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Washington Voices

Jill Barville: Christmas spirit can’t be bought

The holiday hunt for thoughtful presents is on. Since it doesn’t take me much to drop when I shop, I started early. When you aren’t good at something, you usually need more time. I don’t have the shopping gene. In fact, I don’t think that gene exists in any of the nearby branches of my family tree, and this apple didn’t fall far.

Crowds make me claustrophobic, dressing room mirrors make me queasy and the beep of the scanner doesn’t sound like savings, no matter how many coupons I have in hand. Let’s be honest. It isn’t savings when you’re spending. It’s spending. Saving is when you don’t spend at all.

Now, before I get branded a Scrooge, I know that bargain hunting bliss and the relaxed results of retail therapy are real things. Some people love shopping the way I love running. I just don’t relate. I’d rather be doing almost anything else besides ringing up purchases, even when I know they’ll delight the recipient.

So, it’s with curious wonder that I watch the lengths, heights and depths to which people go at Christmastime, a festive frenzy accessorized by credit cards in pursuit of the perfect present.

We don’t go all out at Christmas. Though we save all year, our Christmas budget just isn’t very big, not because we can’t afford Christmas, but because we don’t want a season overshadowed by shopping and stuff. Clearly, we’re not doing our part to bolster an economy that still sags like a teenage boy’s baggy jeans. How un-American of us.

But I’m not sorry. And I don’t think my kids will remember Christmas as the time they didn’t get enough, even though they often get far less than their peers.

When they were small, we really couldn’t afford a lot. When Emily was born, Curtis was finishing up his teaching degree while working retail – another reason to avoid the mall. Then he was a substitute teacher for what felt like forever while I built a freelance writing career in between diaper changes. Babies don’t care what you get them for Christmas and our frugal approach to the holidays turned into a tradition.

We weren’t ever willing to trade our financial stability for debt so we could buy a few extra toys that would probably be discarded in favor of the box and wrapping paper.

Little kids like boxes. They like them so much we actually bought Isaac boxes and bubble wrap for Christmas one year, along with some other odd items from the office supply section at a discount store. That gift didn’t cost much but it was a happy hit. Or a pop.

He loved it and we didn’t regret the choice when the credit card bill came in January. As a result, our holiday season was permeated by peace, knowing we stayed within budget.

According to a September survey of 2,087 adults for credit repair firm Lexington Law, our debt averse, budget-based holiday shopping strategy isn’t considered normal. More than half of parents with kids under age 18 said they’re willing to take on debt to make their children happy.

They must not have kids who like boxes and bubble wrap.

With that statistic in mind, it didn’t surprise me to read that a recent CBS news poll found that more than half of the people surveyed say they “dread” holiday shopping.

That doesn’t sound very merry.

Still, I understand the cultural pressure to shop as a way of showing love during the holidays. It’s an age-old tradition that’s underscored by our society’s need to keep up with the Kardashians, or at least the Joneses.

Each year I feel that pressure. And I remember the year our kids asked why Santa brought their classmates expensive electronics and only gave them stocking stuffers.

They were puzzled. Santa seemed unfair. Their eyes were filled with suspicion.

My heart lurched. It was time to tell them the truth.

“I talked to Santa,” I said.

Their eyes widened.

“He knows Christmas isn’t about presents for our family,” I explained. “He knows we can get each of you one nice gift and that you have generous grandparents and extended family so you have plenty of presents. He knows what this season means to us and agreed to only bring stocking stuffers. He respects that different families do things differently, including Christmas.”

For a moment I wondered if I was a Grinch for making a budget and checking it twice, for asking Santa to leave the expensive electronics under someone else’s tree. Had our simple stance toward the season cramped their childhoods?

That brief moment of panic passed as I saw my children were satisfied, launching a heart-warming conversation during which my children talked about what Christmas meant to them.

They love the presents, of course, but the spirit of Christmas can’t be bought in a store or wrapped in pretty paper and placed under a tree. It can’t be broken, lost or stolen. And more than any store-bought bargain it’s worth a holiday hunt to find.

Contact correspondent Jill Barville by email at