As a fledgling parent with young children I used to buy them birthday and Christmas presents. I never really questioned the practice. I had always had birthday and Christmas presents as a child, other parents bought presents for their children. Even the adults I knew exchanged presents.

I objected to other “special days,” such as Valentine’s Day, Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day, proclaiming them to be over-commercialised inventions of the greeting card industry. But I meekly lined up to hand over money to one retail outlet or another, many times for many years.

Certainly I recognised some problems with this practice of celebrating birthdays and Christmas. It was definitely too busy leading up to Christmas. I remember once arriving breathless at Toys R Us, half an hour before it closed on Christmas Eve. It was completely insane, with frantic parents scrambling to purchase the requisite number of toys before closing time. Credit card after credit card was handed over, including mine. We were not even using real money.

There was definitely something wrong with this picture, I told myself. Next year I must do my shopping earlier!

One year I was more creative, selecting gifts that would express my unique feelings towards each child. I may have felt a little better that year, but it didn’t make much difference to the children, who eagerly discarded each carefully chosen present when the next gaudy package was set before them. Another year all the children wrote a list and I purchased exactly what was requested. The selections, largely from television advertisements, were hardly different from those I would have chosen anyway, and just as quickly forgotten.

Each birthday and Christmas was reduced to a pile of gifts (and a huge mound of packaging) and stored in a box with “Do Not Touch” written on the side. Those same presents would be discovered about six weeks later, broken or set aside, with hardly a protest when I suggested discarding them. Another month and the child would barely remember either the gift or the giver.

The weeks of anticipation were stressful to both children and parents, hardly conducive to family unity. The purchase and presentation of presents was time consuming and quite unpleasant. Financially, the commitment became ridiculous, many years beyond that which we could comfortably afford. Finally, I learned to dread the events, as over-excited, anxious children woke early, focused on the moment of present opening, reached a climax of frenetic activity fuelled by greed and junk food, before collapsing into a depressive state of let-down. There were frequent tantrums and altercations as both children and adults struggled to cope with emotions beyond their limits.

So, now we don’t do it any more. Four years ago I just said “No!” I refused to buy any more Christmas or birthday presents. Just like that. It was actually easy. The kids didn’t even object. I pointed out that the presents they remembered and valued were actually items that I would purchase for them anyway, such as Lego (surely it is a child’s right to play with Lego!), art and craft materials, books, computer and sporting equipment, clothes, shoes – truly useful items. I reassured my children that I was a responsible parent and they would always have such items. The advantage was they wouldn’t have to wait until their birthday or Christmas any more!
Then I challenged the children to name any of their previous year’s Christmas presents that did not fall into the above category. They couldn’t.

I opened bank accounts for all the children and requested relatives to donate money, instead of a present. Most obliged via an Internet banking transfer, further reducing the stress on the actual day. The children could then spend their money on toys or to save for something more substantial.

Without pre-Christmas shopping I have energy for catering for our Christmas celebration. We choose to celebrate a special luncheon on Christmas Eve, to which all are invited, after which we attend evening Mass together. It is a great day, highlighted by family and friends travelling to be with us, and not marred by gift opening. Christmas Day is a quiet day when we sleep in and then focus on the real Christmas message.

Birthdays have been transformed into an “only child for a day.” Instead of presents my husband and I give ourselves to the birthday child for 24 hours and we visit places and do things, such as eat in restaurants that are not affordable for a large family. We have discovered that the outings are fun but the real value is in the undivided attention and the time spent with us.

Our children remember their “birthday days out” for years to come. The youngest, at seven, can clearly remember going on a train and blowing bubbles in the park for his fourth birthday. These memories are treasured and regularly come up in conversation, unlike previous presents which were quickly forgotten. One day a year my children celebrate their birthday with their parents in a deeply meaningful way, bringing us closer as a family.
My children are also more financially independent than they used to be. They have money and can spend it when and how they like. I will always assist them with shopping if needed. They have bought some low quality toys, but have realised that the reality does not always match the advertisement. When it is their own money they are less likely to demand every latest toy.

My children do not feel disadvantaged by not receiving gifts at birthdays and Christmas. Rather, it is always possible to purchase particular items, year round, regardless of whether it is Christmas time or not. It is liberating for them not to be bound by the calendar.

In fact, it has been liberating for the entire family to avoid Christmas and the relentless schedule of organisation, shopping and late night gift wrapping. We can relax and enjoy a special time of year, appreciating our family and friends, in an atmosphere that strengthens relationships, rather than increasing stress. I look forward to birthdays as a chance to be with my children and my husband, engaged in fun activities and spending time together. It is such a huge change from my previous dread, inspired by over stimulated children, arguments, too much cake and the inevitable teary aftermath. Definitely a change for the better.