While I was growing up, my best friend was Jewish. I was blessed with celebrating both holidays, Chanukah with my friend’s family and Christmas with my own. These celebrations shaped so many cherished memories. My parents created magical holidays, not with extravagant gifts, but teaching us the importance of giving, of special family time, and of the importance of service. My sisters and I accompanied my dad each year to a family with much less than we had, delivering gifts and food. It was bittersweet: feeling blessed with abundance, while witnessing a family struggling with hardship. On our way, bearing a fresh balsam tree, gifts, winter coats and boots for the children, and all the fixings for a turkey dinner, we would sing carols, weave stories, and laugh. My father was the Christmas “elf” extraordinaire!

When I became a parent, my children were blessed to inherit grandparents who continued the same spirit of my childhood experience. Christmas really began when my parents arrived Christmas Eve afternoon. My children’s excitement would increase as the day unfolded. They watched at the windows for the first glimpse of their grandparents’ arrival. Bearing gifts, baked goodies, festive energy, and unconditional love, their arrival brought squeals of excitement. Together, my parents and my children would prepare Santa’s snack before having their traditional stories by the fire. “The Night Before Christmas” was the final signal it was time for bed. Santa would soon be here!

As my children grew older, their wish list grew longer, more expensive, comparing notes with their school friends, who were supposedly getting everything they wanted. The question for us was always, What is “enough”? How do we teach our children the value of giving, of service, of the importance of authentic family connection? Do we believe showering them with gifts is a sign of our love? If we limit gifts they want, risking their disappointment, do we then feel guilty?

Parents complain their children aren’t just disappointed when they don’t get what they want, but they’re actually angry! 

One parent asked: “How do we remove the holiday commercialism and focus more on appreciating the meaning? My kids are less interested in lighting the Chanukah candles and just anxious to unwrap their gifts.”

Another parent: “We told our son we’d get him the play station he wanted if he behaved better. He’s always been a challenge, so we used this as a bribe. He needed to do his chores without whining, get his homework done, stop talking back, and not give us such a hard time. He didn’t do any of that, so he didn’t get the play station. He was devastated Christmas morning, and got angry with us. We felt guilty, so we promised if he behaved better during the next year, maybe he’d get it next Christmas. He accused us of not loving him, and the entire day was a nightmare! We thought gifts should be earned. Are we wrong?”

I’m sure there are endless questions about holiday gift-giving, exacerbating parents’ anxiety. When we’re stressed, our children are as well. Here are some guidelines:

Holiday gifts shouldn’t be about rewards or punishment. To ensure the holidays remain a joyful experience for the family, separate presents from behavior, while keeping discipline and routines consistent.

Be mindful of the motivation behind giving expensive presents. For parents feeling guilty about their long work hours, or lack of availability, gifts can be a way of showing their love. Rather than using the holidays as a quick “fix” for this, consider other ways to make meaningful, lasting changes through the year. 

There’s nothing we can do about commercialism. Business profits between Thanksgiving and the new year are probably at the highest. We can’t block our children from seeing the ads, etc. What we can do is offset this by teaching our children about service, providing them with opportunities to enrich the lives of others. There are many ways to do this, whether contributing to a food pantry; bringing gifts and a meal to an elderly person; and/or helping in some meaningful way in the community. This won’t necessarily eliminate asking for gifts they want; rather, it balances with the enjoyment of supporting others in need. 

Adding financial stress to an already-stretched budget, to ensure our children are happy and get what they want, undermines a family’s stability. The quality and quantity of gifts are best explained honestly to children. Even with a belief in Santa Claus (he knows “if you’re naughty or nice”), it’s important for children to understand they didn’t do anything wrong when there’s disappointment in the gifts. Rather, this can be addressed with, “Santa gave you what he had this year.”

Electronic games that are fast-paced, highly stimulating and played in isolation can be fun, if done in moderation. Games that are interactive, requiring a slower, more thoughtful pace, are now less popular. Exposing our children to imaginative games, with the emphasis on parent-child quality play time, is meaningful for enhancing connection. 

Finally, the gift of unconditional love is what children need. Providing time for interaction, by playing and sharing fun activities, creates lasting, special memories. Reflecting on my own holiday memories, my parents’ gift of their undivided attention and love was “enough.” Long after gifts are unwrapped and discarded, time with our children will be what matters most.

“One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self.” — Fred Rogers

Wishing you a special, safe holiday with family and friends.