The 4-Gift Rule Brought Back My Family's Christmas Joy

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Rachel Garlinghouse/Instagram

Every Christmas, I face the same internal, agonizing battle. How much is too much when it comes to buying gifts for our kids? Where is the line between just-right and excessive?

My husband and I have four kids—ranging from a toddler to a tween—and like many families, we also purchase gifts for extended family. We have five nephews and also a few kid second cousins. Cha-ching. I can practically hear my credit card sobbing every time I shove it in the chip reader.

A few years ago, I got fed up with the inner holiday consumerism torment and asked my friends what they do. I’ll tell you now, this was mostly unhelpful. I had a friend who would go all out and spend a ridiculous amount of money per kid—because after all, it is Christmas. Then I had another friend who said she bought her kids one gift each—because she was teaching her kids the real meaning of Christmas.

Neither of these options felt right for our family. Was there a happy medium?

When I was growing up, Christmases were all about traditions—including decorating cookies and listening to Beach Boys’ holiday records. Gifts were carefully budgeted for and planned. We savored our gifts. Meanwhile, my dad’s boss made sure his two boys had stacks—literal stacks—of presents in front of the tree. Then they’d put all their new toys in their massive toy room, usually played with only once before they were discarded.

As I got older, I noticed a distinct difference between my siblings and I and my dad’s boss’s kids. They were never satisfied with what they had, always craving more—no matter how shiny and new the object in their hands was. As the years passed, I became increasingly thankful that my parents didn’t get me every toy I circled in the JC Penney catalog.

When I became a mom, I had a choice to make. How would we handle the holidays with our own children? What would we place emphasis on?

One of my friends was able to help me with my “how much is too much” question. She’s a mom of two daughters and sticks to the four-gift rule. If you’re new to this, allow me to enlighten you. The four-gift rule means each child gets one thing they want, one thing they need, one thing they wear, and one thing they read. Cute and simple, right?

My husband and I decided to adapt this to our family. That year, we bought each child one book, one pair of fun PJs, and one toy—all to unwrap on Christmas Eve night. Then on Christmas morning, their Santa gift was their most desired item, within a reasonable price range–plus a stocking.

We took the four-gift idea and applied it to stockings, as well. The stocking contained no junk. You know, that thin plastic throwaway stuff that breaks in two hot seconds. Instead, the stocking contained favorite snacks, especially the junk foods we don’t normally buy, fun socks, another book, character toothbrushes, and bandages.

The kids absolutely loved the simplicity and fairness of the gifts. There were clear expectations, which helped curb any disappointment. After all, a month before Christmas, we told them about our new gift-giving guidelines. When they’d say, “But I really want…” offering up an expensive electronic, we would say, “That’s not happening this year. But you’re welcome to save your money and buy it yourself.”

You know what? It worked. That item (usually an electronic) that they so desperately needed for Christmas was forgotten just a few days after we packed up the tree. They managed to save money, but never bought that item they just had to have, and it’s obvious why. Stuff really doesn’t matter all that much.

Don’t worry. We’re not having some sort of Little House on the Prairie Christmas where my kids get a homemade doll made of straw and a jumbo orange—though power to you if you if that’s your fam’s cup of tea. My children are receiving gifts from grandparents, aunts and uncles, and their birth families. This used to bother me—arriving home from another gathering with stacks of boxes and armfuls of gift bags—but I’ve long given up on trying to control how others choose to spend their money.

What I can control? How we choose to celebrate the season in our own home. I’m one of those annoying people who thinks Christmas truly is the most wonderful time of the year. I go all out with three—yes, three–Christmas trees, baking and decorating cookies, blasting our favorite Motown Christmas album, and mailing cards to family and friends. We visit Santa and watch Home Alone and Elf on repeat.

I draw the line at Elf on the Shelf, and we are not opening a Christmas book each day to read as a family—because that’s just more work for me. I don’t want more tasks on my daily to-do list. I have four kids, so staging a doll’s antics isn’t a priority of mine.

I’m teaching my children to enjoy this season, to look forward to traditions. Our go-to festivities include going to church on Christmas Eve night, basking in soft lighting and singing along with the band. I want my kids to appreciate each gift they receive, expressing sincere thanks to the giver. We participate in buying gifts for those in need, making sure others have a magical holiday, too. Each of my kids has an advent calendar–a much-anticipated daily celebration.

Going to our version of the four-gift rule has helped us find our holiday joy. Yes, we could go all out and buy our children the latest gaming system and cell phones—but we don’t. And I don’t regret it. Because our kids appreciate meaningful Christmas pleasures—gifts of togetherness that can’t be bought.

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