Balancing Act

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    “You know, none of this stuff was even on my list,” I overheard my medium-sized daughter tell her older sister after the Christmas morning dust had settled. She sounded a little miffed.

    I don’t remember the year (eight maybe?) but I’ll never forget the list: dry erase markers. That was it. She had already received the whiteboard for her birthday a month before.

    As Christmas drew near, no matter how hard I tried to sow seeds that might grow into what Mommy considered a respectable list for Santa, Robin resisted. Video games? Uh-huh. RipStik? Nope. Exotic pet. Huh?

    Maybe she had been picking up on the vibes. Like many families across the country, we had taken a hit financially that fall. The lousy economy had brought on a need for some changes, including a very unpopular moratorium on eating out. So although we had never talked about family budget cuts in front of the kids, there was a good hunch that Christmas was going to have a different feel to it than it had in years past.

    Of course, I don’t know how this works in your home, but in our family room, Christmas comes in piles. Santa stacks the loot for the girls very neatly (and I might add, with great aesthetic appeal), organized by child. Three children. Three piles. And, three stockings— full to overflowing. The family gifts are wrapped in advance and piled under the tree, where they have been teasing everyone for at least a week, and where they will remain unopened until after breakfast.

    That said, as Santa’s assistant in the holiday trenches, it has always been my mission to maintain a proper gift balance between the girls. As they get older, just defining gift balance can be tricky, let alone achieving it. Should it be based on the size of the pile? The price of the toys? The number of gifts? How might Santa maintain the balance of pile power this year? Just how many dry erase markers would it take to make one girl’s Christmas dream come true? It was a question only the big guy himself could answer.

    In any case, as we prepped for our traditional sit-down with Santa (which had actually evolved into a stand-next-to Santa), the girls readied their lists. These had evolved, too, over the years. Our youngest, Lindsey, had meticulously cut out images from a catalog, and drawn pictures for Mrs. Claus and the elves. Leaving nothing to chance, she wrote a very gracious letter, as well, detailing where the items could be purchased if the elves weren’t up to snuff. In fact, it was such a work of art, that I urged her to ask Santa to autograph it and give it back so we could save it. Sam, the oldest, was completely content to submit her requests orally, and she did so with eloquence. Then there was Robin.

    Waiting in line, I pondered Santa’s reaction to her list. I found myself wanting to ask Santa if the elves were even capable of making dry erase markers. Or, if he had ever seen a list like Robin’s before. Then it was our turn. She placed the list in his white-gloved hand. “Dry erase markers,” he read aloud, then paused pensively. “And how about some surprises?” he added. She beamed with satisfaction.

    This year, as I psych myself up to meet the challenges of parenting through another bling-obsessed Christmas, I’m trying to remember the lesson I learned from Robin’s list. I think it was this: There are lots of kids who know the holiday season isn’t just about getting the most gifts. There are lots of kids who appreciate the gifts they already have. That year anyway, my daughter had a very clear vision of what she wanted her Christmas to look like.

    It was her mother who couldn’t see past the piles.