If Christmas morning will be different this year

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  December 21, 2009 06:00 AM

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Hey Barbara -- I'm dreading Christmas morning.

In the past, Christmas morning has been everything our kids imagined and then some. We realize now that we overdid it, but, hey, my husband and I enjoyed every minute, including the planning, buying, and wrapping. But, sigh, our reality is different this year (I'll spare you the details, but we aren't giving each other any gifts and we won't have champagne for Christmas breakfast. There will be a tree, but it will be modest, unlike previous years when it reached almost to the top of our cathedral-ceilinged family room.)

So yes, we are seriously scaling back and my question is: how to deal with what I expect will be disappointed children on Christmas morning? They are 8 and 11.

From: NoHoHoHere, Portland, ME


Hi NoHoHoHere,

You're not alone, of course. My colleague, Joe Kahn, had a story in the paper just the other day about this.

The good news is there are concrete things you can do:

1. Don't underestimate your kids. As ego-centric as all kids are, they aren't oblivious and unless you  have created a literal bubble around them, they know that your family is going through some changes. It's best to acknowledge these changes as they happen, matter-of-factly, without drama. Don't wait for them to wake up on Christmas morning to discover things are different this year. Give them some advance notice, like, uh, today. Start by acknowledging what they already know: "You've probably noticed our family has gone through some changes recently." List one or two obvious ones.

2. Give them clear expectations in a gentle, calm way. The tree is a good starting point: "This year our tree is smaller than it used to be. That's because big trees cost a lot of money and this year, we're trying to have a wonderful Christmas without spending a lot of money." Plug in a reason: "Dad/Mom has a new job and he doesn't make as much as he used to; Dad/Mom is still looking for a job." It's important to give a reason, even with 4- and 5-year-olds; otherwise kids of all ages will apply their own, magically-thought-up reasons: "I was bad, that's why. It's my fault." Keep it simple and age-appropriate. If they ask questions, answer them as best you can.

3. Include Santa in the predicament: "We're not the only people trying to spend money carefully. Even Santa is trying to save money this year. There won't be as many presents from him." Be specific! Kids think concretely: "You might only get X presents. You probably won't get Y." I would do this even with children as young as 4 or 5. There are plenty of other children in other families who are hearing a similar story, and yes, kids do talk about this with each other.

4. Acknowledge your own feelings. It's OK to say, "I will miss the big tree / our Christmas brunch," whatever. And it's OK to say, "Maybe another year we will have a big tree again." But don't raise unrealistic hopes and don't wallow. If it makes you tearful, cry where they don't see you. The best gift you can give them is to be honest but upbeat, and to model that you can still have a wonderful Christmas in the face of adversity, whatever it is.

5. On Christmas morning, if they are unhappy, don't call them greedy, spoiled, or bratty. Give them their wishes in fantasy: "You wish you got X, don't you? You wish we could do Y, don't you? I wish that, too. But this year is different, and I think it's still wonderful. I hope you do, too." Keep it simple, help them to move past it. But remember that validating the sense of loss will help a child of any age get over it a whole lot more quickly than punishing or shaming him. Tell stories about past years: "Remember when...!!" Pull out photos.

Readers, I'm anxious to see what suggestions you have, too.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

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14 comments so far...
  1. We have always done smaller celebrations than my kids' friends and I think the 2 secrets to it are: be up front about it and be a positive role model. If my kids have a wish list that just isn't going to happen I try to make sure I warn them ahead of time. I want them to process the disappointment ahead of time and have more reasonable expectations.

    As parents, we focus on the other aspects of Christmas and find joy is the free parts of the season (drive around and look at lights, special Xmas movies....). I think if you focus on all the things you don't have like a big tree, presents for each other ,etc. then your kids will focus on what they don't have.

    Like the article in the globe this weekend, we are doing more "recycling" this year. Go to game stop for used video games or look on craigslist.

    I expect to have a wonderful Xmas on a limited budget.


    Posted by Jayne December 21, 09 09:44 AM
  1. I am a young adult, recently married, and lately thinking a lot about what I miss most about Christmas with my parents and own family. I have to say that my deep and fond affection towards my family Christmases had nothing to do with any of the things the LW mentioned. Champagne, giant trees, lavish gifts. In fact, I barely even remember gifts. What I absolutely pine for are the traditions--the things we did every year. Mom's homemade sticky buns. My younger brother playing Santa and giving out gifts. Listening to Christmas music on the radio in the morning. Mom giving Dad a can of smoked almonds, my brother a jar of olives. Going for a walk once everything was opened as a family. None of this is expensive, of course. It is the routine of intimate moments that matters. Start some new traditions and involve your kids in them. Pick out a Christmas breakfast meal that your kids like and can be a part of making, and stick to it each year. These kinds of traditions are ones that you can cherish every year, no matter what your financial situation is. Merry Christmas to you and your family!

    Posted by Sarah B December 21, 09 10:33 AM
  1. Loved Sarah B's reply: this is what is (or should be) about. Family traditions/warmth around Christmas/holidays. Nothing to do with material things at all. In the past (ok... waaaay past), gifts were so important b'cos very little was bought throughout the year. So waiting for the gift became important. But now, when we buy things throughout the year, and all of us have so much more than what we need, these material gifts are the least important. Family love and warmth will be the stuff memories are made out of. Thanks Sarah B.

    Posted by chins December 21, 09 02:42 PM
  1. I agree with Sarah B, I as well am in my early 20s out on my own and look back at the simple part of Christmas. I dont remember what my 'cool present' from christmas 1991 was, but I do remember that every morning before presents we would all sit at the kitchen table eat my moms banana nut bread and wonder what Santa has waiting for us down stairs. Or, every Christmas afternoon at my grandparents playing and laughing with my cousins I didnt see very often.

    Christmas is what you make of it. Make it the best, and then the kids will remember that for a long time. :)

    Posted by Summahlovah December 21, 09 03:10 PM
  1. Sarah B could not be more correct. Pay attention to her comments!

    Posted by Monique VanDeSoaker December 21, 09 03:21 PM
  1. I agree with Sarah B-- stress experiences and traditions over concrete physical gifts. The snow we just got provides some great opportunities. Build a snow fort and have a family snow ball fight! Try and roll the biggest snow ball you possibly can (and then take pictures with it). Go for a walk in the snow.

    Or other ideas: board games, gingerbread houses, face painting, etc. The experiences are much more important than the things.

    Posted by Stalking Sarah December 21, 09 03:45 PM
  1. Another nod for Sarah B. So much of Christmas to my kids is really the build-up during Advent, before a single gift is unwrapped. They are 14 and almost 13, and still love to take turns moving the star from day to day on the cloth Advent calendar. They want certain types of cookies and my grandmother's rolls, hot chocolate made with real grated chocolate (way cheaper than champagne!), a Balsam fir tree with falling-apart ornaments they made in preschool, the smell of bayberry candles, the 7 o'clock service at our church with candles that drip all over our hands, and cookies left out for the Santa they no longer believe in.

    By contrast, the Christmases they remember as being really bad were bad because we were visiting relatives and had to stay in hotels. But I don't think they remember a single gift they got in any year, good or bad!

    Posted by Ashley December 21, 09 04:17 PM
  1. One of my fondest remembrances of Christmas morning was when we would place the "Baby Jesus" statuette in the stable we had in our house; it was an old one, imported from Italy. Mr brother & I would alternate each year placing the statue of Baby Jesus in the stable, the other would hold a lit candle. First thing, Christmas Morning. Then, Nana would come home from morning Mass and we would start our Christmas Day.

    I am 51 & I still remember this ritual we did, more than any of the presents we got, and we got plenty.

    Posted by George December 21, 09 04:59 PM
  1. It's all about being okay with now, not comparing it to last year. I find that kids respond to their parents response, so give yourself permission to be okay with what this holiday season is.

    http://www.CarolynIs.com/holiday-argh/

    Posted by Carolyn December 22, 09 08:00 AM
  1. I agree that traditions, not gifts, are often the biggest part of Christmas for the kids. Santa sets our breakfast table with the 'good' dishes and leaves an ornament of each child's plate. I will never forget the year when my eldest was so distracted by the table that he didn't even see his stocking until someone pointed it out! Each child knows there will be PEZ in the stocking and that we will give them a book. First thing in the morning they will be allowed to eat the chocolate that Santa leaves on the cookie plate for a thanks. Having said that, we also made it clear that Santa is not bringing big gifts like that XBox360. Is this sad? Yes, but I believe the traditions will be remembered and the specific gifts will not be - as others have also pointed out.

    Posted by pickupsticks December 22, 09 08:18 AM
  1. It just seems like NoHoHo has misplaced the meaning of Christmas anyway. I heartily agree with Sarah B. Christmas is not about gifts or champagne. I grew up in a house like what the writer describes. My family is not, and has never been religious. I didn't even know who Jesus was. But every year, the tree was huge and Mom & Dad pointed out how much they bought for us. As an adult in my 30s, I don't really celebrate the holiday because I have no fond memories of it. I don't remember what I got for Christmas 1989. My husband and I don't have children, and we see no point to buy gifts for each other--we have everything we need. We also do not buy gifts for others, opting instead to send cards, photographs, call loved ones we live far away from. NO ONE has complained. We instead spend the time together, snowshoeing, watching a movie, etc. We go have dinner with parents or friends who are keeping it as low-key as we are. The real gift is in being together with the people you love. It's not about things.

    Posted by anika December 22, 09 10:42 AM
  1. How about starting some new, but cheap traditions? Can you go caroling, sledding, skating? Look for free entertainment - many churches have concerts, carol services, etc.

    How about helping someone else? A few cans for the food pantry, presents for homelss children or prisoners might make them realize that they are not so badly off.

    And don't be afraid to use the words "we can't afford that." If children don't hear those words, they won't internalize them and they too will buy houses they can't afford and use their credit cards to buy every little thing they "want" without regard to what they need.

    Posted by delilah December 22, 09 11:05 AM
  1. From the great Dr Seuss,

    "What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store.
    What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

    Christmas comes without any present.

    Yahoo Doray yahoo doray Welcome Christmas.

    Sing it people.


    Posted by Eric December 22, 09 01:22 PM
  1. Thank you for publishing this. I'm a newly divorced father of 2 children of these same ages. It's the first year that we won't be together as a family on Christmas, so I've been seeking ways to reestablish new traditions far removed from the seemingly "gift-based" holidays of the past. I agree that kids think in concrete ways, and up-front honesty is absolutely the best way to go. Staying strong is very difficult, but essential. Happy Holidays to all!!

    Posted by GB December 22, 09 01:29 PM
 
14 comments so far...
  1. We have always done smaller celebrations than my kids' friends and I think the 2 secrets to it are: be up front about it and be a positive role model. If my kids have a wish list that just isn't going to happen I try to make sure I warn them ahead of time. I want them to process the disappointment ahead of time and have more reasonable expectations.

    As parents, we focus on the other aspects of Christmas and find joy is the free parts of the season (drive around and look at lights, special Xmas movies....). I think if you focus on all the things you don't have like a big tree, presents for each other ,etc. then your kids will focus on what they don't have.

    Like the article in the globe this weekend, we are doing more "recycling" this year. Go to game stop for used video games or look on craigslist.

    I expect to have a wonderful Xmas on a limited budget.


    Posted by Jayne December 21, 09 09:44 AM
  1. I am a young adult, recently married, and lately thinking a lot about what I miss most about Christmas with my parents and own family. I have to say that my deep and fond affection towards my family Christmases had nothing to do with any of the things the LW mentioned. Champagne, giant trees, lavish gifts. In fact, I barely even remember gifts. What I absolutely pine for are the traditions--the things we did every year. Mom's homemade sticky buns. My younger brother playing Santa and giving out gifts. Listening to Christmas music on the radio in the morning. Mom giving Dad a can of smoked almonds, my brother a jar of olives. Going for a walk once everything was opened as a family. None of this is expensive, of course. It is the routine of intimate moments that matters. Start some new traditions and involve your kids in them. Pick out a Christmas breakfast meal that your kids like and can be a part of making, and stick to it each year. These kinds of traditions are ones that you can cherish every year, no matter what your financial situation is. Merry Christmas to you and your family!

    Posted by Sarah B December 21, 09 10:33 AM
  1. Loved Sarah B's reply: this is what is (or should be) about. Family traditions/warmth around Christmas/holidays. Nothing to do with material things at all. In the past (ok... waaaay past), gifts were so important b'cos very little was bought throughout the year. So waiting for the gift became important. But now, when we buy things throughout the year, and all of us have so much more than what we need, these material gifts are the least important. Family love and warmth will be the stuff memories are made out of. Thanks Sarah B.

    Posted by chins December 21, 09 02:42 PM
  1. I agree with Sarah B, I as well am in my early 20s out on my own and look back at the simple part of Christmas. I dont remember what my 'cool present' from christmas 1991 was, but I do remember that every morning before presents we would all sit at the kitchen table eat my moms banana nut bread and wonder what Santa has waiting for us down stairs. Or, every Christmas afternoon at my grandparents playing and laughing with my cousins I didnt see very often.

    Christmas is what you make of it. Make it the best, and then the kids will remember that for a long time. :)

    Posted by Summahlovah December 21, 09 03:10 PM
  1. Sarah B could not be more correct. Pay attention to her comments!

    Posted by Monique VanDeSoaker December 21, 09 03:21 PM
  1. I agree with Sarah B-- stress experiences and traditions over concrete physical gifts. The snow we just got provides some great opportunities. Build a snow fort and have a family snow ball fight! Try and roll the biggest snow ball you possibly can (and then take pictures with it). Go for a walk in the snow.

    Or other ideas: board games, gingerbread houses, face painting, etc. The experiences are much more important than the things.

    Posted by Stalking Sarah December 21, 09 03:45 PM
  1. Another nod for Sarah B. So much of Christmas to my kids is really the build-up during Advent, before a single gift is unwrapped. They are 14 and almost 13, and still love to take turns moving the star from day to day on the cloth Advent calendar. They want certain types of cookies and my grandmother's rolls, hot chocolate made with real grated chocolate (way cheaper than champagne!), a Balsam fir tree with falling-apart ornaments they made in preschool, the smell of bayberry candles, the 7 o'clock service at our church with candles that drip all over our hands, and cookies left out for the Santa they no longer believe in.

    By contrast, the Christmases they remember as being really bad were bad because we were visiting relatives and had to stay in hotels. But I don't think they remember a single gift they got in any year, good or bad!

    Posted by Ashley December 21, 09 04:17 PM
  1. One of my fondest remembrances of Christmas morning was when we would place the "Baby Jesus" statuette in the stable we had in our house; it was an old one, imported from Italy. Mr brother & I would alternate each year placing the statue of Baby Jesus in the stable, the other would hold a lit candle. First thing, Christmas Morning. Then, Nana would come home from morning Mass and we would start our Christmas Day.

    I am 51 & I still remember this ritual we did, more than any of the presents we got, and we got plenty.

    Posted by George December 21, 09 04:59 PM
  1. It's all about being okay with now, not comparing it to last year. I find that kids respond to their parents response, so give yourself permission to be okay with what this holiday season is.

    http://www.CarolynIs.com/holiday-argh/

    Posted by Carolyn December 22, 09 08:00 AM
  1. I agree that traditions, not gifts, are often the biggest part of Christmas for the kids. Santa sets our breakfast table with the 'good' dishes and leaves an ornament of each child's plate. I will never forget the year when my eldest was so distracted by the table that he didn't even see his stocking until someone pointed it out! Each child knows there will be PEZ in the stocking and that we will give them a book. First thing in the morning they will be allowed to eat the chocolate that Santa leaves on the cookie plate for a thanks. Having said that, we also made it clear that Santa is not bringing big gifts like that XBox360. Is this sad? Yes, but I believe the traditions will be remembered and the specific gifts will not be - as others have also pointed out.

    Posted by pickupsticks December 22, 09 08:18 AM
  1. It just seems like NoHoHo has misplaced the meaning of Christmas anyway. I heartily agree with Sarah B. Christmas is not about gifts or champagne. I grew up in a house like what the writer describes. My family is not, and has never been religious. I didn't even know who Jesus was. But every year, the tree was huge and Mom & Dad pointed out how much they bought for us. As an adult in my 30s, I don't really celebrate the holiday because I have no fond memories of it. I don't remember what I got for Christmas 1989. My husband and I don't have children, and we see no point to buy gifts for each other--we have everything we need. We also do not buy gifts for others, opting instead to send cards, photographs, call loved ones we live far away from. NO ONE has complained. We instead spend the time together, snowshoeing, watching a movie, etc. We go have dinner with parents or friends who are keeping it as low-key as we are. The real gift is in being together with the people you love. It's not about things.

    Posted by anika December 22, 09 10:42 AM
  1. How about starting some new, but cheap traditions? Can you go caroling, sledding, skating? Look for free entertainment - many churches have concerts, carol services, etc.

    How about helping someone else? A few cans for the food pantry, presents for homelss children or prisoners might make them realize that they are not so badly off.

    And don't be afraid to use the words "we can't afford that." If children don't hear those words, they won't internalize them and they too will buy houses they can't afford and use their credit cards to buy every little thing they "want" without regard to what they need.

    Posted by delilah December 22, 09 11:05 AM
  1. From the great Dr Seuss,

    "What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store.
    What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

    Christmas comes without any present.

    Yahoo Doray yahoo doray Welcome Christmas.

    Sing it people.


    Posted by Eric December 22, 09 01:22 PM
  1. Thank you for publishing this. I'm a newly divorced father of 2 children of these same ages. It's the first year that we won't be together as a family on Christmas, so I've been seeking ways to reestablish new traditions far removed from the seemingly "gift-based" holidays of the past. I agree that kids think in concrete ways, and up-front honesty is absolutely the best way to go. Staying strong is very difficult, but essential. Happy Holidays to all!!

    Posted by GB December 22, 09 01:29 PM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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