The Magic of Presence (Not Presents)

What better way to promote the giving spirit and repurpose the true magic of presence?

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Last year I didn’t buy my daughter any presents and told her that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. (To be fair, my daughter was only 18 months at the time, so to her, Elmo was real and Santa was not). With this statement, I anticipate hate mail, maybe even bomb threats. The less drastically-inclined will recoil in shock, pin the letter “B” for my “Bad Mom” scarlet letter, and continue to peruse Amazon for the next person’s gift. I hope, however, that whatever minority is still reading will give me the benefit of the doubt to reason that there must be a method to this woman’s madness.

So why have I decided to distort my daughter’s understanding of the most magical and wonderful time of the year? A few reasons. Growing up, we were always in India over Christmas so we never celebrated the holiday or exchanged gifts. (India today has climbed aboard the commercial Christmas bandwagon despite a 2% Christian population, but this wasn’t the case years ago). The three week break was about spending time with family, exploring different cities together, and finding opportunities to do service. Second, and more importantly, I don’t want to raise my children in a society that is so hyper focused on commercialism and extravagance. Considering we are already committed to jam packed activities and schedules, we are failing to optimize for the one thing everyone constantly complains we don’t have enough of: time.

Even if online shopping has created efficiency, there’s constant stress of what to get and who will be the “holiday hero” that takes up valuable time and energy. You may argue that isn’t the effort dispensed worthwhile when it puts an unforgettable smile on your child’s face on Christmas morning? Perhaps. But what is the greater lesson that we can teach? That the expectation of gifts is contingent upon being good? Or that simply being good is the reward in of itself? Don’t get me wrong- I have a toddler who I have to trick/bribe/negotiate with on a daily basis so she can do basic things like putting on socks and brushing her teeth. Naturally, I do agree that children should be positively incentivized for good behavior.

However, my issue stems from the material nature of the holiday. Why are we heaping oodles of presents under a tree that are likely to be discarded after a week? Why are we focusing so much on indulgence and why are we using a fat guy in a red suit as our excuse? Forget my Scrooge status for a second and instead focus on the more meaningful values the culture this holiday has to offer. Baking cookies, picking out Christmas trees, reading books, decorating ornaments, watching movies, snuggling with too many blankets, and simply basking in the pleasure of family and friend’s company. Undoubtedly, this is all baked (no pun intended) into the traditions and activities we naturally do anyway, but why not make gratitude the focal point of our joy? Volunteer, tutor a child, spend that extra hour helping a friend, deliver sandwiches to a homeless shelter.

I know I’m not alone when I say my toddler is happier playing with our plastic containers or the Amazon box that gifts come in, rather than the present itself. If she hardly notices the difference, then it’s incumbent upon me to continue to steer her happiness in a direction that is cultivated less by material good. Whether it’s using the shopping budget on people who are less fortunate or as extra savings into the kids’ college fund, surely, it would be more worthwhile than an influx of (even) more plastic and yet another video game. What better way to promote the giving spirit and repurpose the true magic of presence?

This article originally appeared on Medium.

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