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Peter McKay


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Ghosts of Christmas Presents


When we had small children running around the house, Christmas was a huge event that required weeks of arrangement. Sure, there was decorating and cooking, but coordinating gift-giving required planning on the scale of the D-Day invasion.

Buying Christmas presents for small kids is stressful. You don't want to spoil them, but you want to make sure that they have a good Christmas morning, complete with the requisite jumping-up-and-down with wide eyes and open mouth. If they wet themselves, you've batted one out of the park.

But every parent fears the sign of failure — that look on a child's face when she has opened her last present, looks around the room, and then just shrugs and nods in disappointment. There's a fine line between what parents can afford and a gift that will make a kid want a Santa Claus dartboard the next year.

So when our kids were little, we spent way too much money on "filler" gifts — the kinds of gifts that fill out the present pile. Of course, there was always a main gift —something they really, really wanted — but then there were others that were there just to provide volume.

I'd actually opt for something big and cheap just because it would look impressive when wrapped. Filler gifts were ones that were probably going to be broken by New Year's Day, but nobody would notice. I've always thought of filler gifts as things to stand in the background, their only purpose being to make the main gift stand out. They are the Tito and Jermaine Jacksons of the gift world.

We also had to make sure that there was an equitable distribution of the wealth. Years ago, we got our son an electric guitar as his main gift. Somehow, the same year, we gave his younger sister rechargeable batteries as her main gift. (Rechargeables are pretty expensive, you know, and you have to buy a charger. Stop judging.)

The look on our daughter's face when it hit her that ...

batteries ... were her main gift and that the rest were just fillers still haunts me at night. To this day, every once in a while, my daughter will look across the room with a cold, steely stare and whisper, "Batteries!" in a tone that makes me worry that she might end up holding medical power of attorney when I'm old and decrepit.

In the rush of gift-buying, at least once in your parental life, you're going to find yourself shocked and dismayed that you neglected one of your kids. Making it worse, you can't run out and buy supplemental gifts on Christmas Day. You're stuck with what you picked out, and no amount of PR is going to convince a kid that a filler gift is a main gift.

These days, however, with older offspring, Christmas is a lot more practical around our house. As kids get older, the main gifts get smaller and more expensive, and it's hard to find filler gifts to round out the pile. (Older kids know when something is cheap.) And then at a certain age, your kids reach the stage where you can no longer buy them gifts. It's pretty likely that any clothes you like they'll find horrifying, and you run too great a risk in trying to pick out something electronic because your understanding of technology probably ended with the Betamax. So the default gift ends up being a check.

A check for Christmas has many advantages. An older child can pick out exactly what he wants, and he's likely to go out shopping the day after Christmas. But it also takes away a lot of the Christmas spirit. You hand over an envelope, and they open it, look at the amount, nod and say thanks. Then you both sit awkwardly. It doesn't feel so much like a family holiday as it does a real estate closing.

It may not be a gift that makes you want to snuggle up with hot chocolate in your new bathrobe, but you can't go wrong with a check. With a check, you don't have to worry, like I do, that years and years from now, as I'm in the old folks home hooked up to machines, unable to move on the hospital bed, I'll hear a "click" as they turn off the ventilator.

And the last thing I'll hear, over the fading beeeeep of the heart monitor, is someone whispering in my ear, "Batteries! Batteries!"

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