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The Heavy Price of Holiday Magic

Christmas for kids is all about wish fulfillment: When I was a kid, my favorite thing in the world was going through the big Toys “R” Us Christmas catalog with a marker, circling everything I wanted. When my son mentions toys he’s seen influencers playing with on YouTube, I sometimes rule things out based on price. But generally, I make an effort to get him exactly what he asks for.

When it comes to buying gifts, David Clover, a Detroit-based parent of one, relies on a method that has been gaining traction on debt management forums and social media sites in recent years. “We’ve been following the ‘something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read’ system,” he explained. “So she usually gets one toy that she asked for. We try to get it as close to what she said as possible since it’s only one ‘wish list’ item.”

Among my parent friends, the “four gift rule,” as it’s often called, has been growing in popularity as a means of managing holiday spending. I don’t follow the method strictly, but I am being very careful about the way we construct the Santa narrative in our house. I tend to focus on the “want” aspect of gifting, so I’ll get my son whatever toys he’s really excited about, while telling family members that things like pajamas, socks and underwear are always welcome.

As far as books are concerned, those come from Santa. I do things this way because, when I was growing up, Christmas was sparse some years when money was tight. My parents always did their best with what they had, but I remember being so sad when my friends got Barbie’s Dream House from Santa while I only got new winter boots. So, I made a conscious decision that Santa would bring my son small gifts, so he knows his mom got him the big ones; if he is going to be disappointed, at least he’ll know whom to be disappointed with.

For parents who are struggling to afford basic necessities, anticipating a child’s Christmas disappointment can be very painful. I spoke to Janelle Alexander, who lives with her daughter in Los Angeles and has been unemployed for over a year. “I try to shield her from it — she sees how hard it’s been for me to pay bills since I was laid off,” Alexander said. “Children shouldn’t have to understand these things, especially when everyone around them is celebrating.”

There’s one thing I know for sure. I can try to temper my son’s expectations when it comes to holiday presents, but he’s a kid. He’s going to ask for things outside of what I may be able to get. And I already know that I will do everything I can to make it happen. Because Christmas only comes once a year.


Sa’iyda Shabazz is a single mother and writer living in Los Angeles.

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