One Christmas, I was desperate for a model of a helicopter. I went on and on about it, but I knew that because I came from a one-parent family, my mum would be stretched to afford it. So you can imagine the near-hysteria when Christmas day arrived and there was a box exactly the right shape, waiting for me under the tree.
I tore open the wrapping paper in a frenzy of excitement to find – an Action Man cowboys and Indians tent set. I exploded into tears of anger, frustration and disappointment. I didn’t even own an Action Man! I couldn’t understand it. And to make matters worse, I knew my mum could hardly afford the stupid tent set. Fortunately she wasn’t watching, which allowed me to get my act together and thank for her the lovely gift. I doubt she was convinced by the tear-streaked face and lame smile, but I did my best because I knew she had done her best.
That little true story has been repeated around the world at least a million times since, and it’s all about the perils of expectation, and of creating and raising expectations. It can’t really be helped in the age of the internet, because kids are surrounded not only by other kids who have cool stuff our kids want, but also by an internet function known as ‘pixel marketing’. That’s when you Google a product, then it appears for days or weeks after in any browsing you do, plus it crops up on the side of your emails and other searches.
I remember the days when it was just TV advertising we parents worried about. It sounds so cute now to worry about anything on the TV! Our lot never watch it. I mean never. It’s all about social media, YouTube and peer pressure right now, and the expectations seem much more intense now than ever before. I’m not sure if that’s true, but it seems that way. Maybe it’s something to do with the wants being about ‘needing’ gadgets and devices that result in them spending more time alone in their rooms and less time together as a family. I’m honestly not sure, but it’s here to stay, that’s for sure!
What we decided to do, as a family policy some years ago, was to be absolutely clear about what was being spent and what kind of gifts were acceptable to give and receive. This was obviously when we got past those wonderful, simple years of them being little ones, when all they wanted were little games, little outfits and little Cadbury’s selection boxes. I miss those days so badly!
I suppose you could say it really takes the magic out of Christmas to get all cold and calculating about money and budgeting for each person, but I must admit, it worked for us. I was resistant to it at first. My wife and her family had been doing it for years, whereas I had always just randomly bought the gifts I wanted to give, whilst making sure my children had a more or less even distribution of pressies under the tree.
But I was a pretty fast convert to that way of organising Christmas, because it just takes so much of the potential difficulty out of the equation. No disappointments, no over-spending, no upsets on the big day. And even if they have got more pushy as they get older, they know that getting a more expensive ‘main’ gift means fewer or smaller other little gifts (we call the little bits and pieces ‘mindings’!).
But there’s also another positive in this more organised approach, and it’s the problem of ever-increasing expectations. Because our children know there’s a finite budget available to them, and they know we’re not going to go over it (well not by much!), their expectations don’t spiral out of control each year. I always think of Harry Potter on this subject for some reason. You know that bit when it’s Dudley’s 11th birthday, and he’s counting the gifts to make sure he has the same as last time? It’s a perfect metaphor.
Whether you’re a Christian or not, there’s no denying Christmas is a special family time, and when all’s said and done, we’ve always really wanted the emphasis to be on that – family time. Not expensive gifts and money stuffed into Christmas cards, but instead a feeling of warmth and belonging. And food. A strong sense of food is important too!
That approach has worked so well for us over the years, and now it seems to just take care of itself. We don’t really think about the difficulties of affording things anymore, because everyone knows what’s going to happen and what to expect. There are no outlandish requests. Everyone seems pretty contented and that’s quite an achievement when you’re talking about three children! It makes us feel like Christmas can actually be a good old Christmas, comfy and fun. Less to worry about and more to enjoy.