“I feel like it’s taken me my entire adult life to fully appreciate why my father dreaded Christmas.” I said this to my friend Dee who had dropped by bearing gifts late Christmas morning. She had noted the glazed look in my eye and asked me how I was. Moments earlier, Stump had pushed a box of blocks across the kitchen table, causing a bowl of oatmeal to tumble to the floor. We now had oatmeal splattered on the wall. Kellie and I had different views about to what extent the spill was intentional. She was pretty sure he meant it. I was pretty sure he just didn’t care one way or another. But it didn’t matter who was right: the situation was the same. There was oatmeal everywhere and still no one had eaten breakfast.
When I was a child, the adults in my life spoke openly about their mixed feelings about Christmas—the stress of crowds and holiday shopping, the endless lists and expectations. I didn’t get it then, nor did I want to. But I get it now. I keep thinking that with each passing year, I’ll master the art of Christmas. I’ll get all of my shopping done early. I will perfectly match each person in my life with the gifts they deserve. I’ll find a way of doing this without activating my scarcity meter—I’ll just spend what I need to spend without batting an eye. But somehow, it seems, each year I bungle it. Sometimes I feel like Christmas is a test of my ability to be an adult in the real world. Every year I think that I will finally pass and yet, every year I fail. Here is the rundown of this year’s mistakes:
- I started my Christmas shopping too late. This is a perennial problem. Every year I remind myself how easy Christmas would be if I started my shopping in August. I’d have time to carefully consider each person in my life. I wouldn’t have to spend a bunch of money all at once. In spite of these intentions, each year around Thanksgiving I realize that it’s already the Christmas season and I think, Oh well. I still have plenty of time. But I don’t start actively thinking of Christmas until December 15 when I submit my final grades. By that time there’s no avoiding the crowds. I wait in long lines of traffic to get to the mall and then feel like a chump as I vie for a parking spot. I don’t finish my shopping so much as I give up on the process.
- I bought too much. Because all of my shopping was done in a frenzy, I made bad decisions. I bought gummy bears and candy canes for my kids’ stockings when I knew that extra sugar on Christmas was a bad idea. I bought board games at TJ Maxx, not because my kids had asked for them, but simply because they were there, and I wanted more boxes to wrap and put under the tree. Though I begin each Christmas season by declaring I’m only doing stockings for my kids, I always chicken out.
- I bought too little. When I shop for extended family members, I have a different problem: I don’t want to buy trash. I mean, I don’t want to buy something that will likely be tucked away in a drawer and ignored until it is eventually thrown out or donated to Goodwill. I worry that even a gift card is likely to be stashed and never redeemed. I suspect that I may be missing the point entirely, that if I were a sincere and generous gift-giver I’d let go of this fear and just happily shop for others. But because I’m not that evolved, I play it safe and buy everyone socks. This does not make for a very exciting gift exchange session.
- I thought we could skip breakfast. This was really the defining mistake of this year. I went to bed with dreams of baking blueberry muffins. I imagined my kids would wake up and we’d watch them unpack their stockings and then everyone would happily take a break from gift giving. But then the day arrived and my children were so giddy. They danced over the $2 bowls I had bought them at Target. They ate pieces of their candy canes, and slurped down the applesauce packets that Santa had tucked in their stockings. And then they wanted to keep opening boxes, so I let them. I figured: They had applesauce. What’s the worst that can happen? And then I found out.
There’s a Christmas magic that happens with stockings, which tend to be full of small everyday pleasures. But I think that something frightening sets in when the ceremony moves to the packages beneath the tree and the living room fills with all kinds of gift detritus—paper and cardboard and plastic—and we know that at some point the gifts will end. The gifts will end and we will still be ourselves in the real world, untransported, and in this case hungry. Stump in particular was so hungry that he would not agree to eat anything except gummy bears and candy canes (see mistake #2) and he spent the next two hours resisting food, pushing over bowls of oatmeal, throwing Legos across the room, demanding I assemble a puzzle, and then angrily disassembling the puzzle as I built it.
Next year I will do better. I will start my Christmas shopping in August. I will buy the perfect gift for every human in my life. I will not waste money, but I also won’t be stingy. I will lovingly assemble a healthful breakfast first thing on Christmas morning. My children will gather around the table and clean their plates. They will be wearing festive sweaters and their hair will be combed. Next year, I swear, I will win at Christmas.