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My kids don't get presents during the holidays

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Nov. 25, 2012: Carly Serepetti, checks out the decorated Christmas trees on display in Dearborn, Mich.AP/The Detroit News

Every December, my kids ask me the same question: Why don’t they get holiday presents? It’s not that they’re naughty. They’re nice! It’s not that we don’t get into the holiday spirit. We do! We light candles, decorate the tree in our building lobby, prepare and eat special dishes, go to dinners and parties and readily participate in “secret Santas” at school and with friends.

Why the Scrooge routine then? My answer is always the same: I’d rather surprise them throughout the year when they need something specific or I spot an item or an opportunity I know they’d like. Apparently, the principles of “Scroogenomics,” a point of view espoused by Joel Waldfogel, chairman of business and public policy at Wharton, in his book about why giving Christmas and Hanukkah presents is bad economic policy, are alive and well in our household.

While it is a family joke at this point, I am aware my standard response is not what my kids want to hear when the fairy lights are twinkling and Christmas carols are playing. It can be kind of a buzz-kill during the heady weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year, especially when their friends are receiving this coveted electronic gadget or that must-have toy.

I’d rather surprise my kids throughout the year, when they need something specific or I spot an item or an opportunity I know they’d like, than give them gifts during the holidays.

It is, however, the truth.

This is actually a truth I’ve lived with my whole life. Growing up, my family always enthusiastically celebrated the festival of light and the Christmas season with food, singing and candles, but my siblings and I did not receive gifts. I remember, as a kid, this took some getting used to, though it was really okay in the end since I usually received the item of my desire…eventually.

Sometimes the big present showed up in January, presumably after it was discounted. More often, at random times during the year, my father, who was a U.S. postal worker, would come home from work with a little piece of jewelry or electronic toy that a business along his mail route would give him a good deal on. 

I remember once, he came home with a big sack of goodies from a company that was re-thinking its inventory. Though it was May, we all called him "Santa Claus" that day. 

Similarly, my mother, who likes to troll bazaars and library sales, would, when we'd least expect it, present a pair of cashmere gloves or a special book I had been talking about. She still does this today for her children and eleven grandchildren.

I’m fairly certain my parents were simply carrying on the practices of their own youth, though, now, as an adult, I am confident economics also played a part. We were a middle class family with middle class values and there is no word we all appreciated more than “S-A-L-E.”

I carry on this tradition for many of the same reasons, during good economic times as well as those, like the current one, in which I, like most Americans, are spending more cautiously. Like Waldfogel and his "Scroogenomics," I love the joys of giving and receiving, but if I have to spread the cheer over twelve months instead of twelve—or eight—days, the kids understand.

Still, when the inevitable question comes up in the next weeks about the holiday presents they’re not getting during the holidays, in addition to my usual answer, I’ll remind my children that, unlike many who have had it far worse in 2012, they have light to do their homework by, warm beds to sleep in, nourishing food in their bellies, and, overall, pretty comfortable lives. And this, season, those might be the best gifts of all.

Sandra Stahl is a partner in a PR and marketing communications firm. She also writes for leading industry and national outlets.