I like the observation that our psychological cycle of receiving presents doesn’t change as we get older. It’s been tough telling our kids that they can’t buy toys during our travels, and it’s already been a challenge to tell the 3 year old that she won’t be getting a lot of toys for Christmas. Looking forward to hearing about how your kids enjoying packing their suitcases!

    • Diya, the culture around our kids is so driven by stuff. I remember as a kid the bragging contests at school about who got the most stuff, the most expensive stuff, etc. My hope is to make Christmas fun for the kids now while instilling a different set of values in them as they grow.

  • Elizabeth Ewer

    I really enjoyed this post. I remember the exact moment I had this realization about “stuff” at Christmas time. I was standing in the Glenbrook Mall shopping for gifts when all of a sudden something just came over me. It’s like a veil was just lifted from my eyes. I stopped, looked around, and became physically ill and started crying, right there in the middle of the mall!!! People were running around crazily and talking angrily on cell phones. I saw one mother yank her child’s arm and say “Hurry up! We have to keep going!”…(not my best trip to the mall). I just thought, “What am I doing???” Right then, I decided to make a change. I spoke with my husband and he was 100% on board. Now every year for Christmas, my family puts a $$$ limit on our gifts that is much lower than it used to be and they are almost all picked out of the Samaritan’s Purse gift catalogue. Last year I got a bicycle for a pastor in Uganda from my parents and my parents got a goat for an African family from Jason and I. As for our children, we too have asked for things for them such as movie tickets, tickets to the zoo and children’s museum, etc. It has really taken the pressure off of Christmas and we feel like we are celebrating in a way that helps someone less fortunate out and also celebrates family time. I LOVE IT. Christmas has become, for our family, a time to give to others and a time to work on spending time as a family. At first I thought I would miss the gifts, but I haven’t. The kids have learned what “tickets” are and are old enough (3,6,8) that they are excited to open them. Dont get me wrong, my kids get some toys too, just not the huge overwhelming pile they used to get, half of which were forgotten my summer. This is just our family’s experience. Thanks for posting this topic.

    • Wow, Liz, that’s a powerful story. Thanks for sharing. Those sort of “out of world” experiences stay with us forever. There’s no going back. I am sure it makes it easier now that your kids are a little older and understand that gift isn’t just a piece of paper but actually a ticket to something really fun!

  • I’m excited about the backpacks we’re giving a couple of our kids too… including the 18 month old. “Backpack” is one the words she says, and she loves to put on the other kids’ backpacks. We found her a tiny one that is just right for her.

    • It’s so great to see our our kids excited to have their own bags. I think it’s a big step in both responsibility (packing their own bags–even if we help them) and in making choices (you can only bring what fits in the bag).

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  • My kids had gotten in to gift giving over the last few years and were starting to spend quite a but of their own money on friends and family. Last year Our 10 year old was a little upset that he didn’t have cash to buy me an expensive present. I explained to him that all gifts didn’t have to cost money. He ended up making me a book of tickets that I could cash in for a foot rub or a back rub! They were handwritten and so cute! It was the best present ever and hopefully taught him a lot!

    • Tracy, that’s great! I got Monica a similar gift one year…. all kids of coupons she could redeem. It was fun. A great lesson to teach a 10 year old!

  • Wholeheartedly agree with your points! We too are 1)not against stuff (just too much of the useless kind), and 2)are not against Christmas. But like you, we definitely believe that ‘more stuff’ is not the key to happiness. The best gift is one which is well thought out, age appropriate and even better if it isn’t expensive! But in our time-poor society, people just tend to make that up with an expensive and/or abundance in gifts. Love you idea of movie tickets or tickets to museums, etc. Hope you and your family have a wonderful Christmas this year.

    • Excellent point. We are time poor and then we make ourselves cash-poor by superfluously spending money on things we don’t need and won’t make us happy. Merry Christmas!

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  • We’re all about the experiences too. Grandparents (sometimes despite our protests) give stuff, so we don’t feel compelled to, although we try to make recommendations. We love experiences – in the past we’ve done memberships to museums (children’s museum, museum of flight, science museum, etc).

    In mid February we’re heading to the UK & Ireland for my kids’ first international trip (and it will be a budget trip). They really want to go on the London Eye, which is pricey, so we’re going to give them that gift as part of our trip. We haven’t committed to it in planning, since it “would put us over budget” so we’ll “wrap” that up and put it under the tree. I’m excited to see how that goes over. They are 9 & 10.

    They had quite a few years of receiving lots of stuff; but in our process of purging the past few years, they too recognize how little of their “stuff” they play/played with. They are on board. I mention this only because your kids are young and you worry how it may be when they are older if they are used to receiving stuff. 🙂
    Merry Christmas – thanks for a great post.

  • Theresa

    I agree. We are in the process of down-sizing and this Christmas will be the smallest my 11 yr old has seen. We did not spring it on her but have made her aware and involved. We are moving from land to a boat and want to live our lives now. You never know when it will be all over so we have decided to enjoy it while we can.

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