In the end, Barbie got the best of us. Despite weeks of talking and thinking about how to simplify the holiday season and put emphasis on fun times with family rather than the stuff Santa left, my wife, Tara, just couldn’t resist, as she puts it, “making a couple of dreams come true.”
This photo of Chloe, 4, probably tells you all you need to know about her feelings on the matter, but when I asked her last night, she put the Princess Popstar Barbie at the top of the “favorite presents” list. Her 8-year-old sister, Lucia, rated her Surfer Girl Barbie toward the top as well. Sigh. I’ll take some assurance from my aunt Jane, who tells me it’s just a phase: “She [Chloe] has good role models.”
Barbie domination aside, I think we managed to transform this holiday for the better. Most of the girls’ other gifts were thrift-store finds and things they really needed: new winter clothes, toothbrushes, hair bands — stuff we would have bought them anyway, but infused with a little magic because it came wrapped in reindeer paper. Even relatives and friends who usually shower the girls with presents did their best to restrain themselves (a little).
My writings and TV appearances sparked a lot of healthy conversation, and some folks really got what I was trying to do. My friend Lionel, Chloe’s godfather, took the cake by sending the girls a homemade video of his hunt for an experience that would make him feel close to them at Christmas time, even though he lives 3,000 miles away. (If you watch it, you should know that one of their favorite things in the world is to be launched into a pile of beanbags by Lionel — over and over and over again.)
And the experiences: We did manage to have a lot of those, thanks mostly to Tara, who set out to stretch the Christmas holiday across the whole month of December. We saw Irish dancing and a Santa Lucia parade and Christmas light displays. The highlight was a fantastic production of The Nutcracker featuring sets designed by Maurice Sendak. I was amazed at how well my kids knew the story, both from reading the book and seeing the ballet in past years. (During the scene where the nutcracker battles the mouse king, Chloe stood up on her chair and shouted, “Throw your shoe! Throw your shoe!” at the main character, Clara.)
On Christmas Eve, Tara and the girls made goodie bags packed with cookies, fruit, granola bars, and a couple of bucks, and delivered them to homeless people around Seattle. That night, I cooked a big pot of African peanut soup and we feasted with friends, then headed to the beach for a bonfire and hot chocolate and s’mores. (Just like Jesus used to do!) The girls wore themselves out playing tag and tackle-your-sister in the moonlit sand. Rarely, I suspect, have two kids fallen asleep faster on the night before Christmas.
And me? “The Grinch”? “Ecodad”? The guy who asked people to get his kids nothing for Christmas? I can’t remember a holiday season as rich and full as this one. Even the presents were awesome. From Lucia, I got a great handmade picture with the message, “I wold like to bild a tree howse with you for Christmas!!!!” Chloe’s card said, “Let’s go mountain climbing!” Tara gave me a gift certificate for a night at a Russian sauna.
None of these are things — just promises of more good times to come. And that’s what I gave them, too. Lucia and Chloe each got two “daddy days” — days of their choosing in the coming year when they can call everything off (school, work) and go on an adventure with me, or just stay home and read a good book. Lucia got an afternoon at the art museum. Chloe got a trip to the zoo. Tara got 52 personal days — one day a week during the coming year when I’ll take the kids and she can do whatever she wants. It’s my effort to clear space in her life so she can take care of herself rather than us for a change.
Sure, my “nothings” couldn’t compete with Barbie for sheer, visceral, Christmas Day ecstasy. But I bet if I ask them a few years from now what they remember about this holiday season, it’s the experiences that will stick with them, not the stuff.
So thanks, everyone, for all the holiday wishes and gifts — and especially for the nothings. It’s been a great ride. Now if you’ll excuse me, there are mountains to climb and tree houses to build.