I love the excitement, anticipation and break from routine. I hate the planning, chores and unrealistic expectations. Which is why I was equal parts thrilled and annoyed when my oldest son, Jackson, suggested that we create a new family holiday: Giving Day.
The premise of Giving Day was pretty simple, Jackson said. We would draw names and exchange small gifts with each other, spend time together doing something fun, and then, in his words, “We continue on with our normal day.”
When he first suggested the idea, I was more than a little surprised and curious. “Where did you get this idea?” I asked. “I just thought it would be fun,” he answered. But while I was touched by his creativity and enthusiasm for generosity, I was also worried that Giving Day had the potential to turn into More Stuff to Deal With Day or Buy Me Something I Don’t Need Day or Gimme Day.
An aspiring minimalist, I want to shed the excess and simplify; the last thing I want is more stuff in the house, and I was hesitant to buy into one more holiday that was dependent on, well, buying things. Not to mention the fact that my husband and I are already stretched pretty thin, and I didn’t want to add one more chore to our list of obligations.
Yet in spite of my reservations, I was intrigued by my son’s idea and captivated by his enthusiasm. As we talked more about what he envisioned for his newly invented family holiday, it became clear that Giving Day consisted of two things: giving and togetherness.
“What if we also give to people outside of our family?” I suggested.
“Yeah,” he agreed, nodding his head eagerly. “Maybe we could make cookies for the neighbors or do something nice for someone else.”
After brainstorming a few ideas about the ways we could ensure that Giving Day was about giving to people outside of our family too, we talked a little bit about the practicalities and financial impact of it. I wanted him to understand that money is a finite resource, and gifts don’t need to come with a price tag.
“Maybe we could make our gifts or just buy tiny little gifts for each other?” Jackson proposed.
“Okay. And you boys will use your own money?”
“I’ll use my money, but Teddy might need some help since he doesn’t really have any money,” he stated pragmatically.
Confident in the implementation of Giving Day, Jackson looked at the calendar and wrote “GIVING DAY” in big letters on the next free weekend. A few days before the designated date, we drew names to decide who would give to whom. We agreed that after exchanging gifts, we would make cookies for our neighbors. We brainstormed gift ideas, and the boys asked for help with implementation.
By the time Giving Day rolled around, despite my better judgment, I was optimistic, hopeful and excited—which meant a high risk for unrealistic expectations and resulting disappointment. After a fairly relaxing start to the day, we exchanged gifts. Jackson gave me a journal; I gave my husband a bag of spicy almonds; he gave our younger son, Teddy, an Iron Man mask; and Teddy gave Jackson a wind-up hopping eyeball that he picked up at a garage sale. I snapped a few pictures of everyone holding their gifts and smiling. And then, as expected, Giving Day lost its sheen, its sparkle, its glow.
Giving Day quickly turned into Sibling Rivalry Day and I Want Yours Day, which in turn, morphed into Yelling Day and Go to Your Room Day. We did manage to bounce back and make cookies for our neighbors, but they were delivered with grumbles because by the time we finished it was pouring rain.
In many ways, that first Giving Day, like most holidays I suppose, didn’t live up to my expectations. There were more tears and bickering, and less selflessness and gratitude than I would have liked. But in other ways, it far exceeded my expectations as well. The 5-year-old girl who lives next door called to say thank you for the cookies, with sheer delight in her voice. The boys decided that we should give handmade paper gifts for the next Giving Day. And at night I wrote in my new journal, picked out especially for me by son.
We recently celebrated our second Giving Day and, much like the first one, the day did not go as planned. Due to a broken water heater, my husband had to stay home to wait for the plumber instead of joining us for the pre-scheduled food packing activity at Feed My Starving Children. Five-year old Teddy cried when Jackson gave him his gift—a picture and “gift certificate” he made—because the picture did not include the Carolina Panthers, which were, as of that day, his favorite team. And because he’s 5 years old, and 5-year-olds sometimes cry a lot.
And yet, in spite of the tears and the disappointments and the changes in plans, I cannot wait for the next Giving Day. Because like most family holidays—or anything involving family, for that matter—the messiness gets mixed in with the loveliness until affection, care, and love are all you see. There are disappointments and, more likely than not, there are tears. But there is also togetherness, forgiveness and abundant generosity of spirit. And aren’t those the gifts that we, as parents, want to give our children most of all?
As it turns out, though, our children are often the ones who teach us how to truly give the most valuable gifts.