Christmas with children can be such a magical, fun-filled time. Yet as any parent will tell you, it can also be busy, stressful and for the children themselves, fraught with obsessing over presents and the next “I want”. While most of us would never deny our children the joy of giving and receiving gifts at Christmas time, let’s be honest: yuletide gift-giving – at least for those of us in the excess-laden First World – has become something of a consumerist nightmare, far removed from the original sentiment of the season.
Last year, as a new parent, I found myself dreading the frenzied, gift-giving extravaganza of Christmas, with its likely onslaught of well-meaning but potentially unwanted, plastic tat presents. I was aware that as much as I’d been able to avoid the seasonal excesses pre-parenthood, with the arrival of a new and much-loved addition to the family, Christmas was likely to bring a whole load of gumpf that no one really wants or needs… Least of all a baby who really only wants to rip up paper and gnaw on cardboard boxes.
So I enlisted the help of some fellow mums and together we came up with a few ideas for parents of young children on how to avoid being overwhelmed by mountains of presents whose only lasting impact is to expose our children to the very worst of our throwaway, capitalist culture. And because Christmas is about so much more than gift-giving, we also shared our ideas for bringing magic and meaning to the festivities.
1. Be brave and say it like it is
If you’re anticipating your little angel being bombarded by pressies or even just receiving gifts that will be played with once or twice and then discarded/are made from planet-wrecking fossil fuels (ie. anything plastic)/serve the purpose of filling a stocking but nowt else [delete as appropriate], try being bold and asking overzealous gift givers to tailor their gifts appropriately. I’m not suggesting you corner Great Aunt Maud weeks in advance and demand she buy something off your pre-approved list, but making some thoughtful suggestions of gifts that have less of an impact on the planet and her purse and more of an impact on the child in question will surely be welcomed.
For some of us that will mean asking friends and family for handmade gifts or longer lasting presents such as books or clothes. For others it will mean requesting only pre-loved toys and gifts and for givers to support charities with their purchases. – Do be aware though that often when people buy gifts from charity shops they feel the need to buy five times as much in order to offset the financial savings made! Some parents will suggest that people buy activity gifts, rather than actual “things”, for example swimming lessons or days out, preferably ones that involve the giver spending time with the child. For closer family members, why not ask whether they’d be willing to send money towards necessary items such as shoes or memberships to clubs and favoured activities. You could even suggest they open a bank account for the child and put money in every Christmas and/or birthday so that he/she can spend it on something really worthwhile when they turn 18. And if you’re not sure how to get your suggestions across to everyone, talk to the most influential person in the family and ask them to filter your requests through to others.
The truth is people love giving children presents, and children love receiving them, so make your requests gently and respectfully, but don’t be afraid to make them. Christmas is a big deal – and children know that – so rather than letting everything slip slide “’cos it’s Christmas”, use it as an opportunity to give people a little window into the values you try to espouse in your parenting. For me it’s about explaining to people that whilst we love giving and sharing gifts, we are aware of the impact we are having on the planet and want to bring this awareness to our son. The tradition of giving gifts to our nearest and dearest at Christmas is a lovely one – let’s make it even more beautiful by doing it in a way that’s conscious and teaches our children the kinds of values we’d like them to practice year-round.
2. Employ the golden rule of parenting
The golden rule of parenting? What, pray tell, is that?! It’s the rule we’d all like to follow but seldom do (alright, in our finer moments we do, but more often than not, we probably don’t): Modelling the behaviour we’d like to see is just about the most powerful way our children learn how to be in the world. It’s important to practice with children but it’s also worth practicing with adults. Just ask Mahatma “Be the change you wish to see in the world” Gandhi. This right here is the Gandhi of gift-giving: if you want people to give less ie. only one – less costly and more thoughtful – pressie, then it’s time to put your own house in order and practice excess-free giving yourself. Do it quietly and without too much fanfare and you never know, others might just follow suit…which brings me on to number 3…
3. Focus on giving and gratitude
Make giving and gratitude central to your Christmas experience by doing things in the run up to the big day that help children to express gratitude for what they have and to consider others less fortunate than themselves. Zephyr’s a bit small for this one at the moment but I love the idea of taking time at the start of each day during Advent to say thank you for something you’re grateful for in your life. Of course, the “gratitude attitude” needn’t be confined to Advent – it’s a good practice for children and adults to institute year round. Another alternative way of marking each day of Advent is to do a kind of “reverse Advent” where you take a box and each day put a non-perishable food item inside, then on Christmas eve you take it to your local food bank or homeless shelter.
Getting kids into the spirit of giving can also serve as a seasonal de-cluttering. Invite children to choose some toys, books and clothes from their existing collection to give away to charity. Doing this before Christmas helps to build the sense of Christmas as a time of giving and depending on where you donate to, children who may not otherwise receive very much can benefit. And for just £2 (the cost of postage) services like Link to Hope’s Christmas Shoebox will send a shoebox full of your old toys and books to a child in Eastern Europe who needs it.
4. Create and sustain Christmas rituals
Whether you’re an avid church-goer or a no-nonsense atheist, the Christmas celebration provides an opportunity to create meaningful annual rituals and traditions that can be sustained throughout childhood (and beyond). Have a think about what this time of year means to you and how you want to mark it. By taking a little time to consider the traditions you want to enshrine for your kids, you can inject a real sense of magic as well as meaning into Christmastime. Depending on your beliefs, you might want to emphasise winter, the Solstice, the forthcoming new year or Christmas itself. It could be as simple as lighting candles every day throughout December, talking around the dinner table about moving towards mid-winter, singing and dancing to Christmas songs, or gathering a small group of friends and family to share stories about what you’ve enjoyed throughout the year and your hopes for the year to come. For slightly older children who enjoy craft activities you could spend some time making a dreamboard to help them visualise their dreams and goals for the coming year. These kinds of things help children to feel included and actively engaged, rather than Christmas being something that happens ‘to’ them – and it’s always interesting to see what kids come up with!
5. The secret stash
At the end of the day, you can do your very best to keep the piles of presents at bay but if you still find yourself wading through wrapping paper on Boxing Day, just remember: the cupboard is your friend. Ideally they’d make it there before being unwrapped but either way, setting a few extra gifts aside until your child’s next birthday (or even until next month) might just save you, and little Johnnie, from gift gluttony.
Because Christmas is actually brilliant. And if we can sidestep the overindulgences and choose instead to inject a bit of thought and seasonal goodwill into our festive spirit, we might just be able to embrace Christmas and come away from it with a warm fuzzy feeling inside. That’s got to be better than being left with a lingering sense of guilt when the baubles come down.