Merry Christmas, kiddos!
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Merry Christmas, kiddos!

Oh help. I’ve really done it this time, guys. I wrote a column for Black Friday asking my friends and relations to get my kids nothing for Christmas. Now I know what you’re thinking: What a noble request! A father trying to introduce his children to the joys of a simple holiday! What could possibly go wrong? Well, let me tell you.

First, let me say that, contrary to what you may have read in the comment section below that column, I was not scarred by horrible holidays as a child. I grew up in a mountain town. My Christmas memories are made of snow crystals and red plastic sleds, ski days and spruce boughs. Yes, Santa came to our house, and we exchanged gifts, but the highlight of the holiday season was the time we spent outdoors.

Let me also say that my wife, Tara, and I have some rich holiday traditions of our own. We celebrate Santa Lucia Day, a solstice tradition that is strong in Scandinavia. (Our eldest daughter is named for the saint, whose surrogate appeared in my bedroom late one wintry night when I was in college, bearing candles, mugs of hot chocolate, and a tray of saffron buns.) Each year, we have a solstice fire in our backyard and host a feast for family and friends. One of my favorite traditions involves an annual running race around Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park, which we follow with a great wassail-drinking fest and an off-kilter run home through the snowy streets, exchanging greetings with the local denizens as we pass.

On Christmas, Tara and I always get the whole family outside for some frolicking in the snow (or mud, which is almost as much fun) — and yes, Santa does come to our house. Tara is amazing at whipping up holiday magic for Lucia, who is 8, and her 4-year-old sister, Chloe. The trouble, as I said in my oh-so-tactful “nothing for Christmas” column, is the sheer volume of gifts that spill from the UPS truck, er, St. Nick’s sleigh, from the far corners of the country.

To cut down on the clutter and send a message of simplicity, I have always opted against getting my kids things for Christmas. Instead, I give them experiences — a sleep-out in a snow cave or a day on the ski hill. But come to find out, my holiday cheer leaves something to be desired. Like, a lot to be desired. Apparently, I’m a total Scrooge McDuck.

Shift the Gift

This came to my attention last week, when someone asked me to name the worst present I’d ever given Tara. Worst present? Have I ever given a bad one? I sent her a text message to inquire. The response arrived about 30 seconds later:

“Well the first thing that comes to mind is when you gave me the flower bulbs and then got mad at me when I didn’t plant them … The 11th commandment: And ye who so giveth bulbs shall plant them in the earth and witnesseth the delight upon the receiver when said bulbs spring forth without effort.”

Note to self: If you’re going to give a gift that involves an “experience,” be sure it’s one your giftee is interested in having. Also, bone up on those commandments.

My failures as a holiday sprite were thrown into the spotlight, literally, after I wrote the “nothing for Christmas” column. Last Tuesday, I got a call from a producer at 20/20 — you know, the TV news show — asking if I might be interested in talking about my no-presents crusade on national television. Sure, I said. “This has got to be one of the world’s greatest ironies,” said Tara, when I called her: “You’re going to be on a show about Christmas traditions.”

I really am bad at this, aren’t I?

Right, well, fast-forward 48 hours, and not one, but two camera crews show up at our house. A few hours later, a reporter arrives from L.A., and a producer flies in from New York. We spent the entire day with them. By now, you may have seen the resulting spot. [Update: Here's the segment.] Tara was a star with her talk of making the holidays special while trying to keep the materialism in check. The girls, only semi-aware of what I’d written, seemed bemused. I, no doubt, dug myself in even deeper.

And this is where you, dear readers, come into the picture. I’ve committed myself to giving my kids no things for Christmas, and I’ve asked the family to do the same. So far, we seem to have pretty good buy-in. Here’s one representative response from Tara’s brother via email:

“Loved your article … very funny … but as the #1 Uncle I’m sorry to report that I can’t abide. :) Promise that I only picked out 1 item for each of the girls … and I think they will be fun ‘activities’ rather than random toys.”

Progress! I love this man! But now it’s up to me to show that I am capable of celebrating the holiday in style — nay, that I am the very embodiment of the Christmas spirit, dropped to Earth to spread joy to one and all! (Only, sadly, armed only with my wits and lacking a sack full of gifts.)

What should I do? How do I make this Christmas magical for Tara and the girls without giving in to the urge to get them more stuff? (We have quite enough stuff, really!) What sort of outings or adventures or expressions of love should I regale them with? Post your best ideas in the comment section below, if you’d be so kind. We’re hosting a Twitter chat on the subject on Tuesday, Dec. 11, at 12:30 Pacific time (that’s 3:30 p.m. Eastern). We’ll be using the hash tag #shiftthegift. (“Shift the Gift” is Grist’s theme for December.) Follow @grist for details.

My holiday promise to you: I’ll let you know what I end up doing, and get an honest reaction from my girls. With any luck, this will be the Best Christmas Ever, even if they do have to spend it with a recovering McDuck.