Gift Giving Gone Awry

A while back, I wrote a series about gift-giving, and some characteristics to consider about the gift-receiver as we began the holiday season. I called them “Gift-Receiver Templates” (I’ll put links to the articles at the end, if you’re interested.)

Well. Let’s put this anecdote into the “I should have known better” category, shall we? It’s cute-funny, and honestly, is a story about my family that I will probably be telling for the rest of my life, so I want to work out the kinks in it with you!

Advent Calendar

I don’t remember doing Advent Calendars when we were kids. Maybe it just wasn’t a thing. The first one I remember having was as an adult, when two eccentric (if not to say, weird in the best possible way) friends gave my indulgent husband and myself each our own with one little Hershey’s chocolate for each day of the month of December, behind little numbered doors.

I kinda fell in love with this idea. I made one for my nieces the next year.

I promptly forgot about them until three years ago, when a dear friend got one for each of my boys. They would not let us forget about Advent Calendars from then on.

Well. Advent Calendars, apparently are a big big big big deal now. And it’s not just chocolate anymore. Nowadays, your Advent Calendar can be tea themed, beauty-product themed, beer themed…you name it, it can be Advent Calendarized.

So obviously, toys are part of the deal.

My in-laws were insistent during our last visit that they wanted to get Advent Calendars for the scalawags. By the time of our visit, in late October, Christmas merchandise was already filling the grocery store shelves and the Christmas catalogs were already in mailboxes. The boys each had gotten their hands on one of those catalogs, and had spent afternoons circling everything they thought they wanted.

There was no surprise about which ones they would want. My eldest scalawag thinks that he is into Star Wars (although the only exposure to the stories he has ever had has been his Aunt Poppy who dutifully tells them to him on FaceTime during their chats.) Lego made a Star Wars themed Advent Calendar this week, and let’s admit that it’s a pretty nifty idea. One little Lego toy to construct each day of the month of December.

My youngest scalawag is deep deep deep into the Paw Patrol universe. He wanted the Paw Patrol Advent Calendar, in which behind each numbered door would be a little vehicle or character figurine.

We did not tell them that they would be getting these calendars. My in-laws purchased them while we were visiting and we brought them home in an empty suitcase, so as not to stir up any interest.

A poorly executed heist

As you may remember, I practiced my furoshiki wrapping on a pair of Advent Calendars that I was giving as gifts. My boys knew about these gifts, and they were remarkably cool about the fact that I had bought them for children other than themselves.

I did end up getting my scalawags little calendars with chocolate, too, because I knew how much they loved sneaking in a chocolate at breakfast time without getting in trouble for it.

So my boys had two Advent Calendars waiting for them, and I had no intention whatsoever to tell them about it until December 1.

Except that on Monday morning, November 29, my eldest asked, “Are we having Advent Calendars this year?”

And I stopped in my tracks. If I say “no”, I would be lying and there would be a crisis because, “It wasn’t fair” that I had given Advent Calendars to other kids but not them. An unnecessary crisis that could be avoided by just telling the truth.

I like to avoid crises as much as possible, so I said “yes”. “And not just one Advent Calendar. You each have two Advent Calendars!”

What I should have said, (to quote Mike Birbiglia) is nothing.

They managed to get me to put their (furoshiki wrapped) calendars under the tree.

By lunchtime, they had pestered me into letting them just open the wrapping.

By dinnertime, they were studying the toys on the boxes, getting geared up for their first day, which was still thirty-six hours away.

I was making dinner. Each boy had an audiobook going. The eldest was listening to a story about four kids who travelled back through time to witness the sinking of the Titanic. The youngest was listening to his very very favorite, Miss Porter is Out of Order in his room.

My husband was still at work.

I must have been completely lost in my thoughts, because dinner was almost finished and never once had I stopped to wonder why I had been able to make dinner without being interrupted. Dinner usually takes twenty to thirty minutes longer to finish than I expect, because I am constantly being interrupted.

I was jarred back to reality when little impish figure arrived in the kitchen. He put a little finger in the air, like he was raising his hand to speak in school.

“Can I get something for you, love?” I asked.
“I need some tape, please,” he said.

When attempting to cover up a heist, one should never 1. raise one’s hand or 2. say please. I instantly knew something was up.

“What’s the tape for?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he replied. He was getting agitated, and was now bouncing on the balls of his feet.

I got out the tape and handed it to him.

“If it’s nothing, then you won’t mind if I come with you?”
“NO!!!!!!!!!” he shouted and ran down the hall, blocking my way like a linebacker.

It was exactly what you thought it would be.

He had opened every single window on his Advent Calendar, ripping some of them clear off to get at the toy underneath. To his credit, he had put the toy back in the windows, although not necessarily correctly.

He just couldn’t wait. His Gift-Receiver Template, his Anticipation template was so strong that he just had to know, so that he could look forward to it.

This is the kind of thing, as a parent, where you want to be mad, and had it been the other child, you probably would have been mad. But because it was this child, you just can’t be.

I couldn’t even muster up a grumble. I quietly sat down and started turning the toys so that they fit into the holes in the plastic tray inside the calendar, and taping the doors back on the windows. I had to MacGyver one door entirely, because it had gotten completely lost.

“You aren’t mad at me?” he asked, watching me.
“No. I’m not mad,” I replied. “I shouldn’t have let you have the calendar yet in the first place.”
“Will I still get to have it?” he was nervous, and this was rather satisfying to me.
“We’ll see. I’ll have to talk to your father.”

Boy oh boy, was that child well-behaved for the rest of the evening.

When it’s no longer verboten

We took the calendar away, keeping it in our room until Wednesday morning, when we presented it to him again. It looked like something from the Island of Misfit Toys. And he had this terrible guilty look, as if he couldn’t even enjoy the calendar anymore.

I could read on his face all sorts of complicated feelings. I’ve had those complicated feelings, too. It is painful to see them happening to my own child. Disappointment because something broken can never be new again. Disappointment because you can’t un-know something once you know it. Disappointment because ill-gotten gains leave a bitter taste.

He opened the first window, looked at the toy, then put it back in the calendar and closed the window again with very little joy.

“You aren’t going to play with it?” I asked.
“No,” he replied. “I’ll just keep it in here.”

Ugh. His reticence was killing me. This little boy, who brings joy and spark and excitement to everything he does had lost some of his sparkle and I was powerless to help him get it back.

I wonder, in forty years, what he will remember of this experience. If it will have just become a funny anecdote of his childhood; funny, because he will have learned how to master his covetousness. Or, will this still be a sore spot? Will the telling of this story rub him the wrong way, even as an adult, because he still struggles with wanting things he can’t or shouldn’t have, but then doesn’t want them anymore once he actually has them?

Being a parent is hard. I find it particularly difficult to raise a child who is exactly like me. I want to save him from the heartache. I want him to learn now that nothing behind those little cardboard windows is going to fill the emptiness in his heart.

Some things, I guess, can only be learned the hard way.


Here are those links to the Gift-Giver Templates:

The Troublemakers
Quantity vs Quality
Sentimental vs Practical
Surprise vs Anticipation

Happy Gift Giving!

Published by Lily Fields

I am passionate about contentment. This is a challenge, because I am equally passionate about progress. I get up at 4:00AM to chip away at a solution to this monolithic problem: how to make progress on my contentment. Born and raised in the USA, I married a French philosophy teacher in 1999. We have lived in France since 2007. We stayed young and carefree until life threw us two curveballs in the form of little humans one after another in 2015 and 2017 respectively. Now I am a slightly older, slightly more exhausted version of myself, but with mystery stains on my walls and a never-ending pile of laundry.

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