Creating An Experience-Based Holiday




My childhood Christmases guaranteed a holiday tree with mini-mountains of gifts underneath. There were so many gifts that they sprawled into the living room and often towered above our little bodies. I remember ripping off the red and green foiled paper adorned with vintage Santas and snowmen, but I am hard-pressed to come up with any memories of any specific gift. I loved Christmas as a kid; I still do. When I became a parent, I thought the best way to hand down my love of Christmas to my children was to mimic my parents’ generous gift-giving practices. I’ve come to learn that the fleeting happiness of material things can be extended when they are replaced with experience-based holiday gifts.

Gifts Equal Love

I grew up in a lower-middle-class family. Both of my parents worked, and they worked opposite shifts to avoid any daycare costs. My brother and I were rarely denied the luxury items we desired. Little did we know, our parents were breaking themselves to do so. Both of them grew up in large families where everything was shared, and luxury items were rare. They showered us with gifts out of love trying to give us a life they never had. Gifts equaled love. Looking back on my childhood, I remember the gift-giving. I remember always having a myriad of toys to play with, but the memories I hold in the most precious pockets in my mind are of the experiences we shared. The Summer drives down to Missouri to visit grandparents. The Wisconsin Dells trips with cousins, Christmas cookie decorating, and designing the mildest of haunted houses in the basement are all held in those coveted memory spots.

I can recall the details and feelings of these experience-based holiday activities decades later. I can’t say the same about any toy I received wrapped in Santas.

Replicating My Childhood Christmas

In the first few years of our children’s lives, we replicated my childhood experience. We spent more than we budgeted on “things” we hoped our kids would enjoy, creating mini-mountains under the tree to see the delight on their faces Christmas morning. These “things” would end up in the donate pile before the next Christmas or broken. There had to be a better way; to penetrate that coveted spot in their memory bank. I referred back to my beloved childhood memories and realized that they were all experiences, not things. I worried that small children wouldn’t appreciate the gift of an experience in the moment and would only be able to appreciate it decades down the line. The only way to find out was to try it.

One Gift Limit

Last year, we informed our extended family that we would no longer be participating in gift exchanges. We emphasized looking forward to spending time together over dinners, games, and laughter.  We asked grandparents to limit their gift-giving to the kids to one item or clothing. We also let the kids know beforehand that they would only get one physical gift, so they should really put some thought into what they wanted. At the time, our children were 2 and 5 years of age. I think it was an easy enough age to explain that this was how it was going to be without an elaborate explanation. I’m not sure if it would have gone over as smoothly with older children. Psychoanalyst Sean Grover helped me feel even more confident in our decision. His research has found that excessive gift-giving can lead to increases in destructive behavior, lower self-esteem, and hinder long-lasting happiness. He also found children can become bullies to their parents when excessively given gifts, manipulating them into continuing the excess at all costs.

A Different Kind of Christmas Morning

When Christmas finally arrived, the kids were not any less excited to see a festive tree sans a mini mountain of gifts. Their smiles were just as bright, and their dances were just as funky. They opened their one gift from us (and one from Santa). They gave us their gratitude and were ready to play with that one toy all day. We then let them in on a surprise. We showed them videos of a vacation we planned, info on classes that were purchased, and tickets to some of their favorite activities. Their smiles and dances got bigger. You could see a new anticipation glow in their eyes as they received experience-based holiday gifts. 

What Happened After Our Kids Got Fewer Presents and More Experience-Based Holiday Gifts

The next few months were full of countdowns to an anticipated vacation. We also used the advance purchased tickets to their favorite places to fill days we needed something to do. (I highly recommend using resources such as school fundraisers and holiday gift card offers to save money on these).  The kids gained a love for new activities with the gifted classes. The one toy each kid got did not end up in the trash or donate pile (yet). Oh – and we saved a whole bunch of money. I still love the Christmas of my childhood, and I’m loving this new Christmas we have created for our children. Experience-based holiday gifts have allowed us to indulge not just in the Holiday season but all year long; together. 


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