The third night of Chanukah (which, by the way, coincided with my birthday) had me pulling the car over to the side of a snowy suburban street and announcing that there was no law — Jewish or otherwise — that stipulated that I was required to give presents to anyone, and that everyone in the backseat had ZERO chances left to be gracious about their Chanukah gifts, or we were done with this present racket for the year. PERIOD.
And I meant it.
And I was right.
From that point, my children’s present-receiving skills improved markedly. By which I mean there was no more bursting into tears or pitching of tantrums following the opening of festive holiday gifts. Gifts, by the way, that they wholeheartedly (or begrudgingly) loved and played with in the minutes and days following said tears and tantrums.
Without wanting to get into a treatise on the subject, because I’m sure there are plenty out there, I will say that I have a lot of discomfort around present-receiving culture, in particular at this time of year. I don’t like the commercialism, the impetus to go shopping because somebody has told you to. I’m a bit of a control freak and I hate clutter and waste, which means that most of the time I’d rather pick out my own stuff rather than risk the problematics of gifts I don’t want or need. With several birthdays near the end of the year and a household with strong ties to both Chanukah and Christmas, this time of year starts to feel slightly unmanageable. Years ago, Rachel and I stopped giving holiday and birthday gifts to each other: it felt too loaded, too stressful. Now, if I see something I think she’ll like, I just buy it for her, preferably in, say, July.
At the moment, though, we do buy Chanukah gifts for the kids: one modest present each night for eight nights. It’s an arrangement born out of a certain amount of compromise (Rachel, bless her, adores present culture), a nod to tradition, and at least a smidgen or two of glee and fun. In a perfect world, each gift would be thoughtfully and artfully chosen, locally or sustainably made, nonviolent, affordable, a reflection of my sons’ unique tastes and abilities, sheathed in reusable or recyclable wrapping. Each gift would provoke joy and hours of stimulating play, would broaden their worlds and fill them with extra wonder, new curiosity.
In reality, there’s an awful lot of scouring the toy shelves at Winners.
Because, you know, who has time for that kind of ridiculous? It’s a full-time job to find 16 perfect presents, and I already have a job, writing things on the Internet for free. Among other things. I mean, maybe some year I’ll get my shit together and start thinking of these things in July, but the likelihood of that happening is low. And even if I did, there’s no guarantee that those thoughtfully chosen gifts would be met with anywhere near the grace they merit.
Put simply, my kids need a refresher on their present-receiving skills.
Because, let’s face it: when you are a child (and, ahem, maybe when you’re a grownup), every wrapped present contains a pony. A full on, sparkly pony with diamonds on the soles of its horseshoes and a saddle made out of pure candy. All wrapped packages contain Barbie dream homes or life-size Lego unicorns or undefeatable, gold-plated Pokémon cards. And when that’s the case, sometimes it can be hard to unwrap Boggle. Even when the following day you will spend a rapt hour finding new words with your mother, who had children precisely so that one day she might play Boggle with them.
Nights four through eight of Chanukah involved pre-gift coaching sessions:
“What will you say when you get this present?” we asked.
“Thank you,” they droned, like the perfect little zombies of gratitude we force them to be.
“And what will you say if it’s something that you don’t like?”
“I will say, I will say,” — Rowan has thought this one through, obviously — “‘I don’t really like this present but thank you for it anyway.’”
We’re working on it. By God, we’re working on it.