We Are Both Right

Our Two Cents: Less Gifts, More Cheer

Try these tips for trimming the holiday gift list without looking like Scrooge. ©Christy Thompson/stock.xchng

Dear Amanda and Suzanne:

In the last few years, my holiday gift list has multiplied exponentially. There are lots of little nieces and nephews to buy for now, and my siblings still insist on exchanging with each other and me.

I would be happy to not get a thing while trimming the list wherever possible. Any advice on how to scale back without coming across as Scrooge?

–Santa’s on a Budget

Amanda: I’m a big fan of the round robin method. Suzanne and I have done it with our group of friends from college and their kids and I’ve done it with my family. The important part of the round robin is that in order for it to work correctly, you need to set some parameters — how much will be spent per person (and people have to promise they will stick to that amount!), whether or not the children are a part of it (or maybe you have one round robin for the kids and one for the adults), will it be a secret process, etc.

In the gift exchanges I’ve done, every person buys for one other person. So if there are five members of your family, you buy five gifts (and will receive five in return). Deciding who gets to buy for who is part of the fun and there are many ways you can figure that out. I’ve employed a few:

  • Alphabetical — Anna buys for Craig who buys for Jennifer who buys for Sam who buys for Anna
  • Age — 2-year-old “buys” for 7-year-old who “buys” for 15-year-old who buys for 26-year-old who buys for 2-year-old
  • Random — pulling names from a hat or stocking
  • Use an online site like Elfster to handle the gift assignments

To really add to the fun, consider introducing a theme — maybe the gifts have to be a book or something that starts with the first letter of the person you are buying for.

Suzanne: Here’s how we did it in my family a few years back. My sister and I agreed that there was no need to exchange gifts among the adults when we each had a niece and nephew to buy for. So we focused on the kids and left it at that. My brother who is seven years younger than me and doesn’t have children wasn’t quite on board. Of course, I was still buying gifts for him and his wife since they didn’t have any little ones, which meant that he felt the need to reciprocate for me and my husband — in addition to buying gifts for my son and daughter. I think we finally got it straightened out last year and everyone is happy now.

Another idea for forgoing gifts is the tradition we started with my husband’s brother and sister-in-law. Instead of waiting for them to catch up to us with children (we just made it even this year) we agreed to pick a date between Christmas and New Year’s Eve to go to a really nice steakhouse — just the four of us — and enjoy a night of good food and conversation instead of exchanging token gifts.

So you might consider something along those lines to help in trimming your holiday gift list. And if all else fails, be brave and take the initiative to skip the gifts for a year even if there’s not a consensus. They’re bound to follow your lead next year.

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Has the gift-giving spun out of control at your holiday celebrations or is your thinking that more is better? How do you and your family handle gift exchanges?

Looking for advice two times over? Just drop us a note at advice@wearebothright and we will serve it right up.

The Spirit of Christmas Pageants Past

It might not have been the role I wanted in the Christmas pageant, but one I'll never forget. ©Oriental Trading

Baa-baa.

Talk about memories. Thirty-two years later, and I remember my line from the Christmas pageant in kindergarten like it was yesterday. (I can still do my Copacabana tap dance recital number from that year too, but that’s neither here nor there.)

What is most amazing to me is how vividly I remember that day. It was my first year of Catholic school and the teachers were assembling us outside the gymatorium. Our parents were in folding chairs getting their Polaroid cameras warmed up.

Behind us in line was the afternoon class and I could see my cousin if I turned around and stood on tippie toes. They looked so cool in their drummer boy costumes, with construction paper hats they had made themselves. Not to mention that their song rocked.

And me? Well I was a sheep. Lamb. Whatever. No drum to bang. Heck, no human words to even speak.

Looking down at my costume, I wondered if I could go through with it.  My five-year-old Christmas spirit was sagging beneath the white batting my mother had secured to the fabric shirt, pants, and mitts that she lovingly sewed for me.  And at that moment, I didn’t feel any better than the lamb girl in front of me whose cotton balls were falling off before we ever made it to the stage.

I thought about being a rebel and walking in, instead of crawling on all fours as we had practiced.

Why couldn’t my name have been Mary and snagged me the starring role?

I looked sideways at the angels’ tinsel halos, wishing I was them.

And then it was go time.

Not one to shirk a role, I did my part. I smiled. And we sang:

Said the shepherd boy to the little lamb: Do you hear what I hear? Do you hear what I hear?

Still to this day, when I hear that song, I smile. And sing along. Because by the time we left that stage, I had a change of heart. It could have been the rows of smiles in the audience or the Holy Spirit getting a hold of me, but I was Scrooge no longer.

At the end of the play, I crawled out while the other lambs opted to ditch their character and walk.

And then we sat stage right while the drummer boys did their thing. They were good. So I sang along to their act too.

Parumppapumpum. On my drum.

Just like I do now whenever those two songs play.

What takes you back to your childhood holidays? For Amanda, it’s a bit of time travel.

The Christmas Mornings That Weren’t

It should come to no surprise to anyone that when it comes to Christmas, there are certain (ahem) secrets that we parents keep. Aside from the big guy in red, there are presents to hide, special Santa wrapping paper to buy and other assorted tips and tricks we employ in order to ensure that our children have the happiest of Christmases and memories to look back on.

Growing up, my parents were so determined on making us have a wonderful and magical holiday season, they even dabbled in a little time travel.

christmas present MeiTeng ©/stock.xchng

The truth about Santa Claus wasn't the only secret my parents kept from me. MeiTeng ©/stock.xchng

Every Christmas Eve, it would go the same way. My maternal grandparents (Memaw and Bepaw) would come over; we’d eat; sometimes we would visit other relatives; my sister, brother and I would sing a few carols; we would call that 800 number where you could “talk” to Santa and the elves; and then it would be off to bed so the magic could happen.

And as hard as it was to fall asleep, in what seemed like no time at all (heh) I’d hear it: a booming “HO! HO! HO!” coming from the living room. We’d wipe the sleep from our eyes, race downstairs in the still-dark early morning and “wake up” our parents and grandparents (who had slept over the night before). The next few hours would go by in a blur — a riot of noise, wrapping paper, food and  of course, gifts.

Once everything had been opened, my parents would announce that it was time for a little nap and that we kids should go back into bed for a little while. Memaw and Bepaw would head home to freshen up and we’d wake a short time (heh) later, nice and refreshed for the rest of our Christmas Day.

Sounds like a lovely, typical celebration right?

It does and it was. But there was one important fact that I got completely and totally wrong. For years. And years. And when I found out the truth, boy was I traumatized (to this day, my sister still rants about it).

We actually weren’t waking up Christmas morning to open our gifts. It was still Christmas Eve night. My parents would send us to bed and then wake us up once everything was set and Santa had come to visit. Our “nap” was actually everyone going to bed and we’d wake the real Christmas morning some six- or seven-odd hours later.

Why? I’m not sure. My mom says it’s just how they did it then. That’s fine, but still, it was just a bit disconcerting to learn that the precious holiday memory that I had, wasn’t exactly what I thought it was. (Seriously, I’m 50 miles away from her and I can hear my sister starting to howl as she reads this.) Even so, the truth doesn’t change the important part of my cherished memories — that I can still hear perfectly Santa’s big voice waking us up and feeling those butterflies in my stomach as I saw the tree laden with gifts (I still get them to this day although my excitement is for my children).

These days Christmas Eve night is spent with my husband. After we finish our magic elf work, we turn off the house lights and leave on the tree ones. We pour two glasses of wine and simply sit quietly, side-by-side on our couch, reflecting on the year and our kids. The next morning will be filled with laughter and pandemonium, but in those moments I get to really focus on how lucky we are and how much love is all around us.

No matter what time we celebrate.

When do you open gifts with your children? Is there a part of your childhood Christmas memories that aren’t what you thought they were?

While we aren’t exactly disagreeing this time around, Suzanne’s most favorite holiday memory definitely happened when she thought it did.

I’d Rather Have Myself a Merry BIG Christmas

© We Are Both Right

Our dog’s name is Christmas. Middle name Noelle. A cute little beagle puppy we happened upon one afternoon in early November nine years ago. So she wasn’t even a Christmas present.

But since Christmas is a holiday like no other in our family, and the word itself stirs up images of warm, cozy good things, we considered the name a natural fit. Yes, warm, cozy things like an adorable beagle with floppy ears who on a daily basis chews legs off of treasured Power Rangers and breaks into the bathroom to chomp through rolls of toilet paper. The name saves her though, because it’s hard to get mad when yelling your absolutely favorite holiday across the room.

On second thought, the neighbors must think we’re crazy.

But not any crazier than when we invite them over to enjoy some freshly baked Christmas cookies, and they see that we have not one, but two Christmas trees in our house.

It’s not like we qualify for the Guinness Book of World Records or anything. It doesn’t even compare to a woman I know who once had fourteen decorated trees in her home. That’s not me. Yet.

You see, we have two trees because it’s practical.

For one, we love the smell of a fresh-cut tree. It’s the reason we burn a Balsam fir-scented Yankee Candle all year long. But the tree that we spend an afternoon hunting through all the not-big-enough-yet trees for, and that needs to be cut down a few inches from both the top and bottom because my husband’s eyes are bigger than our living room ceiling, is usually ready for the curb long before we’re prepared to part with Christmas.

And since another part of our big Christmas tradition involves a 5′x5′ platform under the tree with a Christmas village and vintage model trains, we had to start putting up an artificial tree in our basement family room. The added work of a second tree meant that we could justify the time spent on a display which takes days to assemble and then take back down.

This way, with a second tree that doesn’t have a shelf life, we can leave the village and trains up for a few weeks in January — giving us all the more time to lay on our bellies with the kids and stare into the lit windows of the storefronts and porches of the New England town we’ve created, deciding which one we like best, just like this aspiring architect used to do at her Uncle Joe’s house.

And the kids are getting better at operating the trains, so we only have a derailment into the heavily-populated village square every third go-round. Delicate heirlooms, but meant to be used. That’s how we view the locomotive and cars which were used by my father-in-law when he was a child. It was well worth the time (and paychecks) my husband spent refurbishing them, since our son is already making plans to smuggle them out of our attic some day.

All this preparation, and we still haven’t even arrived at the main event. But that’s what I love about the spirit of the Christmas season.

Every time S. asks why we do all of this for Baby Jesus’ birthday, I can see her wheels turning about how all of our birthdays have the potential to be month-long celebrations. And that would be just fine with me.

Because as much “work” as all of this might seem, I look at it as a chance to celebrate the special things in our lives in a big way that can’t and won’t be forgotten.

Every other day of the year is hectic. A blur of lunches to pack, clothes to iron, deadlines to meet at work and at home. So for me, the holidays are the perfect reason to take a break from all of that.

But lounging around in my pajamas, watching TV marathons and eating take-out on a holiday isn’t the type of break I have in mind. Nope, I rather invest extra time and effort, ratchet it up a notch, and go all out to make the holidays special.

Traditional dishes like strufoli and baccala that take hours and sometimes days to prepare. Going to church 40 minutes before Christmas services begin, just to get a seat and take in the real spirit of Christmas. Being surrounded by family at a Christmas Eve dinner that lasts until midnight and then going home to put a bike together.

The extra work just doesn’t seem like work, especially not when I hear the anticipation bubbling up in my children for the holiday traditions they’ve already come to know and love. Even when those traditions involve the early morning antics of our holiday namesake, who sometimes gets overcome with the Christmas spirit and starts unwrapping their gifts before they wake up.

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While you’re still thinking about how strange it is that I named my dog Christmas, check out the names of Amanda’s Christmas trees. Yes, she names her trees. Do you see why we’re friends?