Should Santa Be A Scrooge?

By Jen Holman


Can you believe it’s the holiday season already? It seems we were trick-or-treating just last week. But here we are. Thanksgiving has come and gone, and houses are swathed in lights and garland.

The organized, early-bird types have already sent out cards and finished their holiday shopping. I am not one of the uber-organized. I do bits at a time, much of it online. I’m getting there slowly but surely, so the topic of gifts, or more specifically gift-giving, has been on my mind lately.

As part of an effort to make Christmas mean more to our kids than just receiving presents, we volunteer to collect and organize gifts for The Angel Tree. Our oldest, 9 now, loves to help. But last year she began putting ideas together, and had questions we weren’t prepared to answer. As sweet donors brought in shoes and coats and bicycles for kids who “probably wouldn’t get anything for Christmas,” she asked why Santa brought some kids presents and not others.

Uh-oh. How to answer that? Why doesn’t Santa distribute gifts equitably? Don’t all children on the Nice List get a stop from his sleigh? Isn’t that what we’ve always heard?

After my daughter’s insightful questions, I wondered … are we perpetuating privilege and entitlement when we shower our kiddos in presents “from Santa?” What is this saying not just to kids to whom Santa gave generously, but to those whose parents couldn’t buy much this year? When they hear of the disparity, do those kids feel less worthy? Less special? How could they not?

It was my husband who suggested Santa only bring modest, normal gifts—baby dolls, action figures, slippers and pajamas and the like. It makes sense. A child may go to school thrilled with the Legos Santa brought, and hopefully the classmates around him had similar experiences.

Now, if parents have the means and desire to buy life-size robots and mini Ferraris, great. Lucky kids. But isn’t it better if such gifts are from parents—not Santa? Mom and Dad are heroes, no kid feels unduly inadequate; it’s a win-win situation.

But to gifts in general, many parents (and kids) these days are overwhelmed by the mountain of presents each year Christmas morning is like a sugar high that lasts 15 minutes before the ultimate crash and burn. Parents are exhausted and resentful of shopping malls and the mad rush to mark off lists.

My own favorite childhood holiday memories have nothing to do with presents. What I remember most are twinkling lights and the smell of live trees. I recall carols sung a capella and building forts with out-of-town cousins. I would like to get back to that. I want to give my children those little memorable moments. I want to teach them what’s important: love and family, gratitude and peace and charity.

To stop the holiday madness, to focus on the “reason for the season,” many families are putting limitations on gifts. Some do it for religious reasons. Others to fight commercialization, to save money, or to alleviate stress. There are many variations, but I think these two giftgiving philosophies are brilliant.

The first is Want, Need, Wear, Read. This can go several ways. Some families task children with making a list of four things: one each of something they want, or need, and something they would like to wear and read. Other times—and this is useful among especially big families—family members are instructed to only buy one thing from one of those categories. If limited to only one meaningful thing, both thoughtful list-making and thoughtful gift-giving are encouraged.

Another strategy many families use is the three-gift rule, which symbolizes the three gifts brought to Baby Jesus from the wise men. And if it’s good enough for Baby Jesus …

Strategies like these can limit chaos, temper expectations and mitigate disappointment on Christmas morning. Are these limitations for everyone? No. Some may think them Scrooge-like.

But if you’ve ever found yourself scrambling for one more present just so your kids will have more to open ... If your kid has thrown a tantrum because the one on the commercial was blue … If you find yourself resenting the holidays because it’s such a drain on your wallet and energy … maybe it’s time for a change. Maybe refining the giftgiving process would be better both for us, our kids and other kids who might not have been so fortunate this year.

Jen Holman is often irreverent and frequently imperfect. But she’s happy, by God, and that’s what matters. A former Congressional press secretary and executive director of Arkansas Literacy Councils, Jen has also published three fiction novels. She lives in Little Rock with her husband and three (im)perfect children.