The problem starts in September. I receive an email informing me that Santa Claus will be visiting our local recreation center in December. For the “low, low cost” of just $25 per child, my children can sit on Saint Nick’s lap and have a photo taken that we probably won’t ever look at again.
I send in my check. How could I not? It’s Santa Claus.
By mid-October, as my children are still debating about a dozen Halloween costume options, the brainstorming of Christmas lists begin.
Somehow catalogs filled with LEGOs, Playmobiles, American Girl dolls, and more migrate into the home, filling tables and counterspace with glossy images of idealized, joyous children playing with magnificent, pristine toys in strangely artificial landscapes.
I don’t get it. I thought that catalogs died alongside the TV Guide and the phone book? Where do my children find these things? How do they smuggle them into our home without me noticing? And why have these publications taken the place of children’s literature as their primary form of reading?
But as they begin circling items for their wish list, wanting a particular piece of molded plastic or an electronic doodad possessing more computing power than Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had on Apollo 11, I am reminded of my own childhood. The gifts never received. The Christmas mornings less enchanting than others. The disappointment of a Christmas present gone terribly awry.
My thirteenth birthday, for example, when the only gift under the tree for me was an envelope instructing me to go to the garage.
Am I getting a car? I don’t have a driver’s license yet, but who the hell cares? I’m getting a car!
The car turned out to be a weight bench. I didn’t ask for a weight bench. I didn’t even lift weights. I didn’t want to lift weights. I had never expressed any interest in lifting weights. Perhaps this was my parents not-so-subtle hint that I should be lifting weights, but kids don’t want not-so-subtle hints for Christmas.
They want the items on their damn wish list.
My kids will not suffer the same fate. I may – no, I will – complain for the next 364 days that my children have too many toys, too many gizmos, too much clothing, too much molded, colored plastic, but on Christmas Day, all of those concerns disappear.
Pile on the presents, I say. Despite my wife’s desperate protestations, I buy it all.
And it’s true. I’ll complain about every single one of them for the next year. I’ll rail against the wanton materialism and mess that they create. I’ll blame my wife and children for their excesses. But on Christmas Day, I am downright gluttonous in my gift-giving.
It only costs me about one million dollars.
Then there is the Christmas tree, which somehow now costs as much as a year’s subscription to Netflix. And though we don’t need a Christmas wreath and never wanted a Christmas wreath, look! The Christmas tree folks are selling wreaths. Let’s get an even dozen. Also, a bottle of that stuff to keep the tree alive (even though it’s very much dead) and a new Christmas tree stand, since last year’s is still perfectly fine but not-so-new.
Add in some post-Christmas tree purchasing of hot chocolate for the whole family (at Starbucks, of course), and this little excursion only cost me half my paycheck.
Later in the week, I come home to find that the exterior of my house is now decorated with twinkling lights, courtesy of my Jewish wife who adores Christmas because she’s only about 15 years old in Christmas years. So now we are an outdoor Christmas light family, which means we are now an outdoor Christmas light in constant need of replacement family.
My wife handles these purchases, so I don’t know the actual dollar total.
Probably several thousand dollars.
Then there is the food. Four people are coming over on Christmas Day, which means we need enough turkey, ham, wine, and cookies to feed 40. We could probably feed a small village with the food we purchase, but that is irrelevant. It’s Christmas. We must have an abundance of food, damn it. Everyone needs to eat enough food to make them sick, and there needs to be plenty of leftovers to make people sick for days to come.
Our grocery bill more than triples.
In the end, Christmas costs me a fortune. I’d tell you that it exceeded our budget, but that would imply that I had a budget to begin with. Only a fool would dare to create a budget for something as expansive as Christmas. Spending during the holiday season is like that 1950s movie “The Blob.” It just grows and grows, reaching its appendages out farther and farther every year, sucking in more of my banking account with every turn.
That’s okay. The smiles of my children on Christmas morning? Priceless.
Matthew Dicks is an elementary school teacher, bestselling novelist, and 50-time Moth Story SLAM champion. His Christmas Day meal budget may be a little smaller this year, depending on the latest COVID advisory. Or not. He likes leftovers.
Sean Wang, an MIT architecture graduate, is author of the sci-fi graphic novel series, Runners. Learn more at seanwang.com.