Holiday Traditions: Shining a Light on Our Family’s Dysfunction

Posted December 19, 2008 by

Photo of elisabeth

In the midst of a manic shopping spree last week, I found myself panicking. You see, this year I failed in my holiday duties miserably.

All my five year old son asked Santa for was a dinosaur tent. As tradition dictates, I frantically raced from store to store looking for it —  to no avail. (When I finally checked online back at home, they said it had been discontinued. Argh.) I found myself shouting like a rabid chipmunk over the phone to my cool-as-a-cucumber husband, who was unmoved by the lack of dino tents in North America.

“You don’t understand. He asked Santa for that tent, it’s the only thing he wants. EVERYTHING rests on the importance of finding that thing!!” (I’ve sanitized this for the blog, but I am fairly certain there were a few curse words thrown in there, too. ) Joe, ever the reasonable person, said, “Then we’ll get him something else. He’ll be happy — it’s Christmas, kids love getting presents, no matter what. Relax.” I sat there, flummoxed by his logic before finally muttering, “I think I need to talk to someone else about this.” So I called a few mom friends of mine who were also going crazy trying to find the right thing for their kids.  (That helped.)

But here’s the thing that we all know, yet fall prey to every year: even though running around from store to store like a maniac, or getting stressed about hanging lights up or sending out the perfect holiday card really doesn’t have much to do with the meaning of the season, most of us do some version of it anyhow.

I love what Parent Blogger Annita Woz says in her blog for EP this week about finding the one thing about the holidays that you enjoy and focusing on that. For Annita, it’s setting up the house and decorating the Christmas tree. I would say that ranks pretty high on my list, too. (Sweating in the aisles of Toys R Us, conversely, is on my anti-holiday list.)

So I tried to create a new tradition this year with my son by finding a child in need in our community, and choosing and buying presents for him. (All this boy wanted was a winter coat, a pair of jeans and a soccer ball. Talk about learning a lesson.) So Alex and I went out, and let me tell you, I was feeling very smug and happy that I was teaching my son about the “real meaning of Christmas”. Well, fast forward to the two of us arguing in the store because my son wanted to get every toy he saw for himself. I held my ground until we got to the dreaded gumball machine phalanx near the doors of Target.

“No, you can’t get a skull tattoo with roses growing out of the eye sockets from the machine. Today we’re shopping for someone else, and besides, those things are yucky.” That is when my  5 year old son, for the first time in his life, swore at me very perfectly and precisely: “You are giving me a pain in my a–,” he said. People stopped in their tracks and looked at us. A baby cried. As for me, I thought the top of my head was going to explode, Heat Miser style, but I held it together — just.

“Get. In. The. Car. NOW!!!”

I really wanted to throttle him, but I somehow managed to keep control of my temper. (Thinking of an adult Alex relating my holiday explosion to a therapist helped immeasurably.) So we sat in the cold car, snow falling on the windshield, while I did some deep breathing and gave Alex the silent treatment, trying to gather my thoughts and think of the right thing to do. Finally I said, “You made Mommy very angry, and now there are going to be consequences. Was that worth it?” (Even though I was shaking, I marveled at how calm I sounded, kind of like Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry.)

Alex thought for a moment. I waited for his cheeky response, but to my surprise, he burst into tears. “No, no, it wasn’t worth it,” he sobbed. We pulled out of the parking lot with him crying and hiccuping, and me on the edge of tears and feeling terrible. So much for starting a holiday tradition.

When we got home, I quietly started wrapping the presents for the child we’d shopped for. I cut the paper, taped corners, stuck on bows, and tried not to think about what a failure the day had been. As I worked, out of the corner of my eye I saw a small body inching ever closer to me. And then a still, small voice whispered, “I’ll wrap the soccer ball.”  When he finished, Alex ran to his room to get his piggy bank.

“How much is $12.00? I want to buy him the soccer ball. This is going to be from me,” he proclaimed proudly.

In the end, hope and peace reigned in our house that night, our version of a Christmas miracle. (And maybe, just maybe, a new holiday tradition was born.)

PS The next day, we set up a “cursing jar” in our kitchen. We have all contributed in the past week. Ahem.


Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.

Popular on Empowering Parents

View Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Elisabeth Report

    Thanks, Finjed, but let me tell you, I was not feeling very cool at the time — more like furious! LOL. The only thing that stopped me was the realization that I was really stressed myself. I had no idea what to do, so I decided to just do nothing and try to calm down. (By the way, the cursing jar is really helping at our house — if you haven’t done so already, give it a try.)

  2. finjed Report

    Thank you for sharing that – wish we could have had a good experience like that the first time our 9-year-old swore at us. We need to be as cool as you were in helping him realize it does not help.

  3. Elisabeth Wilkins, EP Editor Report

    BarbaraJo, The idea of not making hard-and-fast lists is a great one. Next year I’m going to hide the Toys R Us catalogue when it comes — I think that was my big mistake! And FuzzysMom, thanks for the encouragement. We are definitely going to do it again next year. It made a bigger impression on my son than I ever imagined…I love that your whole family does it together. Here’s to 2009!

  4. FuzzysMom Report

    Keep the ‘shopping for others’ tradition! It gets better each year!! My kids don’t even ask for something for themselves anymore. We complete the evening of shopping with hot chocolates for us while we discuss purchases. After 5 years – it has become a great annual event.

  5. barbarajo Report

    hello all and happy holidays! these last minute reqests [demands] are so much fun, no? for months now my 14 yr old son has been hooked on gunslinger movies. he wants to dress this way all of the time which is not all bad. we are a farm family in the deep south and he knows when it is acceptable and when not. and yes, he even carries a pistol when on our property out checking livestock, etc. for christmas all he wanted was a gunbelt, cowboy shirts, anything resembling clint eastwood or tom selleck,etc. so being the good santa i am, i have searched ebay for anything useful for a young quigley. i was so proud of finding so many cool cowboy things!! about two weeks ago he and his dad watched the whole series of ‘the north and the south’. now all he wants santa to bring is confederate general uniforms, swords, riding boots, saddle [we have no horse], etc. but, yes, on that famous morning he will forget all of those other requests and become the star of ‘rawhide’ again, and all will be well. the reason i am sure of this is that i have never allowed him to make hard and fast lists that he wants for christmas. he has always known that he can let me know what he likes but the final choice is up to santa. that way he has never had his heart set on just one thing that might not be within our price range or in some cases not even exist! i have never seen him disappointed on christmas morning and that is something i am proud of. and yes, santa still comes to see my 14 yr old. he even asked recently if santa can still come at least till he gets married!! you better believe it, sonnyboy, because if i’ve done that well being his santa, i sure want to continue!! thanks for allowing me these bragging rights.

  6. Elisabeth Wilkins, EP Editor Report

    Brooke: Another mom told me she had a similar disaster with her kids when trying to shop for a child in need. She recommended choosing a kid who is not the same age as yours, so as to avoid the whole screaming fit in the aisle of a mega-store. (I do see how this could kind of be like torture for a child — “Look, we’re going to get this really cool toy for someone your age who we don’t even know!!! Isn’t that great?”) And Julie, thanks for making me feel better. I think the mask book will be great, and I’m psyched that you found it. Isn’t it funny how holidays and birthdays can reduce us to 5 year olds instantly? (in good and bad ways!) Have a good one, and let us know if Henry likes the masks!

  7. Julie Report

    Dinosaur tent! Haha! I see your dinosaur tent and raise you one…DINOSAUR MAKEUP KIT! What is that, you ask? Well, who knows? All I know is that this is what Henry asked for in a letter that he wrote to Santa YESTERDAY. Thank goodness for and their two-day shipping, and here’s to hoping a dinosaur mask book will suffice. I went through exactly the same conversation with my husband, though, about how this was the one thing Henry asked for from Santa (the one thing he asked for from anyone, really) and we HAD to come through. And Dave telling me that it didn’t matter, we could come up with something else (and me subsequently cursing and stamping my foot, just like the five-year-old I was shopping in a panic for).

  8. Brooke Report

    Great story and idea.

    I had a similarly painful toy store experiecne when I took my son to buy a present for his sister.

    When you consider you have to give every child a birthday gift at parities these days, children don’t get enough lessons on giving to others.

    I am going to coopt this tradition too.



Join our NEW Total Transformation® Learning Center!

Practical, affordable parenting help starting at $14.95/month BECOME A MEMBER TODAY!

Empowering Parents is the leading online resource for child behavior help


Parent Coaching Sessions

7.5 Million

Global Visitors

10+ Years

Helping Families