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The Procrastinator’s Guide to Holiday Shopping

Posted on Nov 30, 2012

As published in The Rye Record on November 30, 2012

The daydream is always the same: It’s December 1st and I gently toss my holiday shopping list into the recycling bin. I’d planned ahead, you see, taking advantage of the November lull. I’d walked the quiet malls, collecting thoughtful gifts for everyone on my list. I even found someone to answer my questions at Toys“R”Us. They had no choice, as I was the only one in the store. Then I brought my parcels home and wrapped them with carefully selected holiday paper. I had done it all. Before December 1st. There is nothing left to do but enjoy the holiday season.

The dream may come across with more detail than you’d expect. That’s because I did this once before. Back in 1999 when I had one child, no job, and a babysitter, I finished all of my holiday shopping before Thanksgiving. That year, I reveled in Christmas. I baked cookies that were shaped like seasonal things. I made gingerbread and took my son to see “A Christmas Carol”. My holiday cards contained handwritten notes and were mailed on December 1st. Those cards landed in mailboxes all over the country, horrifying my friends with the news that the season had begun and that I was maybe a little too on top of my game.

You should know that in December of 1999, I was the most annoying person in the world. My sister would call, harried, and ask, “What are you doing?” I’d reply sleepily, “Reading.” Honestly, who reads during the month of December? Now that I have three kids, two jobs, and zero babysitters, I want to smack that show-offy early achiever senseless. Christmas is something that sneaks up on me like a gray hair. I know it’s coming, but I’m never, ever going to be ready for it.

I have approximately 20 people that I buy gifts for. They are not obligations; these are people that mean everything to me and to whom I would like to give the most heartfelt, treasured gifts of their lives. I want to give them something that shows them how deeply I know them and how carefully I’ve thought about their interests. Instead I find myself running through the mall, throwing stuff on the cashier’s counter, and barking, “What’s this thing for? Never mind. If it comes with free gift wrap, I’ll take it.”

The Christmas season feels like a stick of dynamite, with a 25-day fuse. And that fuse doesn’t stop burning because you have two holiday concerts, one Multicultural Celebration, and a cookie exchange to slog through. At Christmas, time is money, and we’re all on a budget.

But here’s what’s interesting: I feel like retailers are starting to bend toward the needs of the procrastinators. For example, last year I tried to get a head start on my shopping and bought my sister a sweater for $129 on December 3. On December 5, I got an email from the store announcing that all sweaters were 15% off. That’s annoying, but what are you going to do? It’s $19.35 that I wasted by getting my shopping done early. Hey, I’d probably save that much by shipping the gift to her by normal mail rather than FedEx. On December 11, when I received the email that all sweaters were now 20% off, I checked to see if the one I’d bought her was still available. Gray, size small: Still available. I’d wasted almost $26, but I’d already been to the post office to mail it. I’d chosen super snail mail and had paid $5.25 to ship the sweater. Using emotional math, I told myself I’d probably come out ahead.

By December 18, they were offering this same sweater for 40% off. What’s wrong with this sweater, I started to wonder? It was too late to do anything about it, but I’d wasted $51.60 and found myself driving by the Post Office to assure myself that there were nightmarishly long lines there. On December 20, they were still offering 40% off, but threw in free giftwrap and shipping, Christmas delivery guaranteed. I was out nearly $57 and an unnecessary trip to the Post Office. Ah, the irony!

This year, I’ve learned my lesson. The retailers have spoken, and I am going to do it their way. From December 1 through 20, I am going to do nothing but bake cookies, light fires, and listen to kids sing carols in church. I’m going to remember to do the Advent calendar and pay my respects to the Rockettes. I’m going to make a popcorn garland and maybe pick up a copy of Good Housekeeping to see what sorts of holiday crafts those kinds of people are making.

And on December 21, I’m going to buy a bunch of stuff on sale and ship it for free. It may sound a little risky — retailers could change the rules on me in an instant. But if I find myself without Christmas gifts on December 21, 2012, is it really the end of the world? Oh, wait…