Stuff ≠ Love

When I was a kid, the best thing about Christmas was getting the Sears Wish Book. (Yes, kids, I am that old.) The biggest publication to land on our doorstep aside from the phone book, my brother and I would comb through the toy section to form a list for Santa. (St. Nick seemed to enjoy having item numbers to expedite the work of the elves.) Most years, our reasonable requests of the jolly old elf showed up under the tree, and we went to bed on December 25th happy like you heard about on Christmas specials.

Now that both the Wish Book and my childhood are history, my Mom spends most of December haranguing me for a list of gifts. Every year, I give her a similar answer.

“Can you give me a sense of security and purpose in life?”

And every year, I get the same reply. “How about a sweater or a slow cooker or something?”

Of course, my mother would put my dream job and my ideal life in a box under the tree if she could log in to Amazon.com and order it up like a blender. I know this because if I could pick up a comfortable retirement and good health for decades to come for her, there would be no hesitation or looking for a price tag.

Instead, my brother and I try to express our gratitude for all she’s done for us by buying her nice Christmas and birthday gifts. We’re fortunate that she’s very explicit in what she’d like, leaving catalogs with sticky notes affixed to them on the dining room table for most of November and December. But I still hear that voice, the one that helped me wrack up thousands in credit card debt.

If you don’t overwhelm your mother with stuff this holiday season, you don’t love her enough.

The genesis of this voice is unclear. My family is good with money and has never used material goods to make up for a lack of emotional attachment. But it’s an urge I still struggle with. As I’ve grown, I’ve gotten better about identifying things that would actually make my loved ones happy, as opposed to running around TJ Maxx in a panic, blindly looking for something—anything—for them to open.

So if I find a pair of earrings my Mom would like in the next few days, I might buy it. If I find a sweater my brother might wear, I’d pick it up. But I’m trying to focus on the stuff that happens around the opening of gifts—my Uncle eating down cashews by the fistful, my Mom squeezing each gift to hazard a guess at what’s inside, my brother scooching around the tree handing out presents while wearing a Santa hat. Because no matter what the commercials tell me, that’s what I’ll remember when I’m old and gray.

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