For many low-income families, Christmas is the most dreaded time of the year. Many of us are scraping to get by on a week to week basis, then throw on top of that the expectations of having to buy gifts and create a memorable holiday for their kids, and it’s nothing but stress and anxiety. As the hot ticket items kids ask for get more and more expensive, low-income families struggle even more.
Growing up with parents who didn’t make a lot of money, Christmases always fluctuated. When I still believed in Santa, it made for some disappointing years. That’s why I decided, as a parent who doesn’t make a lot of money, I’m not going to perpetuate the myth of Santa bringing a lot of gifts.
My son is young and he has only begun to understand the concept of Santa in the last year or so. And even that’s mostly from television shows and movies. I didn’t really decide not to talk about Santa, but it just never seemed important. If there’s a show with Santa, he doesn’t ask much about him and I don’t offer much information. He understands fundamentally what Santa does, but I think by not putting too much stock in it, I’ve alleviated a lot of stress for myself.
Even though I grew up in a house where I made a list for Santa, I’ve skipped over it with my kid. As a single mom, I know I may not be able to afford to get him everything he wants for Christmas. I’m lucky we have extended family members who want to give him some of the faves on his wishlist, and I feel like it would be awful to erase the contribution of his hardworking grandparents by saying the gift was from Santa. Besides, then I’d have to explain how Santa knew about the gift and told Grandma and Grandpa. And honestly? It’s way too much fucking work to keep up the lie.
It wasn’t until he got old enough to understand the concepts of Christmas that I really began to have feelings about how to handle gifts. I don’t hate the man in red, but I hate how much we use him as a face for gifting, especially with young kids. I knew I wasn’t going to tell my kid Santa isn’t real, but I also knew that I wanted to make a conscious effort to give credit where credit is due, especially with the gifts he wanted the most. If his grandparents got him the toy he kept asking for, I want him to know they were the ones who got it for him.
He’s only in preschool, so he hasn’t gotten to the point yet where he and his friends brag about what kind of gifts Santa brought them. I remember those years when Santa only brought me a pair of snow boots and not the dolls and games I had asked for. I remember the shame and disappointment when I’d hear my friends talk about getting big expensive gifts like video game consoles or the latest fad toy. I do not want my son to feel that same kind of shame when talking to his peers. I’d much rather explain that while we couldn’t get it in time for Christmas, we can work and save to see if we can get it some day in the future. This way, he’s not disappointed and I’m not behind the eight ball sweating about how I’m going to buy him this big Christmas gift and also make sure the lights don’t get turned off.
Even though Santa isn’t getting all the credit for the gifts, we’ve found other ways to incorporate him into our Christmas traditions. I love baking, and my son loves to help me. So last year, I explained to him that you have to leave cookies as a snack for Santa. He loved that idea. So, on Christmas Eve, we stood together in the kitchen listening to the *NSYNC Christmas album and made chocolate chip cookies. Then he picked out a plate for the cookies and left them out for Santa to enjoy.
There are plenty of other ways to make Christmas special for us. I’m way more interested in creating memories anyway. This is our first year with a Christmas tree, and I decided that each year I’d take him to pick out one Christmas ornament for our tree. Then when he is older and moves out, he’ll have enough ornaments to decorate his own tree with the memories we made together. We also got a chocolate advent calendar this year, which he loves. Next year, when he’s a little older, maybe we’ll try one with toys.
He understands that sometimes we don’t have money for a trip to McDonalds, so then why would I turn around and put some big show on for Christmas? If he asks for a specific gift and I can say, “I’ll do my best, but we may not be able to get it for Christmas,” he’s less likely to be resentful and less disappointed when it doesn’t show up. And then as he gets older and one of his peers says, “Santa brought me a pair of snow boots,” he can say, “well, he only brought me books and colored pencils, so don’t feel bad.”
There is no one perfect way to get through the holidays, especially as a poor parent. But my shifting the conversation around Santa made it easier for me to create something that works for us. If you want Santa to bring your kids a Nintendo Switch or Hatchimals, by all means do. But please help your kids understand that empathy is important too so, the kids who don’t get those expensive gifts from Santa don’t feel like they did something wrong.