When my oldest son was two-years-old, he saw a toy in a catalog that fascinated him. He carried that catalog around wherever he went for six months, hypnotized by the little plastic animals that seemed to graze around a plastic tree. Because I was a person who had $20, I bought him that toy for Christmas. I’m not even sure that he understood that this toy existed outside of the catalog, and there are no words, no YouTube video, that could adequately capture his joy on Christmas morning. I’ve been chasing that moment ever since.
The struggle to find the perfect Christmas gift is real. In essence, it’s the one that the person really wanted but didn’t know they wanted. It’s the device that’s going to solve a problem or the toy that’s going to open up new pathways in the imagination. It’s the gift that sits right at the corner of ‘yearned for’ and ‘surprising.’ Over the past decade, I seem to have misplaced the directions to that corner.
It’s easy to surprise and delight a two-year-old. Nearly anything you put in a box is exciting to them. Little kids believe in magic, so their Christmas lists include a little whimsy. At two, one of my sons asked for a smilodon costume, another asked for a pink cake. I found those requests both bizarre and inspiring, and I delivered.
Now that my kids are older, they text me Christmas lists with links to things on Amazon. They want headphones and an external battery charger, and they’re prepared to tell me exactly which one. Also, they’d like a regular charger and some kind of cable that connects a phone to a car. Where, I ask you, is the magic in that? Who ever opened a package of cords and screamed with delight?
So I try to supplement the Christmas of cords with the surprise gift. I try to imagine an absolutely thrilling item that they hadn’t thought of before. To date, I have a zero percent success rate with these surprise gifts. It turns out the reason they hadn’t thought of the item before is that it has no overlap with their interests. There was the year I got my non-singing son a karaoke machine. There was the year I surprised them all with a telescope, the assembly of which just make us all feel dumb on Christmas morning. It is now used as a reasonably sturdy rack for wet towels.
Potentially the worst person to shop for is my husband. He doesn’t have a list and he doesn’t want a surprise. He honestly, wholeheartedly, doesn’t want me to spend any money on him. Trying not to spend money, I spend time. For our 20th anniversary I wrote him an essay. It took me three weeks to write. Last year for Christmas I made him a photo book. It took me two weeks to make. He likes these gifts, but you can see how maybe I’d like to just drive to the mall and surprise the guy with a sweater.
I got an email yesterday from my oldest son, asking if I’d get him an air purifier for his dorm room for Christmas. “No!” I wanted to reply, “Can’t I just get you a train set? Or some Hot Wheels? Or a puppy?” We seem to have entered an age where if you can’t charge it, they don’t want it. This too shall pass; in 15 years I could be a grandmother.