These days, my kids hate that I’m their mom at Christmas. My rule (sadly, one of the only ones I stick to) is that I buy only things we need or stuff I think is going to make us more evolved, well-rounded people. The rule covers all holidays—even the gift-giving ones— birthdays, and generally every trip to any kind of retail outlet.
Lucky for Theo and Flo, my sharp-toothed vitriol for junk started just at the end of their belief in that jolly old fool Santa. Otherwise, nestled under the tree, Theo might have found his dad’s old baseball cards tied with twine, and Flo would have discovered my childhood doll, Poodle Mae, wrapped in nothing but a bow made from a scrap paper bag: our own personal heirlooms passed down intentionally and with ceremony, an idea inspired by a coworker’s beautiful (albeit morbid) story about how her grandmother wrapped her most beloved personal items as Christmas gifts so her family wouldn’t have to wait for her will to be read.
Much as I’d love how good it would make me look if I said this attitude was all because I am frugal by nature, I know my friends and family would read this column and then call the news to rebut that misconception with my receipts from Charlotte’s Capitol boutique. I am not frugal. I am frustrated. So frustrated by all the stuff that accumulates in my house, and so embarrassed by the volume of things we’ve bought, that I am forever packing up boxes of objects no longer needed or never needed at all to donate to someone, somewhere, hopefully. I’m also worried. Worried about the planet and my impact on it. Concerned I should be doing more and consuming less. Certain the way we’ve always lived is untenable.
Untenable is also how my children would describe my response to this frustration and fear. For them, my outlook goes way beyond the dearth of plastic gizmos and gadgets on Christmas morning. It’s not contained to all the times I say no when they ask to buy fidget toys or anything else plastic. Flo admitted a few months ago that her babysitter is so afraid to bring plastic shopping bags into our house that she has on several occasions parked in the driveway and made the kids stay in the car while she ran inside to grab cloth sacks so our groceries could cross our family’s threshold in something more sustainable. And recently I heckled the headmaster at my kids’ school about all the plastic water bottles I watched him clean out of his car and the example they set. It was nails on chalkboard for everyone involved. My kids glared at me. The headmaster, incredulous, stared at me, and I spanked myself inside. I knew not to do it, but I could not stop.
You can see why a holiday whose call to action is to buy more stuff introduces a lot of problems for me, including all the paper and bows that only exist to cover a box—a box that despite my half-hearted efforts won’t be saved to reuse next year when I restart the cycle of buying things we don’t need so that we can properly celebrate the season. I am tormented. I’m also stained like everybody else by my childhood.
For the Howards, no matter the holiday, food comes first. Even when I was a little girl, my parents made me wait until everyone had a sausage biscuit in hand before they allowed me to open the foyer door to see my Santa spoils. Except for the year my uncle Bunk lost a tooth in his sausage link and everybody briefly forgot the point of the morning, the biscuit first, presents second tradition never really bothered me. Sausage biscuits stood for Christmas morning in my book. It’s when I stopped believing in Santa that things got real. In one year flat, I went from unveiling a roomful of Barbies in their DreamHouse to becoming eligible to receive educational gifts from my parents, and perhaps some clothes if I needed them. That year I also gained the bonus opportunity to join the “daughter drawing,” which is exactly what it sounds like: The daughters draw names, and we buy one another gifts. Johna, Currie, and Leraine were then seventeen, twenty, and twenty-two. I was eight.
That first year I fared pretty well. I got a Tandy 2000 and the video game Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? But the giant box with Johna’s name on it really caught my eye. By far the biggest thing under our tree, wrapped and ready before any of the little gifts that bore my name, this box reminded me every day of Advent that I should have kept up the Santa charade a year or two more. On Christmas morning, I demanded Johna open the giant gift first. Paper torn, box opened, piles and piles of crumpled-up newspaper extracted, she found at the very bottom of all that trash her long-awaited reward: a tiny card that read, “11 p.m. curfew.” Boom! Genius on my parents’ part, I had to admit.
The next year was rough. My parents gave me a subscription to Ranger Rick, and my sister Currie gifted me a box of potatoes. As soon as I opened it, I knew the russets were the punishment she had promised at Belk one day when I threw a tantrum under her care over a pair of shoes I had to have. My face flushed red-hot and I burst into tears when I realized my whole family knew and had been waiting with bated breath for me to open the bomb of a gift. I never acted out in a store again. In fact, I credit this turn of events a little for my general distaste for shopping.
Although I have always wanted to believe I was an unhinged apple who hurled itself very far from the tree, I’ve decided I like the way it feels under the Howards’ Fraser fir, where gifts need to mean something. This year, we’ll start with food we’ve prepared ourselves: from-scratch Chex Mix, made by the kids for their teachers, and freezer soup I will whip up for friends and family. I’ll give Flo sewing lessons so she can use the sewing machine she received last year. I’ll make a jersey wall for Theo’s room so he can show off his collection of basketball uniforms that no longer fit. And I’ll get a professional to give my grandmother’s rolltop desk a coat of white lacquer so I can render it as a gift to all of us here in our house for now, one I hope will be given again and again for generations to come.